Receiving the Hyssop

My spiritual journey has been both plagued and propelled by the question of suffering. The theological dilemma posed more than 2000 years ago by the Greek philosopher Epicurus still baffles theologians today: How do we reconcile an all-loving and all-powerful God with a world of suffering? My call to the priesthood and to pastoral ministry inspires me to find an answer as I foresee parishioners seeking consolation from me in the midst of painful and inexplicable loss. I refuse to offer cliché and potentially harmful platitudes such as “This is all part of God’s will” or “Perhaps God is chastising you” to parishioners who are suffering. I am committed to find a more satisfactory answer or, at least a more compassionate way of dealing with, the problem of suffering. With the beautiful and haunting chant of John 18-19 still echoing in my head from last night’s Good Friday service, I will seek to find a satisfactory theodicy in John’s passion narrative, with the help of Warren Carter, R. Alan Culpepper, James Alison, and Marcus J. Borg, primarily employing literary method and mimetic theory to interpret the text.

Identifying with the Enemy: In Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor, Warren Carter offers multiple perspectives on Pilate, ranging from villain to saint.[1] The bulk of his work, however, provides a sympathetic approach to the literary Pilate as described in the four Gospels, thus inviting the reader to see her or himself in Pilate, concluding, “The verdict we offer on any of these portraits is likely to say as much about ourselves as about Pontius Pilate.”[2] As Carter’s work invites us to identify with Pilate, I invite us to identify and even sympathize with those who denied, abandoned, betrayed, and crucified Christ.[3]

Receiving the Hyssop: A Literary Reading of the Passion: 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.[4] 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)[5]

A. Passover (v. 19:42: impetus for burying Jesus nearby)[6]


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.[7] 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.[8] Culpepper agrees, “The reference to hyssop, of course, signals a fulfillment of the Exodus motif in the Gospel of John…Jesus also dies at the hour of the slaughter of the Passover lambs, his legs are not broken; and he drinks from the hyssop that is offered to him as he dies.”[9] If the apex of Christ’s ministry in John is the hour of glorification on the cross and the center of the hour of glorification is the receiving of the hyssop (as the outline suggests above), then understanding the significance of the hyssop is crucial to understanding the meaning of John’s Gospel and the importance of the Johannine Christ.

Receiving the Hyssop: An Alisonian Reading of the Passion: The hyssop acts as a symbol of the sacrificial system, which is the scapegoat mechanism clothed in sacred garb. The hyssop reminds the reader of 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.[10] In receiving the hyssop, Jesus receives the mechanism that has victimized and slaughtered thousands of innocent lives (human and animal) and will now victimize and crucify him. Jesus understands the situation, having what James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim.”[11] Yet he receives the mechanism nonetheless.

However, he does not receive our destructive scapegoat mechanism to affirm it but to transform and dismantle it through his forgiveness.

Jesus knows that he will rise from the dead (v. 2:19) and, according to 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.[12] For 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 in fact, 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 mechanism of violence 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. I am the Lamb who lives forever slain, the agnus qui vivit semper.[13] 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 mimetic rivalry.

This way out is re-enacted every time Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist, which placates violent tension and mimetic rivalry by directing the need for a scapegoat onto Christ, symbolized in the bread and wine.[14] Violent tension is mollified and a peaceful community is therefore formed without the shedding of any innocent blood. Marcus J. Borg elaborates on the community-creating power of sacrifice by highlighting its association with the meal: “In the Bible, sacrifice is most commonly associated with a gift and a meal. The giving of a gift and the sharing of a meal are the classic means of bringing about reconciliation when rupture has occurred, whether with a person or God.”[15] Rather than directing its violence within, the community can direct its violence out on the Cross, where the violence is transmuted and where forgiveness is offered, resulting in a violent-free community.[16]

