Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Seven Words from the Cross, Part V - I am thirsty (John 19:28)

We are past halfway done with our series on the seven last words of Jesus (you can click the following links for the first four words, click here: I, II, III, IV). The next two words come from the Gospel of John: "I am thirsty" and "It is finished." They appear close together and are related, but we will following the traditional arrangement by treating them separately.

After this, knowing that all things had already been completed, Jesus, in order to complete the Scripture, said, "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth.
- John 19:28-29

Now storytellers have to make selections. They can't just tell every little detail that happened. They have to pick the most salient details. So any story the evangelists bother to tell they probably tell for a reason. Despite our perennial interest in the gory details, they give us very little by way of the physical aspects of Jesus' passion and death. Yet John bothers to mention that Jesus declares his thirst from the cross. He was probably also tired, hungry, short of breath and in agonizing pain. But they don't tell us about this. They do, however, tell us he was thirsty. Or, should I say, he tells us he is thirsty.

Why does John bother to tell us this? What is the significance of Jesus' declaration of his thirst?

Well, it probably won't surprise you that, since we are dealing with John's Gospel, there's probably some subtle (and not-so-subtle) symbolism going on here. The interpretative problem here is not so much whether there is a symbolic gesture here but which symbolic gesture is the key to understanding the passage. There are a number of possible symbolic connections to other Johannine themes and Old Testament motifs. Perhaps all of these are operating at some level. However, some prioritizing judgments probably need to be made to interpret the passage coherently. Let me just note some of the symbolic possibilities of some key elements of the passage for you to consider in your own wrestling with the text.

First of all, there is the rather obvious reference to Jesus doing this so that the Scriptures being fulfilled (technically "completed," but more on that next week). But what Scripture is fulfilled by Jesus saying he is thirsty? He does not appear to be directly quoting any specific verse.

There are two standard options given by interpreters. The first is that there is a reference being made here to Psalm 69:22, "for my thirst they gave to me vinegar to drink." That gets the language of "thirst" in play as well as the reference to "vinegar," which is what Jesus drinks. The second is that the dry mouth of Psalm 22:16 is being echoed here. Given the detail, the former is probably more likely. But the latter cannot be ruled given the significance of Psalm 22 throughout the passion narratives of all four Gospels and early Christian preaching. Perhaps John is playing off both. Whatever Scripture is being alluded to here, the point is that the mode of Jesus' death is a fulfillment of Scripture. That means it is not an accident. Jesus didn't just have a bad weekend in Jerusalem. Nor was it even a bad thing which God later made into something good, as we so often speak of evils in our lives. Rather, Jesus was knowingly and willingly fulfilling the plan of God in his death.

Second, there is the opening line that Jesus says this knowing that everything had been completed. Now this taps into a larger theme in John concerning Jesus' knowledge of his mission. The last events of his life are introduced by a similar reference to Jesus knowing that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father (13:1). Later, Jesus is said to know all the things that were about to happen to him as he initiates the arrest sequence (18:4). Earlier in the gospel of John there is much talk of Jesus' knowledge of the Father and of the Father's will for him. This theme reaches its apex here, were Jesus is said to know that the things which he was sent to do have taken place. They are completed.

Noting this thematic connection is important because it seems to imply that Jesus says he is thirsty in order to "wrap things up" so to speak. The declaration of his thirst is not intended as window into his experience on the cross, but rather as a witness to his own freedom and purposiveness. Jesus is Lord even in his death. Regnum crucis: he reigns from the cross. "I lay down my life ... no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down" (10:17b-18a).

Third, there is what he is given to drink in response to his thirst. The vinegar bit seems clearly linked to the Scriptural fulfillment, and it is shared with some other gospel writers. But John makes a major change from the synoptics by indicating that the vinegar was not given to Jesus via a "reed" but on a "branch of hyssop." This change should catch our attention. The possibility of a symbolic connection here is hard to miss, for hyssop appears throughout the Old Testament, most significantly in Exodus 12:22 in conjunction with the Passover Lamb. Now we don't want to make a theological mountain out of a textual molehill, but this symbolic reading is validated by the repeated references to the Passover Lamb through the book of John (cf. 1:29; 19:14; 19:33, 36). So it is reasonable to suggest that John is narratively presenting Jesus as the true Passover Lamb, even as he has been presented as the true King and true Priest earlier in the passion narrative.

Fourth and finally, there is the significance of thirst itself. John loves to talk about thirsting, drinking, pouring, etc. It is a very liquid gospel. And not just passing references to water baptism and changing water into wine, but whole discourses playing off thirsting and drinking, such as Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4), the streams of living water that flow from those that come to him (John 7:37-38), and the cup which Jesus is resolved to drink (18:11). Thirsting and drinking are intimately connected with what Jesus was sent to give to us and give up for us. He thirsts as the one who gives us drink. He takes our bitter cup (and takes it away!), and gives us his fresh, living waters, which flow from his side. Blessed is he who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, for he shall be filled.

