Traditionally, a condemned man is allowed to say a few words before his execution.
It is a dramatic moment, when some would make a rousing speech. How did Jesus handle that opportunity during his passion? How did he follow the example of the prophets who preceded him?
Sunday’s first reading, Is 50:4-7, is taken from one of the Suffering Servant songs. The one speaking has been called by God to serve as a prophet: “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”
Consequently, the reading goes on to describe the difficulties that a prophet would typically encounter in fulfilling his mission: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” At the same time, those sufferings take on added meaning when viewed in light of Christ’s passion. They resonate with the beatings and insults that Christ received at the hands of the Roman soldiers.
Christ’s radical message provoked the displeasure of the authorities and ultimately led to his death. At his trial before Pilate, Jesus’ opponents point to his words as evidence that he is a danger to the state: “He is inciting the people with his teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to here” (Lk 23:5).
In that respect, Jesus follows in the footsteps of the prophets who preceded him. They also had suffered as a result of their ministry. Jesus refers to that dark past as he prepares to enter the city of Jerusalem: “Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jeru- salem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children to- gether” (Lk 13: 33-34).
It is appropriate that the Incarnate Word of God, the Word made flesh, should function as a prophet in our world. After all, a prophet is one who speaks on behalf of God. As a prophet, Jesus is God speaking on his own behalf. At the same time, it is paradoxical that Jesus remains so silent during the time of his passion.
When questioned by Pilate and the high priest, he says either nothing, or very little. He certainly does not take advantage of the occasion to expound his message. In that respect, his behavior echoes a passage in another Suffering Servant song, which we will hear as the first reading on Good Friday: “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7).
Why does Jesus remain quiet? Perhaps, it is because, at that moment, he realizes that actions will speak louder than words. His death on the cross will proclaim his love more loudly than anything else ever could.