Passion Sunday: The Silent Teacher

In this time of waiting, between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, a thought on Jesus the teacher, from Palm Sunday.

I was struck by an odd connection in Palm Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 50.  On the one hand, it is about suffering: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”  But it is also about proclamation: “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”  Somehow he teaches through suffering: the training of his tongue is in the plucking of his beard.

That’s key to Psalm 22, as well.  It’s a long Psalm, and though it has much of “My God, my God, why have you abondened me?”—“All who see me scoff at me,” “Many dogs surround me,” “They divide my garments amount them”—it also talks about preaching.  The Liturgy gave us the final verses: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise him.”  One point is that the one who asks the question about being abandoned does not in fact thing he is abanonded—he prophesies his own triumph.  But another point is that the one who suffers triumphs through preaching.

The Christ hymn from Philippians hit a similar theme.  The Liturgy often takes the verses out of context, so that it only tells us about “Christ Jesus,” who “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.”  But Philippians introduces the hymn, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus . . . .”  His emptying himself and taking the form of a slave is his preaching.  It preaches to us both the mind we should have, and also his glory: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name.” 

He preaches by emptying himself.


I was struck, when we read Luke’s account of the Passion, by all the questions.  Way back when he was twelve, we “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions,” and then heard him ask his mother, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  “And they did not understand the saying . . . .  And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.”

This was the way the rabbis taught, by asking questions.  I know as a teacher (though I wish I was better) that it’s easy to talk and talk while your students sit glassy-eyed and wait for you to finish.  What’s hard is getting them to think about what you say.  Often the best way to do that is with questions they have to treasure in their hearts.


Central to Luke’s account of the Passion is his trial by the Sanhedrin.  “If you are the Christ, tell us,” they say, like students who just want Teacher to give the answers without making them think.  Jesus says, “If I tell you, you will not believe,” and adds, oddly, “and if I question, you will not respond.”  There is something here about teaching, in the style of the rabbis.  You won’t believe what I tell you—but also, if I just tell you the answers, I will rob you of the opportunity to make an act of faith.  Jesus’s silence, his inaction, calls forth our active participation, our act of faith. 

He calls himself only “the Son of Man,” but provokes them to ask, “Are you then the Son of God?”  He replies, “You say that I am.”  They respond, “We have heard it from his own mouth”—but how odd, that it doesn’t come from his mouth, it comes from theirs.  By his silence, he makes them speak.

He does the same thing to Pilate.  Pilate asks the question that matters to him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  And Jesus responds, “You say so.” 

Jesus doesn’t want to do it for us.  He wants to draw us to an act of faith.  That is how he teaches through the silence of the Cross.


In fact, the whole long reading, 113 verses, is a series of questions.  “I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes,” he says.  And then after supper, he takes the cup, and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”—and we are left to question what just happened.

“The hand of the one who is to betray me is with me on the table”—“And they began to debate among themselves who among them would do such a deed.”  Good question.

They argue who is greatest, and he asks, “Who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves?”  Good question.

Peter says, “I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you”—and Jesus lets the statement hang pregnantly: are you?

“When I sent you forth without a money bag or a sack of sandals, were you in need of anything?”

“Pray that you may not undergo the test.”  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup.”  Statements that raise questions.

“Are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”  “Have you come out as against a robber?”

He leads Pilate to ask, “What evil has this man done?”  Good question.

When the women weep, as if they see what’s happening, he turns it around: “If these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

When he is on the cross, they say, “He saved others, let him save himself”—and we ask, yeah, why doesn’t he?


But the story ends with two other people answering the questions.  “We have been condemned justly,” says the Good Thief.  “This man was innocent beyond doubt,” says the Centurion.

On the Cross Jesus empties himself, and questions us with his silence.  The good teacher leads us not by giving us all the answers, but by leaving us to ponder, and to make an act of faith.

How could you give Jesus more space to ask you questions?

Notre Dame

I was just coming to write my Sunday post (a day late), and find news of Notre Dame.

I am devastated.

It was my favorite church, from three trips to Paris. It was exquisite, the central, perfect monument of such a rich age.

I can only think of Lamentations. In the old office of Tenebrae, “Shadows,” sung during Holy Week, we invoke the desolation of Jerusalem at the Babylon exile. Quomodo sedet sola civitas: as the city sits alone.

The devastation of Jerusalem, the devastation of the Cross. It’s so easy to skip to the next step, to shrug and say, yes, but in three days he will rebuild this Temple. But in his valley of tears, so many Temples will never be rebuilt.