Any thoughts?
Are there some interpretative possibilities that I have neglected to mention?
Do you find some of these interpretative possibilities more plausible than the others?
Is there any one aspect mentioned above that you think is the key for understanding this word from the cross?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Seven Words from the Cross, Part IV - My God, My God, Why have your forsaken me?

Here we come the central word spoken by Jesus from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I mean "central" in at least three senses. It comes fourth out of seven in the traditional ordering Jesus' last words, and so it is numerically central. It is the only word from the cross spoken in Matthew and Mark, and so it is the central word within its original literary context. And over the centuries heated debate has surrounded its meaning and significance, and so it is found at the center of controversy.

What are some of the different ways of interpreting this passage? Well, as I see it, there are a number of layers to the options. Certain options open up certain problems that need to be addressed. I will try to follow these lines out, at least with respect to the third main option.

First of all, there is the big question of how "literally" to take this statement of Jesus. Was Jesus really abandoned? Three basic options emerge.

First, one could say that Jesus was neither abandoned nor did he think he was. There are a number of ways to support this claim, but a common one is to note that Jesus is quoting the beginning of Psalm 22. The end of Psalm 22 contains a strong statement of confidence in God's salvation, so we have good reason to interpret Jesus' statement in the context of confidence. Jesus dies in full confidence that God will sort things out (e.g., raise him from the dead). Although some find this appeal to Psalm 22 to be a stretch, there is ample evidence that the New Testament writers were well aware of broader contexts and connotations that came with their quotations and allusions. However, the fact that Jesus says this with a "loud cry" must be taken seriously. Also, the fact that the bystanders heard it as a cry for help is not irrelevant (though they misunderstood to whom he was crying out).

Second, one could say that Jesus felt abandoned by God while in fact he was not. This mediating interpretation tries to take seriously Jesus' suffering while at the same time avoiding the troubling implication that God abandoned Jesus. God did not abandon Jesus, but was with him all along. God's purpose for Jesus was that he would taste God-abandonment, if only for a moment. The apocalyptic signs that immediately follow Jesus' death (the tearing of the veil, the opening of the graves, etc.) show that God has not abandoned him, but has acted decisively. Although there is something to be said for God's continued hidden presence with Christ, this distinction between "feeling" and "fact" may be difficult to sustain. Does this reduce talk of God-abandonment to a mere state of consciousness? Is Jesus' state of consciousness really the point? Does this really tell us anything about the meaning of Jesus' death?

Third, one could say that Jesus was in some sense abandoned by God. On the other end of the spectrum from the "veiled statement of confidence" reading above is that Jesus in this word reveals his God-abandonment. God for some reason has abandoned Jesus in some sense. This reading takes this word from the cross in its strongest sense, and has the distinct advantage of opening up avenues for reflection on the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. However, this strong sense requires one answer a number of difficult follow-up questions, many of which may be simply avoided by going with one of the previous two options.

There are at least three follow-up questions that must be asked of those who take this third option. There are multiple possible answers to each of these questions, which I will only mention. Each of these lines of questioning help to fill out in what sense Jesus was abandoned by God.

First, one must ask, "By whom was Jesus abandoned?" Obviously, Jesus addresses his "God." But how should we take this? Should we just treat this as God in an unspecified sense? Or should we understand it to be the Father? Or should we claim, as some have, that Jesus' own divinity (the Logos/Son) abandoned him on the cross? I lean towards the second option (Father), because the first is theologically vacuous and the third creates a split in Jesus' personality. But those who take this second option have to account for the striking shift away from Jesus' usual "Father" language. I think that can be done without much trouble, because he is using the language of Psalm 22, and he's probably not feeling very familial to God the Father at this moment. But I have to admit that the answer to this question is not immediately obvious.

Second, one must ask, "To what was Jesus abandoned?" Was he abandoned to failure, in the sense God did not help him in his struggle against evil on the cross? Was he abandoned to death, in the sense that the Father did not join him in his sojourn among the dead? Was he abandoned to judgment, in the sense that God placed on him his wrath against sin? Was it some or all of these? Answering this question is connected with the thorny question of the "time" between Jesus' death and resurrection: What was he doing? Where was he? Can we even talk of the time, place and activity of the dead? What is the meaning and significance of his descent?

