John in July: Jesus Receives the Hyssop (Jn 18:28-19:42)

Screenshot 2014-07-29 22.45.53

“They put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. And Jesus received the wine.” (John 19:30)

My favorite sacred site in the Holy Land and perhaps in the world is the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When I first visited about ten years ago, I remember feeling instantly drawn to this ancient wall, which once stood closest to the Holy of Holies, where the divine presence of G-d once dwelled. Another name for the Western Wall is the Wailing Wall, which is an appropriate name for it, since many Jews do not pray passively or politely before it. They wail at it, punch at it, scream at it and release all their inner turmoil at it. And the wall just stands there, receiving all of it with rock steady equanimity. Initially, I felt like this was kind of an inappropriate to pray, perhaps even a little blasphemous. I remember watching an older man, who appeared to be homeless, wail against the wall with violent desperation, moaning and punching at the wall. I tried to keep my distance from him and so walked a few yards away to pray to the wall by myself. But after a short time, the man actually approached me and asked me my name. I hesitated, but then told him, “My name is Daniel.” He then said, “Ben?”

“No,” I responded, “My name is Daniel.”

Again, he asked, “Ben?”

By this time, I was thinking there must be something a little wrong with this guy. First, I was a little taken back by his eccentric prayer style, but now I was wondering if this guy was really all there. I decided to say more clearly, “No. My name is not Ben. My name is Daniel.”

But still, he asked, “Ben?”

Finally, I decided to leave this situation, which I felt must have been some kind of joke, but right before leaving, I realized what he was asking me. He was asking for my father’s name. “Ben” means “son” or “son of” in Hebrew. So I finally answered his question and told him my father’s name, “Bob.”

He then exclaimed, “Daniel Ben Bob! Shem tov (which means good name).” And then he gently placed his hands on my head and prayed a blessing over me.

I misinterpreted his question as a sign that something must have been wrong with him when really he just wanted to know my full name in order to give me a blessing. I then began to wonder if I was misinterpreting his eccentric prayer style as well or at least judging it too soon. I have been reflecting on his style of prayer for years now and have come to see it as not only biblical, but also central to my understanding of the cross and Good Friday.

There is a plant that grows on the Western Wall (and it has been growing there for thousands of years. According to 1 Kings 4:33, it’s been there since the time of King Solomon). The plant is called hyssop. It’s a green herbal plant with purple blue flowers, emitting a strong minty scent. The plant is mentioned in the Bible several times, usually in reference to sacred ritual and ceremonial cleansing. According to Exodus, the elders of Israel used the hyssop plant to wipe the blood of the slaughtered lamb on the doorframes of all the Hebrew houses in Egypt. Death, which claimed the lives of all the firstborn children in Egypt, passed over the houses that were covered by the blood of the lamb, thus sparing the lives of the firstborn Hebrew children, an event which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters commemorate on Passover. The name Passover—Pesach—refers to death passing over the firstborn Hebrew children. It’s also where we get the word “Paschal” for the Paschal Triduum, the Paschal Mystery, the Paschal Lamb.

The hyssop was used to wipe the blood of the sacrifice, which protected the Hebrew children. According to René Girard, the sacrificial system is actually a violent scapegoat mechanism cloaked in sacred garb. The hyssop acts as a symbol of this system. The hyssop represents the blood of the slaughtered lamb at the Passover and the human need for innocent blood to be shed in order for others to live peacefully. The hyssop represents the human compulsion to blame, to scapegoat and to direct violence onto a vulnerable victim in order to prevent complete social chaos.

The Hebrew prophets saw through the sacred cloak that hid the violence of the sacrificial system and began to name it as such. That is what Isaiah is doing in the Suffering Servant: “Surely he has borne our infirmities, yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God” (Isaiah 53:4). The Hebrew prophets saw that the human violence in sacrifice was being wrongly projected onto God. The violence is ours, not God’s. So the prophets spoke out against the sacrificial system, saying, “[God] does not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs…” (Isaiah 1:11), “[God] desires mercy not sacrifice” and the Psalmist of Psalm 51, which also mentions hyssop, prays, “You, God, have no delight in sacrifice…” Jesus was continuing in this prophetic tradition of anti-sacrifice when he cleansed the temple. The hyssop represents the human compulsion to blame that perpetuates the sacrificial system, which projects human violence onto God and consecrates murder. Although Jesus opposed the sacrificial system, he received the hyssop and he received the human compulsion underneath the system.

