Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA
It always strikes me as such a unique detail. We are witnessing a universe-shattering event. God-in-the flesh is being murdered. The Creator of the universe is being killed by people who God created. The Lord of Life is being put to death.
And in the midst of that big, cosmic, moment – the gospel authors take time to zoom in and focus on what happens to Jesus’s clothes.
That seems strange, doesn’t it? After all, the big story here is the death – and, in particular, who is dying and what it means. Why do we care that the guards decided to play dice in order to determine who got to keep Jesus’ tunic and sandals?
Part of what John (along with the other gospel writers, who also tell this story in their own way) is doing with this little aside is pointing us to the utter humiliation Jesus faces for us. There is no dignity in a Roman crucifixion. There was no last meal, no respect offered to the condemned – not even phony respect, respect just for show. There was none of that. Roman crucifixions were designed to humiliate the person who was crucified. This is how Rome maintained control – they said, “If you step out of line, not only will we kill you, but we will do it in the most excruciating way possible.” The mockery and embarrassment wasn’t an accidental thing – it was an essential part of what Rome did to those who it perceived as a threat.
And, this story seems like a prime example of that strategy of humiliation. To be hanging on a cross, slowly dying, and to watch your possessions treated with a total lack of respect – it’s not the most important thing that’s happening to Jesus, but it’s just one more thing, one more moment, in which his torturers are telling him that he is worthless.
And, so, John is reminding us that, when God came to live and die for us, the death God chose to die wasn’t just any death – it was the worst, most humiliating death imaginable. All honor is due to God, and yet God, for our sake, accepts the worst possible humiliation and defeat. And, so, this little moment of humiliation, as his clothes become the center of a game of chance, is meant to symbolize the depths to which God will go out of love for us. Nothing can stop God from saving us. God, in the person of God’s Son, has willingly subjected God’s self to the worst of this world in order to save us. He has become the curse for us, so that we might be saved from the curse and receive God’s promise.
So, John is highlighting the humiliation that Jesus accepted for our sake. But it’s not only that. The quotation, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and they cast lots for my clothing” comes from Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is the same Psalm that Jesus quotes from the cross when he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” But, here’s the thing: John doesn’t record that particular saying of Jesus. John records other things that Jesus says while he hangs there, dying, but that particular saying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is only recorded in Matthew and Mark.
Why is that important? Well, it means that the early Christians saw Psalm 22 as essential for understanding the suffering and death of Jesus. As we’ve said throughout these devotions, the Psalms were one of the central tools that the early church used to understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And this Psalm seems to have emerged very early on as a key lens through which to view the crucifixion.
Psalm 22 is a poem that evokes both despair and trust. The writer describes themself as “just a worm, less than human; insulted by one person, despised by another.” The psalm opens with that classic cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and proceeds to evoke a sense of agony, hopelessness, and utter loss. But, throughout, it also evokes God’s glory and faithfulness. God is the One who gave us life, and who is capable of saving us from hopeless situations. God is capable of pulling us out of our pits of despair. It doesn’t make the author’s despair any less crushing – but it does allow a glimmer of hope to break through the darkness. And, by the end of the psalm, the author has chosen to cling to hope. Even in the midst of this crushing despair, the author trusts that, one day, they will get to praise God among God’s people. Even though we currently walk through darkness and death, someday God’s victory will come, and we will live in peace and joy. The psalm moves from abject despair to stubborn hope.
And perhaps that’s why Christians kept finding ways to quote it in reference to the cross. Because the cross is not only the worst thing that could ever happen (we put God to death!), but it also better than we could ever imagine (God uses our violence and hatred to save us!). In this moment of unthinkable despair – as the Son of God is being murdered – we see glimpses of what God is doing – offering us new life and drawing all people into God’s community of love. On the cross, all seems lost – it seems like the moment of our complete defeat, but if you take the time to look for it, it is actually the moment of our ultimate victory.
As we walk through Holy Week, Psalm 22 – and this little aside from John – invite us to be honest about the darkness we face. Evil really is powerful, this moment at the cross really is as bad as it gets, the world isn’t all unicorns and butterflies and puppy dogs. Sometimes, it feels as if the forces of death are winning.
And, yet, Psalm 22 also invites us to hold onto hope. We can be honest about all that is wrong – and all the hurt we are feeling – while also trusting in God’s faithfulness. God is bigger and stronger than the worst things we face. God’s goodness is stronger than the worst possible evil. Love and life have already triumphed over hatred and death.
That’s the story we tell this week: a story of hope that blooms even when all seems hopeless. Pay attention, because God is at work.
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