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Good Friday, Cycle C

Psalm 22

As followers of Jesus reminisced about the suffering that Jesus had experienced while he was being tortured and crucified by the Romans and about the significance that they saw in Jesus’ suffering for their own lives, no texts within the Hebrew religious traditions were more helpful to them in describing the crucifixion of Jesus than were the Psalm 22 and the Isaiah 52:13–53:12 readings that have been selected in this lectionary for Good Friday each year.

Followers of Jesus used the vivid details of these texts as they told and retold their descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion in order to fill in the gaps within their own knowledge and recollections of that horrible event. Most of the portions of these two texts that could not be used in their recounting of the events during the crucifixion of Jesus because they did not “fit” Jesus’ situation were simply not used. Psalm 22, as a detailed individual psalm of lament, and Isaiah 52:13–53:12 both served well to depict what his followers concluded must have been Jesus’ inner struggles as he was dying and to depict how Jesus had suffered, even though neither of these two portions of the Hebrew religious traditions were originally intended to describe the thoughts of Jesus or of anyone else who was dying on a Roman cross centuries later.

Our Christian hymns written to express Jesus’ thoughts as he was dying develop these details even further than the New Testament texts develop them, and as we sing these hymns the words that we sing are implanted into our memory. It is important that we read the entire Psalm 22 within its own life situation before we use the Psalm in telling the story of Jesus’ passion and death.

Isaiah 52:13–53:12

Most of that which has been written about Psalm 22 above applies also to this climax of what we as Christians call the Suffering Servant Songs of the Isaiah traditions. We can, of course, merely continue to see these texts as amazingly accurate prophecies that describe in vivid detail Jesus’ suffering hundreds of years before he was crucified. We can also say that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and to die in a specific way in order that he might fulfill these Scriptures. It will be in much greater accord with what actually happened, however, and more helpful to the people whom we serve if we suggest within our proclamation that followers of Jesus probably used details from Psalm 22 and from the Isaiah 52:13–53:12 texts as they told and retold what they understood about the death of Jesus during the decades after his crucifixion. Is this not essentially what we ourselves do when we prepare and share sermons and homilies to express our faith and to encourage other people in the development of their faith in God? We too use what we can and what works best within the religious documents that are available to us.

John 18:1–19:42

If these entire two chapters are read, the time that will be used within the service for this reading will mean that if there is a sermon or a homily these proclamations will be very brief and will probably provide very little reflection over most of the details in the reading. If, because of the length of the reading, there will be no sermon or homily of reflection at all, the impression will be given that everything written in the two chapters is simply a compilation of historical facts.

There are three segments in this extensive reading in which the narrative depicts the Jews as extremely cruel and sadistic in their insistence that Pilate order the crucifixion of Jesus. It would be admirable if we would shorten the reading somewhat by not including these three segments (John 18:28b-32; 38b-40; and 19:4-16a) in our reading. These are the three segments that are the least edifying, the least historically verifiable, and the least appropriate for Christian proclamation. It would be even more desirable to begin our reading with John 19:16b and read until the conclusion of the suggested reading with John 19:42. This is the portion of the two chapters that actually depict actions on Friday rather than on Thursday evening.

It is not surprising that when we compare the passion accounts in all Four Gospels, we see that in the Fourth Gospel Jesus speaks quite extensively, unlike the other three in which Jesus says only a few words. This is consistent with what we have seen throughout the Fourth Gospel in which the Johannine Jesus is basically in charge of the entire situation, even until he dies on the cross with the words, “It is finished,” i.e., “I have completed everything that I have come to do.”

Also, as we compare the passion accounts in all four of the Gospels, we see that although in the Synoptic accounts there are said to have been various women present at the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus, no mention is made of the mother of Jesus being there. Also, in the accounts in Mark and in Matthew it is stated that all of Jesus’ male disciples had fled, including Peter who had at least gone along to enter the courtyard of Caiaphas to attempt to see what the bodyguards of Caiaphas would do to Jesus. Apparently the Fourth Gospel presents a different scene in order that its hero, “The Disciple whom Jesus Loved,” would be shown as continuing Jesus’ responsibilities by taking the mother of Jesus into his own home, or, if the “Beloved Disciple” is a symbol or representative of the Johannine community, into its home. This Johannine story about the mother of Jesus and the “Beloved Disciple” being present during the crucifixion of Jesus is not primarily a contradiction to the Markan and Matthean accounts. It merely presents a different scene for a different purpose.

Hebrews 10:16-25

As an encouragement for those who read or hear this text to enter into the most holy presence of God, made possible because of the blood shed by Jesus on the day that for us has become a Good Friday, this text is appropriate for our use on Good Friday every year. In the words of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, let us rejoice in our new and life-giving access to God through the “curtain” that Jesus as the Christ has opened for us.

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

The prayers and the supplications of Jesus mentioned in Hebrews 5:7 help to bring this document somewhat closer to the depictions of Jesus in the Four Gospels. The designation of Jesus as “a ruler-priest after the order of Melchizedek” in 5:9 takes it farther away from them. We experience an echo of this “great high priest” language applied to Jesus the Christ in the Great Thanksgiving portion of our Holy Communion liturgy. There are those among us, however, who are still somewhat less than comfortable with this “great high priest” terminology in our Communion liturgy, even after many years of usage.

Finally, these texts selected for our use on Good Friday provide the setting for a general appeal for sensitivity during our Good Friday experiences. Our Jewish friends tell us that even now in this country they are at times still somewhat uneasy on this day that we as Christians designate as Good Friday. They remember the instances that their parents and grandparents have told them about verbal and physical abuse suffered by their people in Europe when after “Good Friday” worship services Christians poured out from their church buildings to attack Jews. Some of them remember the abuse that they themselves experienced within this country from Christian children who ridiculed and chased them as “Christ-killers.” There are many Christian people who do not realize that it was a Jew who was crucified by the Romans on that first “Good Friday,” and that it was a Jew who became our Lord and Savior within the process of Christian theological development. Rembrandt realized this when he asked a Jew to pose for him while Rembrandt painted his portrait of Jesus, but most other Christian artists have not and neither have most Christian preachers. Perhaps on Good Friday this year, and every year, we might remember this and in some way share the fact that Jesus lived and died as a Jew. If we do this, we might even be able to invite Jews whom we know to join with us in some way on Good Friday in our remembrance of the crucifixion of Jesus the Jew by the oppressive Roman occupation forces in Jerusalem.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen