The Passion According to St. John: A Feast of Irony
At our church yesterday, we heard the Passion narrative (Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial) from the Fourth Gospel (John 18 – 20) as the central part of our Palm/ Passion service.
Each of the four gospels tells this story with slightly different and particular accents and emphases. As always, John is the most different of the four gospels.
The focus for John is much more on the trial than it is on either the garden of Gethsemane or even the crucifixion. Both the garden scene and the crucifixion are reduced in length and detail by comparison with the other gospels. In neither do we see a Jesus experiencing indecision or agony, so much as a Jesus in command, fulfilling his destiny. “The hour has come.” It is this trial scene which John draws out in a drama both detailed and ironic.
And the protracted trial scene of the fourth Gospel had, as we listened, a lot of contemporary resonance. (Some say the Bible is old and irrelevant. I’ve always thought the problem was that it was far too relevant.)
John is, yes, a master of irony. What he succeeds in doing is putting those conducting the trial (religious and political leaders) effectively “on trial,” while the one who is being tried — Jesus — is the central and commanding figure who is throughout, in control. Things are not always as they appear.
In John the religious leaders are portrayed as concerned largely about outward appearance while maintaining their power — to which Jesus has become a threat — is their real agenda. For example, they refuse to enter Pilate’s palace (18: 28) lest they be made ritually impure by entering Gentile quarters. They remain piously outside where they call for the murder of an innocent man and the release of a guilty one.
When Pilate asks them, “Shall I crucify your King?” they announce judgment upon themselves as they shout, “We have no king but Caesar.” (19: 15) Pilate, meanwhile, appears a rather weak figure, shuttling back and forth between Jesus inside and the religious leaders outside. He would prefer to avoid the whole irritating confrontation altogether.
So both the religious leaders and political leaders are painted in vivid and harsh colors. Religion is portrayed as having lost its soul. Holding carefully to empty ritual while, in the end, denying its own faith.
“We have no king but Caesar.” Politics is portrayed, in Pilate, as empty and cynical. Pilate famously asks Jesus, “What is truth,” clearly implying there is no such thing and anyone who thinks there must be from some other world, which is in fact what Jesus says of himself.
As I say, it all seems pretty contemporary. I have written much of late about the leaders of evangelical Christianity and their embrace of Trump. They appear to me to have lost their soul. Mike Pence is their cipher and embodiment: scrupulous in personal deportment but embracing and enabling such venality and evil. Meanwhile figures like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan shuttle back and forth, Pilate-like, making deals.
But of course it is always easy to see those we do not like implicated and judged. John’s mastery is to show that when we imagine others to be on trial, we ourselves are. We are, make no mistake, living in a time of trials and we are on trial now about our own true loyalties.
So the Scriptures continue to speak and to do so powerfully. Indeed, there is something altogether extraordinary about turning to this ancient text and finding it searching and sifting us so truly and so thoroughly. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.