Search This Blog

Tuesday 4 April 2023

The slave of the Lord

 Texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew’s passion

In the calendar of the western church today is ‘Palm’ or, alternatively, ‘Passion’ Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  During the season of Lent we've been journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem.  Today we arrive in Jerusalem, and there we witness Christ's passion, which is the suffering of Christ for the sake of the world.  A few moments ago we read from Matthew's passion narrative.  There we see a Jesus who is unjustly arrested, beaten and tortured by both religious and secular authorities, before he is crucified as an enemy of the state.  There we see a Jesus whose silence before the Emperor's representative makes the moral failures of those all around him all the more loud.  It is a moving story indeed.  But what does this death mean to human beings and to God? Why did Jesus die?  Why did he suffer so? 

In the letter to the Philippians we read an ancient Christian hymn which tries to make sense of these questions.  There we hear of a man who shared in God's own divinity, who knew what it meant to be at one with the Maker.  But, out of profound sense of compassion for human beings in their affliction, he willingly emptied himself of all divine privilege and became, instead, little more than a slave.  Most English bibles translate the greek word doulos as 'servant', which is really a bit weak.  The word really means 'slave'.  

In the society of the Romans, slaves were the lowest of the low. People usually found themselves in slavery either because of poverty or because of conquest. Either way, becoming a slave meant that you were no longer the owner of our own body: you belonged to another. And the tasks of slavery could be severe: long hours of physical or intellectual labour, up to 18 hours a day; you could be called upon for sexual favours; or you could be put to work in the arena or in warfare for your master. A slave, then, was someone who existed entirely for their social betters; a person who had no rights or privileges whatsoever, and certainly no freedom. This, then, was the kind of person Christ became, according to this ancient hymn. Such was the solidarity of Jesus with the poor and wretched of the earth, that he emptied himself of all the privileges of divinity, and suffered that loss that is at the heart of every form of slavery: the stealing of one’s life and livelihood by the rich and the powerful.

But what were the crimes of Jesus?  According to Matthew, Jesus was one who walked amongst the poorest classes of Galilean society, healing and offering words of hope. He got into trouble, it seems, because his message contradicted that of the temple-based aristocracy, who regarded anyone who was poor as 'unclean' or sinful and therefore cut-off from the covenant of Israel with Yahweh.  Jesus challenged their theology and therefore their politics.  He preached that the kingdom of God belonged to the poor, that God loved the poor and heard their cries.  He taught the wretched to call God 'Father', and the privileged to share their bounty with the needy.  He healed those whom polite society did not regard as worthy of being healed. He brought back into mainstream society those who had been cast to its dark and vulnerable edges. All this was far too threatening for the aristocracy, apparently. They worried that it might draw the attention of the Empire in a way that reflected badly upon their capacity to manage dissent. So they arrested Jesus on some trumped-up charges, staged a show trial, and then had him crucified, a death reserved for those found guilty of sedition against the State.

So why did Jesus die?  Because he loved the poor, the vulnerable, and the broken and believed that God loved them too. And that, my friends, is why I personally am a Christian.  Jesus is a sign in the world of God’s love for slaves.  And I love him for it.

The writer to the Philippians calls us to imitate this Christ. 'Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others' he says.  But who are these 'others'?  Well, they are the poor, the wretched and the vulnerable of our nation and our world.  Many of them are our neighbours. Many of them are our fellow Christians, those who sit next to us in church. In a great many cases, they are our very own selves because it is we, ourselves, who are poor, or wretched or vulnerable in some way. Whoever these poor are, God calls us to shoulder their cross, which is the cross of Christ first of all; to turn aside from the pursuit of status, money and privilege, and nurture, instead, an active compassion for God's poor.  Compassion, of course, means ‘suffering-with’, sharing in the affliction and the darkness of all who suffer.  This is what Christ did for us.  This is what God calls us to do with others. I wish you all a holy passiontide.

Garry Deverell

St Paul's Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne, Palm Sunday 2023