Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22:1-21, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42
Too soon for contrition, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney
Our mission, if we are willing to accept it, is to listen and reflect upon Jesus’ words from the Cross. Let us begin before the beginning with the next to the last of Jesus’ words from Luke 23:27
“A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him.28 But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; and to the hills, 'Cover us.' 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
If evil such as this can happen to the Lord of Life, to the one they call “The King of the Jews” what makes even these hardened professional mourners think that it will not happen to them? Jerusalem’s fate will be so awful that a childless woman would be considered blessed in comparision. At least she will be spared the heart-rending butchering of her offspring as the temple is destroyed. People will beg for a catastrophe to relieve the horrors of what is to come. Israel had begged for this relief before in Hos 10:8
“The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed. Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars. They shall say to the mountains, Cover us, and to the hills, Fall on us.”
Jesus refers to himself as “green wood”. We know about green wood. It bends, it is supple, it may have suckers growing out from it. It smells and runs with sap and moisture. It cannot be worked, but it does bend. It cannot be used for a fire since it does not burn. It is hard to destroy. In picking green wood the people are choosing unwisely if their goal is to destroy him. The city of Jerusalem on the other hand is the more appropriate target. The city is represented by the women of Jerusalem. Are they the dry wood? Are they tinder for the holocaust which is to come?
Jesus “the green wood” is a rich and appealing metaphor which has no clear meaning. Jesus green, young, fresh, sinless, undeserving? Jesus not ready for burning on the one hand. On the other, Jerusalem dry, old, stained, steeped in sin, ready for immolation and deserving of it too. These are the images which come to mind and heart. They are about unfairness and proportion.
Unfair because Jesus had done nothing except his Abba God’s will. Jerusalem on the other hand had persecuted the prophets before him generations ago never mind now. And proportion. Justice decreases in inverse proportion to the the distance between what seems fair and what actually happens.
There is nothing unique going on here. The disproportion is older than history itself. It is certainly as old as Hosea, going back to the time when these people’s ancestors spoke ill of the prophets and rewarded the false ones. And so we come on the Good Friday to the Cross of Jesus where he says:
Luke 23:34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
A dear friend of mine very rarely makes mistakes. When he does he always exclaims: “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t do it on purpose.” Neither of us believe he did it on purpose and I suppose that by pleading innocent motive he expectes quick forgiveness. As T.S. Eliot would have it.
“Now is too late for action, too soon for contrition.” TS Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral.
Jesus does not question the motives of his executioners. If he had, he would have called attention to their shadow. They, of all people, knew exactly what they were doing.
The Jewish leaders sought to silence the annoying refrain of a renegade rabbi whose litany was love, who healed on the sabbath, who didn’t wash his hands, who kept company with ritually unclean types and so on.
The Roman government was getting rid of a potentially dangerous political influence. Roman and Jewish leaders subscribed to the original domino theory: If the camel’s nose gets in the tent, he’ll want all the way in next and be invited to dinner too. Today it sounds like: If we let “them” in, they’ll take over. Jesus was uppity and uppity must be put in her place.
Those whose job is to keep the uppity in their place refer to it as justice. In 1936 Georges Bernanos has one of his characters in The Diary of a Country Priest, say:
Justice in the hands of the powerful is merely a governing system like any other. Why call it justice? Let us rather call it injustice, but of a sly effective order, based entirely on cruel knowledge of the resistance of the weak, their capacity for pain, humilation and misery. Injustice sustained at the exact degree of necessary tension to turn the cogs of the huge machine-for-the-making-of-rich-men, without bursting the boiler.
Jesus asks his ABBA God to forgive his killers, not because they didn’t mean to, not because they didn’t know what they were doing, but because forgiveness is all that God is about. God forgives the unforgiveable. God even forgives pious killers who have plausible excuses for their behavior much more elaborate than “I didn’t mean to, I didn’t know what I was doing.” One can almost hear the voices: “He deserved it. He got what he deserved.”
Jesus refused a natural and understandable rush to judgment. He refused to judge those who had lynched him. He refused even to judge injustice.
From James Baldwin:
If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected-those, precisely, who need the laws's protection most-and listens to their testimony.
This is Good Friday in part because we are asking the executed to forgive us our cruelty, our snobbery, our rush to judgment, our self-righteousness. For once we are directing our hearts, our questions to the only one who forgives, even those who do know what they are doing.
From TS Eliot again:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday . . . good.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Anglo-American poet, critic. East Coker, pt.4, in Four Quartets.