Third, one must ask, "For what reason was Jesus abandoned?" It is interesting to note that a literal rendering of Mark's Greek would read, "for what reason have you abandoned me?" and a literal rendering of Matthew's Greek would read, "to what purpose have you abandoned me?" If we take the content of Jesus' cry of dereliction seriously, then we must also take its interrogative form seriously too. It is a question. Perhaps it is a rhetorical question. But it may in fact be answerable. Why did God abandon Jesus? For his own pleasure? (I hope not.) For our salvation? (I hope so.) If the latter, how can this be? How does God-abandonment serve God's saving purpose? Is it because abandonment is a trick to enter the sphere of sin, death and the devil in order to defeat it? Is it because Jesus is suffering our punishment in our place? Is it because sin is somehow extinguished through his death in God-abandonment? Is it some or all of these?

I think I've raised enough questions for us all to think on for a while. I think its the nature of this word from the cross that it raises many questions. I've hinted at how I would answer some of these? How about you?

Any thoughts?
How do you answer the first main question, and why?
How do you answer the follow-up questions, and why?
What other questions does this word from the cross raise?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Seven Words from the Cross, Part III - Woman, here is your son... Here is your mother

This week let's reflect on Jesus' word from the cross spoken to his mother and the beloved disciple, which comes third in the traditional ordering. It goes a little something like this:

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus then saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" From that hour the disciple took her into his own. (John 19:25b-27)

Now, of all the words from the cross, this may seem the most out place. Surely others involve some interpretative difficulties (e.g., stay tuned next week on God-forsakenness). Yet even the most difficult still seem to have some direct bearing on the meaning of Jesus' death. But what significance is there in a story of Jesus finding a place for his mom to stay? It just seems out of place.

And even as it stands alone it is sort of odd. I mean, you have a guy being brutally tortured and he has the wherewithal to make arrangements for his mother. And his way of doing it is sort of abrupt: "Woman, behold!" Plus, why entrust her to one of his disciples? Why does she not go with one of Jesus' brothers, with whom his mother is often associated in the gospels? It's just sort of odd.

The out-of-place-ness of this odd story has contributed to the wide variety of interpretations that have been developed over the centuries. Let me list a few just to get the conversation going.

(1) The Etiological Interpretation. An etiological story is one that explains the origins of something. Some have interpreted this passage in conjunction with the tradition that John took Mary with him to Ephesus. Even if this tradition developed much later, one could see how some kind of etiological reading might befit the intention in this passage. It is clear from other portions of this gospel that the fourth evangelists is concerned with the authority and position of the beloved disciple (presumably John), especially vis-a-vis Peter. A story revealing that Jesus and John were so close that Jesus would entrust his mother to John could function as a one more piece of evidence securing the apostolic authority of John. I think this is an interesting line of interpretation, and should not be ignored. However, it does little to draw out the theological significance of this word from the cross (unless, perchance, I'm missing something; if so, please instruct me). So this reading alone will not do.

(2) The Family Values Interpretation. This might also be called the "Mother's Day" interpretation. The focus here is on Jesus' compassionate care for his mother at his death. Even though he is suffering, he is thinking of others before himself. He makes sure that his mother is taken care of after his death. Such a line of interpretation highlights Jesus' compassion and concern. It also serves as a example to us, that we too should take care of our families, especially the previous generations. This way of reading could also be linked with Marian piety, so as to highlight the affectionate relationship between Jesus and his mother. This line of interpretation has a lot of positive application for contemporary life. However, I have my doubts as to exegetical adequacy. In their cultural context, Jesus' addressing her as "woman," though not rude, is certainly not affectionate familial talk. Furthermore, in the literary context of John's gospel, Jesus' mother simply does not play the big role we are used to her playing, say, in Luke-Acts. She is never named "Mary." She only appears twice. Given the evidence, this line of interpretation, though perhaps not wholly wrong, lacks sufficient textual support.

(3) The Renunciation Interpretation. This way of reading the passage is directly opposed to the previous option. Instead of a story about Jesus' care for his mother, this passage can actually be read as a renunciation of family ties. Jesus at this crucial moment denies his familial relationship with his mother. He does not talk to her nor treat her as mother. She is rather among the women gathered at the cross, making her a (potential) disciple. This would fit a number of other episodes throughout the gospels that indicate a strained relationship between Jesus and his family. When they come to see him speak, he asks, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Then he points to his disciples and says, "Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and mother" (cf. Mark 3:31-34; Matt 12:46-50). Though it makes a great point about the primacy of discipleship over family ties, these were certainly harsh words to hear for Jesus' biological family. The same could be said of this word from the cross. Family ties are broken for the sake of discipleship. I think there is a necessary truth that must be heard in this line of interpretation. To ignore Jesus' repeated and absolute prioritization of discipleship over family is to miss the costliness of discipleship (cf. Luke 9:57-62). However, I am not sure if it fully illuminates the significance of this particular story. Why does he make this point at his cross? And why does he link his mother and John so explicitly? I think the general point stands as a crucial background assumption. But it does not fully explain the story.

