First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Good Friday

William Loader

Good Friday: 29 March John 18:1 – 19:42

As the scope of the passage indicates, Good Friday is a time to reflect on the whole event. Rather than attempt exegetical comment on all of 18:1 – 19:42, I shall limit myself to some brief comments on snippets.

John presents Jesus as assured and confident throughout. There is none of the brokenness of Gethsemane and the cry of despair we find in Mark. The confidence of Christian faith, which knows that this is really a confrontation between the human and the divine, paints Jesus as an icon of faith.

Even if they did not do so in real history, those who sought to arrest Jesus should have been stunned by his presence and fallen to the ground (18:6) and so they do in John. When Peter, the disciple, is shown making an inappropriate all-too-human response of violence in the scene (18:10-11), perhaps it is history, at least strong tradition. As he depends on the unknown disciple to reach the place of Jesus’ hearing (18:15-16), where he denies Jesus, Peter plays second fiddle to the mysterious figure of the beloved disciple, who may well be that unknown disciple. If ever such a disciple existed, certainly he seems now to represent the better faith of John’s community and may have been a hero of its beginnings. In an early form of denominational pride John shows this superior disciple outrunning Peter to the tomb on Easter day (20:3-10). It is to this disciple, too, that Jesus commits his mother (19:26-27), almost the declaration of a will about who will best manage Jesus’ legacy, right at the heart of the account of the crucifixion. Worrying about what will happen to Jesus’ legacy is not out of place in any age.

There is no Sanhedrin trial before the high priest in John, only a hearing before Annas, perhaps a more accurate reflection of history. The trial before Pilate shares much material with Mark but has been turned into a sequence of seven dramatic scenes where Pilate alternately turns to the Jews outside and then back to Jesus inside (18:28 – 19:16). The Jews are outside because they want to eat the Passover uncontaminated the next evening. In John, Jesus dies about the time when the lambs were slain in preparation for the Passover in contrast to the other gospels where Jesus’ last meal is already the Passover meal. John’s date may reflect history and the others an attempt to add symbolism to the last supper, but the opposite can also be argued. Jesus is ‘the lamb of God’ (1:29), without a broken bone (19:36; Exodus 12:10; Psalm 34:21).

Jesus is much more talkative in John during the trial, usually in a way which gives expression to central themes of Johannine faith and reflects its own history of conflict. The Jews – doubtless fellow Jews for most of John’s readers – are exposed as betraying their own people and almost hailing the Emperor as a god. It is a cruel portrait and reflects the enmity present in John 8. It becomes dynamite when taken from being an inner Jewish conflict and made to serve antisemitism. No, ‘the Jews’ did not kill Jesus! The historical collusion probably included temple authorities, but not ‘the Jews’ – we need to tell our people that.

‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (18:36) is a favourite for arguing that Jesus’ main concern was heaven (‘so: don’t get involved in politics and social action!’). It was not this world’s kind of kingship – quite another matter from saying it was only heaven that concerned him! For this kingship claimed total allegiance here and now. To say more, we need the other gospels, because John has so personalised the gospel that nearly all the focus falls on the interpersonal and little on the needy in a broad sense. Still, the focus is not on place but on person.

John sharpens the irony we find in Mark by making the cruel mockery of Jesus as a king into the central focus of the seven scenes, namely scene four (19:1-5). In Mark it follows the trial (15:17-18). The old ‘Behold the man’ Ecce homo, really means: ‘Here’s the fellow’. ‘The human being’ over translates, but we need to see that John deliberately focuses in this scene on the frail and weak humanity of Jesus who cuts a pathetic figure. John is doing theology. He wants us to see divine glory in the inglorious human figure, a challenge to all human pretentiousness and power.

Of course Pilate should have been scared out of his wits by the divine aura in Jesus (19:8) and so he was - in John. John shows him not being able to cope and making a real hash of the trial. Pilate ends up betraying everyone through political fear and himself becomes the pathetic figure. But such people in their fears wield power in execution and often desperate brutality. It was a good move on Matthew’s part to paint the ruthless paranoid Herod into the birth narratives as a spectre in his gospel to take flesh again in Pilate. Maybe John’s community has also suffered such abuse.

The motifs of the crucifixion – Golgotha place of the skull, the two others, the accusation written above Jesus, the garments (now embellished by imagining a seamless robe), the thirst – appear in Johannine guise. Some read Jesus’ breathing his last breath (pneuma) as pointing to the giving of the Spirit (pneuma) and see the blood and water as allusions to the sacraments or the eucharist and the Spirit. Perhaps the emphasis is rather on the reality of the death and its real humanity. In John it is sometimes hard to know. Only John has the thrust of the spear, perhaps suggested by use of Zechariah 12:10 in the tradition (as in Rev 1:7). It provides the proof Jesus really died a human death like one of us and spawns detail for the Thomas story in 20:24-29.

‘It is finished’ (19:30) means in John’s world of thought: Jesus has completed the task given to him, to make the Father known (see also 4:34; 17:4). It is often linked to atonement models as if Jesus is saying: I have made the sacrifice of my body which I came to make. This would certainly be the way the author of Hebrews would read it (10:5-6), but it is not John’s emphasis. Instead the focus is Jesus’ faithfulness to the Father’s commission in offering light and life and truth to people. The work is complete. Love is revealed even in the face of suffering (which despite the confidence is real as 12:27 and 18:11 show). The effect is to reveal love and expose hate and so offer a new beginning.

With confidence and knowing Jesus the gospel is making a statement about the faith of its community more then retelling the details of history. Yet that faith’s painting of the crucified one, for all its licence with colours and contours, provides an historic interpretation which helps us see in this event something much more than an event in history. It is an icon to be contemplated, whose texture and tensions reflect our own and become a context in which truly he makes the Father known, if we are open to such knowledge.

Epistle: Good Friday:  29 March  Hebrews 10:16-25
Epistle Alternative: Good Friday:  29 March  Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

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