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?

eric.m.johnston

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