(from )

Fifth Sunday of Lent: Not Written in Stone

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

For the last Sunday before Holy Week, unless for RCIA you’re reading the Raising of Lazarus, this year’s Lectionary gives us John’s telling of the Woman Caught in Adultery.  The theme is second chances.

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That theme begins with Isaiah 43.  There’s a major turn in Isaiah at chapter 40—modern scholars wonder whether the “First Isaiah” wrote as Jerusalem was being attacked by the Babylonians, and the “Second Isaiah” wrote as they were coming back from Babylon, and even Thomas Aquinas begins his commentary by saying clearly this book has two halves.  Let’s just say that the first half is prophecies of woe, and the second half is prophecies of hope.

So our reading says the God, “who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army”—like the army that “First Isaiah” says God sent to destroy sinful Jerusalem—is later “doing something new.”  That newness, “In the desert I make a way,” sounds to me more like a recollection of how he got his people out of Egypt, and less like the specifics of how they came back from Babylon.  (That route is actually up the beautiful Euphrates, until you’re north of Palestine, and then south through the beauties of Syria and Lebanon.)  But the point is, he always saves his people.

Our reading of Philippians turns that newness inside out.  It’s not that he brings us “back” to earthly splendor, but that he pulls us forward: “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead.” We count what lies behind “so much rubbish,” but look forward to being transformed in righteousness “through faith in Christ.”  But still, it’s a second chance, a path out of the desert.  God does not abandon his people.


That’s the obvious theme of the Woman Caught in Adultery: instead of stoning her, he says, “go and sin no more.”

But a couple kooky thoughts on John’s rich commentary on this story:

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First, on stoning.  We all know that they say, “Moses commanded us to stone such women,” and Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

But it’s worth noticing that both sides are twisting the Law of Moses.  Actually, what Moses says is, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).  Both of them.  And John is careful to quote them saying, “This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery”: you can’t catch one without the other. 

So what’s going on?  How faithful are they to the Law?  Are they “without transgression,” even here?  Or are they instead prosecuting the one side of the Law that they like, and ignoring the other?  There’s something dramatic about how they “made her stand in the middle.”  In the Greek, I think, it’s a phrase that always emphasizes being the weirdo, the one unlike everyone who surrounds you.  We’re talking about a bunch of men attacking a woman: “the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman.”

We’re so used to hating on the Law of Moses that we miss its civilizing effect.  Killing the woman is what every pagan culture does.  Punishing the man, too, is a dramatic move toward social responsibility. 


So too stoning.  It sounds so brutal to us, but Jesus’s words remind us how it worked.  He says, “throw the first stone.”  But the whole point of stoning is that no one throws the first stone.  Modern firing lines are a bit like this: when they execute someone by gunfire, the Nazis would have one man do it, so he knows he did it, but more civilized societies have several guns, and one of them is not loaded, so that each man can hope maybe it wasn’t him.  Stoning is a form of execution that demands responsibility from everyone in the community.  You don’t send someone to an abstract Death Row where you never have to think about it again: everyone in the community has to stare the death penalty in the face, and participate in it.

Nicolas Poussin: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery

I’m not trying to defend capital punishment.  I’m trying to say that Moses is always taking a step in the right direction, a step toward civilization, toward at least recognizing what the death penalty means. 

Moses is not the bad guy in this story.  In fact, the goodness of Moses brings out the evil of the scribes and Pharisees, who ignore the sin of the man and can’t bear to take personal responsibility for the punishment that sounded so exciting to them. 

God’s true law is not about lynching people who are different from us, much as we like to twist it in that direction.  God’s law is about growing in personal responsibility.

That’s our side, now God’s side.


Second: bending.  Several times in the story, “Jesus bent down” and then “straightened up.”  In Greek it’s the same word: he bends, and he unbends.  That’s a weird image, and not the way modern writers write—but it is the way ancient writers write.  To their rigidity, Jesus responds with flexibility.  It’s not the flexibility of condoning sin—he tells her to sin no more.  But it is the flexibility of second chances.  It is the flexibility of a God who bends down to us, and then rises up again to carry us to heaven. 

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And so, third: drawing on the earth.  When it says, “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger,” I think it’s quoting Exodus (31:18): “And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”  Jesus is the author of the Law, who wrote it with his own finger, not only on tablets of stone, but right into the earth itself, when he created us. 

But the earth into which he inscribed it is more flexible than stone.  He doesn’t change the Law—Jesus is clear about the evil of adultery, and tells the woman to sin no more—but he has the flexibility and strength to wipe away this sin from her heart.  Not everything is written in stone.

Where is Jesus calling you to offer others—or yourself—a second chance?