The pericope of John 18:28-19:42 is marked by seven explicit references to the Jewish Passover, thus forming a chiasmus with the receiving of the hyssop in the center.[1] The literary structure is outlined below:

A. Passover (v. 18:28: impetus for not entering headquarters)

B. Passover (v. 39: Barabbas spared)

C. Passover (v. 19:14: “the day of Preparation”)

X. Passover (v. 19:29-30: Jesus receives wine on hyssop)

C. Passover (v. 19:31: “the day of Preparation”)

B. Passover (v. 36: Bones spared)[2]

A. Passover (v. 19:42: impetus for burying Jesus nearby)

At the center of the structure, Jesus receives sour wine on a branch of hyssop. The author of John intends to make a point by explicitly describing Jesus receiving the wine, an act not described in the Synoptic Gospels.[3] Also, no other Gospel author mentions the “hyssop,” which makes it clear that the author of John is offering his own interpretation of the Passion with this reference. Johannine scholar R. Alan Culpepper agrees, “The reference to hyssop… signals a fulfillment of the Exodus motif in the Gospel of John.” In John, the apex of Christ’s ministry is not the resurrection, but the hour of glorification on the cross and the center of the hour of glorification is the receiving of the hyssop.

Jesus receives the hyssop, which represents the human compulsion to blame, to scapegoat, to violently expel an innocent victim. But Jesus does not receive it in order to affirm it but to transform it and dismantle it through his forgiveness.

Jesus knows that he will rise from the dead (v. 2:19) and, according to theologian James Alison, “resurrection is forgiveness”: forgiveness to everyone responsible for Christ’s crucifixion and death, including the Jewish authorities, the Roman soldiers, and the disciples who abandoned him, denied him and even betrayed him.[4] For James Alison, the entire New Testament is the apostolic witness to the resurrection and even though the passion and death of Christ are the pinnacle of his ministry in John, the author expects the reader to know that the passion and death mean almost nothing apart from the resurrection. In other words, the author expects the reader to be wearing “resurrection” lenses while reading the passion account. More specifically, the author expects the reader to be wearing “resurrection-as-forgiveness” lenses while reading about Jesus receiving the hyssop. As we read about Jesus receiving the hyssop through the lens of “resurrection-as-forgiveness,” we begin to see that this act is Christ’s way of forgiving everyone even as he is being crucified. In Luke, Jesus prays on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In John, Jesus says essentially the same thing by receiving the hyssop, saying, “I receive your need to blame and violently scapegoat and I forgive you, even though you have betrayed me, left me to die, and killed me.”

By receiving the hyssop, Jesus indentifies with the Lamb (v. 1:29), saying, “I am the victim par excellence of the scapegoat mechanism for all time, which means that you no longer need to shed blood in order to placate violent tension. It is finished. And furthermore, I forgive you.” By receiving the hyssop, Jesus says, “I allow you to kill me, to sacrifice me as your scapegoat, to slaughter me as your Passover lamb. And even as you crucify me, I forgive you.” By saying this, Jesus dismantles the scapegoat mechanism, and invites all people to direct their need for a scapegoat onto him. Jesus understands the human need for a scapegoat, but in receiving the hyssop, he offers us a way out of our destructive mechanism by making himself the ultimate scapegoat so that no more innocent blood must be shed in order to placate tension.

In this way, Jesus receives our prayers no matter how angry we might be. We can pray to Jesus the way our Jewish brothers and sisters pray to the Wailing Wall. We can pray like the Psalmist of Psalm 22 and boldly ask God, “Where are you? Where are you in the midst of all this suffering?” As the Epistle to the Hebrews says, we can pray with confidence because “He who has promised is faithful” to hold us and forgive us in the midst of all our wailing and moaning. “He who has promised is faithful” to hold us and forgive us even as we crucify him.

[1] The first pericope (John 18:1-27) is built around Jesus’ three “I am” sayings and Peter’s three “I am not” sayings with a reference to the “cup” and Caiaphas (18:11-14) at the center of the chiasmus.

[2] “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken” (Exodus 12:46, Psalm 34:20, John 1:29)

[3] “When Jesus received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished’” (19:30, my emphasis).

[4] “Judas’ terminal sin was not his treachery (with all due respect to Dante), but his inability to believe in the possibility of forgiveness—what we usually call despair.” Alison, 9.

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