Isaiah 50:4-9a John 13:21-32
In his The Gospel of John: A Commentary, scholar Frederick Dale Bruner headlines this day’s gospel reading as “Jesus’ Foot-washing Warning: (with the subtitle) Let Yourselves Beware of Yourselves.” Or, as Rudolf Bultmann puts it, “The consciousness of belonging to the body of disciples must not seduce any of them into the illusion of security.”[i] And, I would say that, a false sense of security from harm without is usually paired with such a sense within: a false certainty of our own steadfastness and loyalty, under any conditions. This passage from John, in the context of Holy Week, will not allow us to dodge a confrontation with the power of evil in humanity.
The gospels do not provide us with a clear explanation for Judas’ act in “handing over” Jesus to the authorities. And most of the answers we try to extrapolate from the evangelist’s words say a good deal more about us and our need to distance ourselves from the possibility of acting as Judas did.
Closely aligned with the attempt to distance ourselves from any possibility of cooperating with evil is our hope to avoid undergoing the suffering which Jesus endured. The prophecy of Isaiah, which we have just heard, tells of a servant of God who experiences both physical and spiritual suffering.[ii] The description by Isaiah of one who is insulted, humiliated, disgraced and tortured limns closely the agony of the passion, which the first Christians witnessed in their experience of Jesus. And as does Jesus, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant remains obedient to God through it all, ever confident of not being abandoned in the end. Jesus undergoes suffering not with the courage of world-applauded heroism, but with a steadfastness born of love – divine love – living among us in human flesh. Jesus’ submission to suffering is made in self-offering, sacrificial love, which though appearing to be defeated, remains forever, the love of the creating, redeeming, sanctifying and glorifying God.
As one who “sustains the weary with a word,” the love-attuned and humbly suffering Jesus acts out the oft-spoken adage of Christian mission: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
One theory posed as explanation for Judas’ “handing over” of Jesus is the betrayer’s growing revulsion at Jesus’ identification with “outcasts and sinners.” Then, as now, association with stigmatized persons frequently leads to the stigmatization of the one who receives or accepts the stigmatized.[iii] So it was and so it is with Jesus—but can we as Christians accept the same for ourselves?
Whether we think of evil as a cosmic figure (the Devil or Satan) or as the accumulation of evil, which takes root in humanity, we cannot deny its reality. Most of us have likely found ourselves acting and thinking in ways which are opposite to what we would identify to be “good” – e.g. a secret desire for vengeance, a temptation to act for our own benefit even when others may be hurt, or just trying to avoid anyone who is needy or troubled. None of us are free of the influence of evil.
But our celebration of Jesus’ suffering, death and glorification in this Holy Week provides a sacramental and transformational means to the grace of divine love, which evil can never defeat. We pray to accept in these days our particular share in Jesus’ suffering love, to be made ready to treat and receive the stigmatized as real human beings, that they, like us, may be made whole in the fullness of divine love which has defeated evil.
[i] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: a Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2012 pp. 777 & 778
[ii] J. Philip Wogaman in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, volume 2, p. 235ff.
[iii] Robert Kysar in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, volume 2, p. 253ff.
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