Jesus in the Mocking Robe
What happens when our majestic God shows up in rags?
by Karen Hinz | March 15, 2018
Pictured above: Chicago’s Queen of All Saints Basilica
Entering Chicago’s Queen of All Saints Basilica, I feel small. The towering ceiling, the formal stained-glass windows, the ornate interior of carved wood and gold leaf—and especially the acoustics—all point me to a big and majestic God. A God even bigger than that cavernous space. A God who could at any moment choose to descend and fill the space with his vibrant, rich robe.
This is the majestic God Isaiah describes in his vision: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (Isaiah 6:1-5).
Isaiah’s focus is on scale. Royal robes set the wearer apart, signifying power and honor. Yet Isaiah can only see the hem of the Lord’s robe in this vision. God is really big! This scene is about the “otherness” of God. The Bible narrative says that God’s face is too holy for humans to see. Whenever people glimpse God, it is from the side or back—or in this case, just the hem of his robe.
This is the God I like. A really big God who is not like me, but is more powerful, more awesome, more in charge. This is the God I want. The majestic God. Even if I’m not allowed to see his face.
In Lent we focus on a different scene with a different robe.
“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him” (Matthew 27:27-31).
This is not the robe of majesty but the robe of mockery. This is the robe the Roman oppressors placed on Jesus in order to laugh at him. Surely it was not a piece of finery, not a real king’s robe. More likely it was a scrap of cloth, a horse blanket, a dirty, discarded remnant picked up by Pilate’s guards. Perhaps it was infested or stained with someone else’s blood. Paired with a crown twisted together from thorns, it was a costume for a cartoon of a king. They laughed at Jesus’s suffering, beating him and calling him names.
I don’t like this story much. What happened to the majesty of God? The God who was victorious and celebrated and worshiped? These two stories—these two robes—seem to have nothing in common.
In fact, that’s the disequilibrium the people around Jesus probably felt during the last week of his life. The people who were cheering for him on Palm Sunday were calling for the big God. They wanted a king who would conquer, reign, and be popular.
That’s not who Jesus was. That’s not who Jesus is. Jesus chooses humility, he chose to be humiliated. During the Passion story we might be tempted to say, “Stand up for yourself, Jesus!” Yet the story of salvation is wrapped in this second robe. It was the plan. This is his story.
I grew up in Kansas, and my grandparents lived in Chicago. A couple times a year, we would visit them, often by train. We would get up in the middle of the night to catch the train as it came through Lawrence around 3 a.m. I remember one time when I was very young, looking down the track, squinting to see the
train approach in the dark. I was looking east, however, and the train was arriving from the west. By the time I heard it, it was barreling down upon us, brakes squealing and lights flashing. I can still feel that rush of surprise and fear.
I imagine it was a similar experience for the people in Jerusalem that Holy Week seeing Jesus dressed in the mocking robe—like watching for a train to come from the east, only to have it overwhelm you from the west. They did not expect to see a suffering God, a Messiah who was broken. Nearly everyone was looking east when God rushed in from the west. The people—even the disciples—wanted Jesus to be a political revolutionary, to be a “winner.” And they were disappointed. This God in this sorry robe was not what they had hoped for.
Sometimes, I want God to be my political savior. Most of the time, I want victory and beauty with no sacrifice. Almost all the time, I prefer majesty to meekness. And then life happens and I find myself asking: “Why did you say no, God? Where were you when I needed you? Why aren’t things the way they should be? Why do you allow pain?” And there Jesus is, in that embarrassing, smelly, uncomfortable robe.
There are four possible responses to this Lenten Jesus. One option is to walk away. “Jesus is not who I thought he was. I’m done with him.” The large crowd in Jerusalem whose hearts turned quickly from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him!” chose this response. But what happened to their hope?
Option two is the Thomas Jefferson approach. A Deist, Jefferson created his own version of the Bible that delineated an ordered, rational God. Seeking that structure, Jefferson deleted all the miracles and glued together a version of Scripture that eliminated everything supernatural. But cutting and pasting a pseudo-Messiah that discards both miracles and suffering leaves a person malnourished by a minimized Jesus.
Any fictional Jesus—strong not weak, wealthy not poor, exclusionary not inclusive—takes people far from the heart of the servant leader.
A third response is to draw a fictional Jesus, a superhero to counteract any problem. In this spirit, Jesus has been used as a mascot for wars fought in his name. People have declared that Jesus hates one group of people while loving another. Others promote a prosperity gospel, claiming that Jesus values wealth and is eager to give it away. But any fictional Jesus—strong not weak, wealthy not poor, exclusionary not inclusive—takes people far from the heart of the servant leader.
The fourth response is modeled by Isaiah: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (v. 5). “I am lost” can
also be translated “I am brought to silence.” Isaiah wanted to join in the praise of God, but he was moved instead to humility and silence by God’s holiness and by his awareness of his own need. God goes on to use Isaiah powerfully. Apparently God can work with silence and humility.
In the terrible week leading up to the cross, many people deserted Jesus. Yet the humble ones, the silent ones, remained with him. They witnessed his death and cared for his body. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, John, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea—they waited in that painful place, humble and silent, not knowing what would happen. And although the disciples scattered at the time of the crucifixion, they came back together subdued as rumors of resurrection circulated. They waited together, praying and not knowing what would happen. And their silence and humility was the space into which the risen Jesus appeared, bringing his peace.
What an example! Maybe I should stop trying to script Jesus. What if I admitted I don’t know what God will do next?
Do I dare name what I’m afraid of? Can I become less concerned about being right or perfect or comfortable and more concerned about being loving and patient and peaceful like our Lord?
What if I looked at the Jesus of Lent—Jesus in the mocking robe—and said, “Woe is me! I am brought to silence, for I have unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” If I could be open to the awkwardness of a suffering Messiah, maybe silence and humility would be able to do their work. Maybe if I stopped recoiling from the robe of suffering, I might reach out to touch its hem. And then I might find that hem to be the same one that filled the temple in Isaiah.
Only in this robe, the complete robe of our King, is healing and peace found.