One of the images of Jesus that speaks most to my heart is that of a loving teacher, probably because I’m an educator myself. I love to see Jesus considering his audience and speaking in ways that make sense to common folk but leave the know-it-alls scratching their heads or fuming with anger. The passion narrative in Mark is full of moments where Jesus knew just what to say and what not to say. Even during the last hours prior to his death, Jesus, as the Word of God, uses language and silence powerfully to fulfill Scripture and demonstrate his relationship with God.
The Hebrew passage for this week comes from Isaiah. The prophet describes a servant of God as someone who would be known by two speech acts: flinty silence in the face of accusers, and gentle instruction to sustain the weary. In the first case, the prophet spoke of a person who had no need to defend himself in light of God’s help:
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame (Isaiah 50:7).
During the passion narratives, those who had earthly power repeatedly marveled at Jesus’ refusal to defend himself. In Gethsemane, Jesus shamed those who brought clubs and swords to arrest him in secret instead of confronting him in the temple precincts, because he was not a violent insurrectionist and didn’t resist (Mark 14:47-49). Later, at his trial in front of a hastily and partially assembled Sanhedrin, his interrogator was shocked that Jesus didn’t speak in his defense (60-61). Even before Pilate, who actually had the legal power to execute him, Jesus was silent and didn’t answer the charges against him (Mark 15:4-5). Jesus maintained his flinty-faced silence in front of his accusers because he was assured of God’s presence and knew that he must not escape his unjust execution.
But in his final hours, Jesus also spoke. The same Isaiah passage that described stony resolution to bear unjust accusations also described someone who has been given “the tongue of a teacher” and knew how to sustain the weary with a word (Isaiah 50:4). Two examples leap out from Mark’s passion narrative. The first is from the Passover meal that Jesus had eagerly looked forward to celebrating with his disciples. During the meal, he took bread, broke it and said, “Take; this is my body.” After the meal, he told the disciples that the cup of wine was his blood of the covenant, poured out for many (Mark 14:22-24).
Jesus, like a master teacher, gave a powerful verbal and tactile lesson about the lengths that he was willing to suffer on their behalf. As the food and drink was consumed, this lesson literally became part of his disciples. The powerful act of sharing Jesus’ body and blood in bread and wine has been echoed by priests, pastors and ordinary sisters and brothers over the millennia as the central ritual of corporate worship by which Christians have experienced Christ in them. I’m grateful to still celebrate the eucharist as we gather in Spirit and truth (if not yet in person).
The other example of Jesus speaking as a teacher is his cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). This was not, as some claim, an ontological statement describing estrangement from God, but simply Jesus continuing to teach and embody God’s word in death as he had in life. Jesus was reciting Psalm 22, sometimes called “the death psalm.” Its opening words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” give way to a litany of praise despite circumstances, and ultimate faith and trust in God even unto death. The psalm ends:
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it (Psalm 22:29-31).
Jesus wasn’t bemoaning his separation from God but calling to the minds of a couple of his disciples, his family and the brave women who supported his ministry (Mark 15:40-41) that God was still God, even in the midst of his suffering and death. Jesus used his last breaths to teach, even in excruciating pain. Crucifixion is a method of execution that kills by suffocation. Usually those condemned to die by crucifixion struggled to breathe for hours and even days. Jesus labored to speak in his final moments in order to sustain his weary followers with a word, even as he died to save them/us.
In his last hours, Jesus continued to be who he had been during the rest of his life: the living Word of God, an expert teacher who instructed with wise words, and a paragon of trust in God who refused to play the games of the powerful. As we meditate on Jesus’ death in the coming weeks, let us also remember how Jesus lived, and the kind of life for which he saved us: one of emulating his example of blessing the weary with a sustaining word, and stony determination to rely on God’s help.