Historical Cultural Context
The Passion of Jesus
The Gospels portray Jesus as a very typical Mediterranean male. He is an obedient youngster. After returning from the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, “he went down with [his parents] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Lk 2:51).
As an adult, Jesus is obedient to his heavenly Father. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). (Recall that Luke omits this line from the Lord’s Prayer in Lk 11:2-4 and places it here for greater effect.)
Jesus imitated biblical heroes in his life. Luke and the other evangelists show this by drawing on Second Isaiah and on Psalms 22 and Psalm 69 in writing about Jesus.
Luke’s observation that “they cast lots to divide his clothing” is certainly borrowed from Psalm 22:18. The taunt of the leaders, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one” (Lk 23:35) echoes Psalm 22:8.
Jesus ranks among the finest biblical heroes who suffered in silence. The passion stories certainly make this point emphatically.
The homilist who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews interpreted Jesus’ passion this way: “Because he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him ... ” (Heb 5:8-10).
What does this mean for Christian believers who suffer?
The homilist explains: “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? ... We have had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? God disciplines us for our good ... ” (read the entire passage, Heb 12:3-11).
There are at least two cultural challenges in today’s Scripture reading and the mystery Christians celebrate. One is to read an accurate translation of the ancient texts.
Inclusive language translations that omit “son” in the Hebrews passages as offensive to modem women and replace it with the plural “children” misrepresent Mediterranean culture and the Bible, which neither states nor implies that girls should be physically punished, and they unwittingly give permission to contemporaries who use the Bible as warrant for behavior to physically punish girls as well as boys.
The second challenge is how to translate a value or behavior from one culture in which it is acceptable and normal to another culture in which the same value or behavior is considered an abuse. Experts in human violence observe that every form of known family violence is acceptable in some cultures but considered abuse in others.
In this passion story Luke definitely proposes Jesus as a model to follow and imitate. This challenges modern believers to reconsider the biblical image and their image of God, God’s will, suffering, suffering innocently, response to suffering, and related ideas.
It still remains for all of us to devise appropriate ways to follow and imitate the Mediterranean Jesus, ones that are in harmony with values Western culture considers humane.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University