Conclusion: Receiving the Hyssop as Pastoral Theodicy: My reading of John’s passion has not led us to a philosophical defense of God (theos dike) as much as it has led to a pastoral theodicy, an understanding of God’s pastoral response to the human need for someone to blame in the midst of suffering. As I struggle to make sense of the problem of suffering in light of divine benevolence and omnipotence, I find myself putting God on trial and, in doing so, I am indentifying with those who put Jesus on trial, with Pilate (as Carter suggests), with the Jewish authorities and even with Judas Iscariot. When Jesus receives the hyssop, he says to me, “I allow you to put me on trial for all the evil in the world and for all the evil that you have experienced in your life. Furthermore, I will allow you to blame me and then convict me as guilty for all the suffering in the world and in your life. I understand that you need someone to blame and I will be that person for you. I know that you will never understand the reason for suffering while you remain in your finite understanding. So I will let you blame me, kill me and bury me. And even as you do this to me, I will forgive you. I will receive the hyssop.” Just as Jesus enters into the scapegoat mechanism as the ultimate victim he enters into my need for someone to blame, willing to be the victim of my own limited judicial system.

Jesus says this to everyone who struggles to make sense of the problem of suffering: “You will not be able to solve this problem, but give me the hyssop. You can blame me as if I were responsible and therefore guilty for all the world’s suffering. Let out all of your frustration and hate on me. I will take it. And I will forgive you throughout all of it.” In this way, Jesus holds us in our anger and frustration the way a parent holds a child who is throwing a temper tantrum. Even as the child is kicking and screaming, the parent still holds the child lovingly, knowing that the child does not, and perhaps cannot, understand. This reading of Jesus receiving the hyssop reveals a profound pastoral theodicy, letting me lay aside the impotent platitudes that I might be inclined to offer believers in the face of suffering. Here, we see God’s pastoral response to the human need for someone to blame, inviting suffering believers to bring all of their anger, hate and even violence to the Cross because that is where Jesus receives the hyssop, that is where Jesus accepts our anger and that is where Jesus allows us to blame him for all of the pain in our lives. In the process of blaming him and being forgiven by him, we learn to let go of our need to blame and scapegoat others and move into a deeper communion with our Lord, the pastoral Good Shepherd.

[1] Warren Carter, Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 3-11.

[2] Ibid, 159.

[3] Carter’s implicit invitation to identify with Pilate serves as a point from his work, which helps me with my project.

[4] 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. Due to the limitations of this paper, I will not interpret the first pericope.

[5] “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)

[6] I am not aware of other scholars who outline the pericope in this way.

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

[8] Although I refer to the author of John with the masculine pronoun, I am aware that the gender of the author has been reexamined. See Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 2003), 233-254.

[9] Culpepper’s elaboration on the references to Passover in John’s Passion account serves as a point from his work, which helps me with my project. R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 235.

[10] Due to the limited scope of this paper, I cannot elaborate more on the connection between the hyssop and the sacrificial system / scapegoat mechanism, a connection which is central to my argument.

[11] James Alison’s notion of “the intelligence of the victim” (31-58), his application of mimetic theory to the passion and his understanding of resurrection as forgiveness (16) all help me with my project. James Alison, Knowing Jesus (Springfield IL: Templegate, 1994). In the same vein, S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006) also helps me to see the sacrificial system as the scapegoat mechanism in sacred garb and provides me with a frame for reinterpreting the passion and death of Christ.

[12] “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.

[13] Alison, 20.

[14] I define “symbol” here as a manifestation of a reality, which both reveals and conceals the reality simultaneously. Notes from Sandra Schneiders, “John: Theology and Spirituality: Introduction to the Gospel” (lecture, Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley CA, February 24, 2011).

[15] Borg’s association of sacrifice and communal meal serves a point from his work which helps me with my project. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 269.

[16] The author of John effectively conveys the community-creating power of Christ’s sacrifice by describing Jesus create community even at the foot of the Cross, between Mary and the Beloved Disciple (19:25-27).