(4) The Symbolic Interpretation. It is telling that this passage can be read in such opposed directions. I think this points to the mysterious complexity of this passage. And I think there may be a reading which takes into account the apparent contradiction between the "family values" and "renunciation" interpretations. However, doing so requires a more "symbolic" reading of the passage, which of course brings it own interpretative problems. Such a symbolic reading would first note that John's Gospel is highly symbolic. Places, characters, things, sayings, events, and even the sequence of the stories are rendered with a deeply Jewish symbolic imagination. Next, one would note that this symbolic imagination seems to apply to Jesus' mother, who is not a character in her own right (ala Luke's Mary) but some kind of cipher. Although she only appears twice, the episodes are in a parallel position within the chiastic structure of the gospel as a whole: the wedding of Cana is the second story after the prologue, whereas the passion narrative is the second to last story before the epilogue. In both, she is addressed as "woman," just like the Samaritan woman in John 4. So, in a manner similar to the symbolism of John 4, the mother of Jesus may be a symbol of Israel as God's chosen bride. As such, this old woman being "taken in" by the young man John, who is a symbol of the church, is a symbolic rendering of Jesus' claim that when he is lifted up he will draw all men to himself. Jew and Gentile are brought together as mother and son at the foot of the cross. This reading is able to draw together Johannine themes in such a way that it casts light on the meaning of the cross. And in so doing it includes the previous interpretations, so that John's authority is highlighted as a symbol of Jesus' delegation of authority to the church, Jesus' affection for his mother is highlighted as his affection for his people Israel, and Jesus' renunciation of family ties is highlighted as a symbol of the new bonds created in the church. However, after spelling it out, it sure seems difficult to sustain such a convoluted symbolic train of thought. This should not in principle rule it out, because the right interpretation may very well be a difficult one. But as a general rule, the simplest explanation is preferable. So for all its explanatory value, this line of interpretation must be flagged as cumbersome.

Any thoughts?
Do you have any interesting observations about the passage?
What lines of interpretation are missing from this typology?
Which reading do you prefer, and why?
What additional arguments and evidence could be brought to bear on evaluating these options?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Seven Words from the Cross, Part II - Today you will be with me in paradise

Last week we introduced our Lenten series on the Seven Words from the Cross. The second word in the tradition also comes from Luke. Let's look at this word in context:

39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." 42Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[a]" 43Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

Here's a few thoughts that come to mind when I read this passage.

(1) Solidarity

The first thing that stands out to me is that Jesus is found here hanging between two criminals, or "wrongdoers." In Mark and Matthew, they are referred to as "bandits." We are not just talking about "thieves," as it is typically put, which might be romanticized ala Robin Hood. No, these are violent criminals. They had to make enough trouble to get the attention of the Roman officials and their "make-an-example-out-of-you" form of punishment, crucifixion. Remembering this makes it all the more striking that Jesus is found with them. He has submitted himself to association with criminals. Of course, we've seen this trajectory all along in Jesus' life, as he eat with tax collectors and sinners and welcomes prostitutes into other people's homes. At here at the culmination of his mission he is found alongside the worst of the worst. He is in solidarity with sinners. The point for us as we reflect on the cross is to be reminded for whom Christ died. He came to seek and save the lost. Are there those whom we've deemed beyond the pale? Are we willing to see ourselves as truly lost and in need of redemption?

(2) Innocence

The second thing that jumps out at me is that the content of the other criminal's confession. He does not say anything about Jesus' identity as the Son of God. He does not discuss Jesus' Messianic status or his ability to save them from their predicament. He merely indicates Jesus' innocence. They, he admits, deserve their punishment. But he does not. He is innocent. He has does nothing wrong. He is punished unjustly, for he is just. This fits Luke's way of telling the story of Jesus, for upon Jesus' death the Roman centurion does not say "surely this was the son of God" as he does in Matthew and Mark, but rather says "surely this man was righteous." And throughout Luke-Acts emphasis is laid on the uprightness of Jesus and his followers by both Jewish and Gentile standards. Apparently it is important that Jesus is righteous, and the criminal is a witness to Jesus' righteousness. Unlike the sinners with whom he is found, Jesus is innocent.

(3) Solidarity + Innocence = Promise

When you add together the first two observations, you get the good news of the gospel: that he who knew no sin came among sinners for us that we might be called the righteousness of God. The one truly righteous one became the one true sinner, so that sinners might be made righteous. And so Jesus can turn and speak this promise to the criminal, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." The innocent one is with us sinners so that we sinners may be with him in the innocence of paradise. Sinners may come to him because he first came to them. His solidarity with us and his innocence for us are the ground of his promise to us.

Any thoughts?
- Does this line of reflection illuminate this word from the cross?
- What function does Luke's emphasis on the righteousness/innocence of Jesus have?
- What thoughts have you had about the criminals alongside Jesus?
- What are some additional observations that would add to, adjust, or go against this line of reflection?