From the Exile in Babylon comes the voice of a teacher. The teacher is physically beaten, publicly humiliated and left on the ground to be cursed and spat upon. But the teacher is not a victim. These verses present abuse, they present oppression, but they do not present lament. These are verses of conviction.
In the face of abuse and oppression it is exceptionally appropriate to lament. It is in fact necessary for victims of oppression and abuse to recognize that they are the victims of such monstrosities, and cry out before the world and God. It is necessary to lament.
This teacher does not deny this but comes to those who lament, who are facing oppression and abuse, with a lesson: My oppressors and my abusers do not define who I am. The teacher is defined first and foremost by a relationship with God. All other relationships are secondary to this relationship. This means that the teacher can face oppression, abuse and humiliation but not be defined by them.
The teacher’s lesson can be a powerful question: “Do you define yourself first and foremost by your relationship with God?” The victim and the oppressor are both called to stop defining themselves by the relationship of abuse and start defining themselves and each other in relationship to God. This redefinition breaks down the cycle of abuse. It allows an individual to stand with conviction in the face of oppression. It stops a victim from seeking someone to abuse. It forces the oppressor to pause and consider the inherent value and dignity of the other.
The poet who composed Psalm 31 presents an interesting juxtaposition. The lectionary focuses only one part of the poem, the middle. In these verses what is found is a person in strife calling out to God for deliverance. Before and after these verses, however, the poet is proclaiming not only a deep faith in God but also a life of joy in the midst of God’s grace. Unraveling this almost chaotic bit of scripture is a bit challenging.
At first glance one might want to put forward an obvious linear progression. An individual proclaims strong faith in God, is tested through abuse and pain yet maintains faith, thus God blesses the individual with prosperity. Yet this reading seems pastorally hollow. Suggesting that a lack of prosperity, that those who suffer abuse and pain, do so because they lack proper faith is reprehensible.
The core of this psalm is that God is in a true relationship with the poet and knowledge of that relationship creates a firm foundation that nothing can overcome. The poet does not deserve suffering, does not deserve abuse, and any abuse and suffering the world presents is naught in comparison to a relationship with God. The poet shares joys and sufferings but more than anything shares a deep surety that God is with us in the midst of both.
Paul writes these words from a Roman prison. He is miserable, he is ready to die, he is struggling to find any reason to keep living. His faith in Jesus Christ does not give him a reason to live, in fact it is the sweet call of communion with Christ that prepares him for death. The reason Paul finds to keep living is his servanthood to the Christian community at Philippi. Paul’s servanthood it what sustains him, not his authority.
This is a leader giving up his leadership for servanthood, giving up power for humility, commanding the leaders of a Christian community to do the same. It is Paul reminding the leaders of the church that they do not have the authority of the Father; they have the servanthood of the Son. Paul speaks to the powerful and tells the powerful to become the lowest of the low, worthy of nothing more then the lowest of deaths.
Too often this passage has been used by those in power to maintain authority by forcing servant status on another. Taking on this authority, an authority that belongs to God alone, was exactly what Paul was speaking out against. This is not a passage about the need for Christian servants to remain docile; this is a passage to remind Christian authority that we are to be humble servants to all we meet.
After supper, Jesus has his final conversation with the disciples. He knows that in the next few days his friends, his brothers and sisters, will find their whole world turned upside down with his death. Christ tells them what type of people they are to become in the midst of the chaos, change and transformation that is to follow – the transformation we are asked to enter into in this Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter.
Jesus notes that the power and authority given to us as followers of Christ is not to be used to set ourselves above any one but used to be servants of those around us. Jesus includes that “the greatest among you must become like the youngest.” Jesus is calling the elders of the church to be interested foremost in the future, in what is coming next, in the lives, hopes and dreams of the youngest in the community. This is the opposite of a leadership that is interested in maintaining the status quo and forming a younger generation to replace them and perpetuate the elder’s authority.
He then goes on to tell the leaders to appear as thieves and warriors, but be neither. This is a rather confusing instruction but an important one. Jesus is telling them that all that is going to happen is not going to be what it appears to be. This becomes especially important as Jesus then alludes to Isaiah 53:10-12, and gives his followers a way to interpret his death. Jesus knows he is going to his death, but sees in the midst of his anguish a light, and finds some satisfaction in the knowledge of what his agony might bring for others. Jesus asks his followers to enter into this space with him and prepare the stage for what is to come; to allow themselves to be considered – but not to become – thieves and evil by the powers that be if that is what it takes to bring about the kingdom.
The last instructions of Jesus to his disciples are: to use their authority to serve others, not lord over others; to work for the future and the things to come and not attempt to maintain and perpetuate their own authority; and to be worried not about how society perceives you but to be true to Christ and God’s kingdom. These are instructions that the church will be well served never to forget.