The Cross and the Poor: A Good Friday Meditation
“But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” John 12:32
For most of my life, when I read this verse, what really went through my mind was “But I, when I rise from the dead, will draw all people to myself.” Good Friday slipped by quietly, a whistle-stop on the way to Easter. I identified with the joy of Easter. In our family, we triumphed in the empty cross.
And, after all, it is triumph that draws people, is it not? Surely Jesus, had his thoughts not been haunted by the imminence of his death, would have realized that it the victory of Easter would draw people to him and not the horrendous pain, betrayal and abandonment of the cross. Don’t we flee from blood, torture, injustice, suffering and death? Those of us who grow up with little suffering, as I did, cannot understand the attraction of the crucifixion but eagerly embrace victory. Embracing the crucifixion threatens to drag us down toward death but the resurrection lifts us up to a life even better than the good one we enjoy now.
But then I went to live among the poor, like those with whom Jesus lived, and began to realize that Jesus’ words were incisive, not short-sighted. Preaching only the triumph of Easter among the poor often stirs up only the hopes of Palm Sunday-of enemies defeated, of riches obtained, of a good life-hopes that are dashed between Sunday and the next Friday. Drawn only to a god of triumph, they are betrayed.
But a God on the cross, one who understands their sufferings because He too, has suffered and still draws their pain and sin into himself-that God is one whose love they can receive .
I think back to a wood and thatch house raised on stilts over the stinky river that flows through Phnom Penh, Cambodia. With my hands on the shoulders on Chup Ly, a Vietnamese young woman in the last stages of AIDS, I prayed quietly as the Vietnamese pastor prayed aloud. Chup Ly, sold into sex work by her parents, had been drawn to Jesus and placed her belief in Him. As I prayed, I thought, “Shall I pray that I somehow take some of her suffering into myself and perhaps lessen it?” The answer came back, “Meredith, I’ve already done that and am doing it now. You are too small a person to bear such pain. It’s not your commission.”
“But I, lifted up from the earth, draw Chup Ly to myself.”
I think of the fright of a five-year old child in a village in Mozambique watching as his older brother convulses in a sweat-soaked bed from malaria, grows still and finally cools into death.
“But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this bewildered child and his brother to myself.”
I think of the helplessness of the father, waiting beside the road with other laborers, hoping that someone will come and exploit his labor for the day so that he can feed his children.
“But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this helpless man and his family to myself.”
I think of the resigned pain in the eyes of the mother who watches her infant suckle ever more weakly at breasts withered from starvation.
“But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this starving mother and child to myself.”
I think of the twelve year old girl sold to sex traffickers, who alone, enslaved and abandoned, waits in terror in a small, dingy room as the approaching footsteps of the first man ever to have bought her echo in the hallway.
“But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this terrified and soon to be violated girl to myself.”
On this Good Friday, as I remember Chup Ly, dying of AIDS in Phnom Penh, I know with deep certainty that I must embrace both Good Friday and Easter. “What is our calling then? We are called, simply, to hold on to (the risen) Christ and his cross with one hand, with all our might; and to hold on to those we are given to love with the other hand, with all our might, with courage, humor, self-abandonment, creativity, flair, tears, silence, sympathy, gentleness, flexibility, Christlikeness. When we find their tears becoming our own, we may know that healing has begun to happen….” (NT Wright, For All God’s Worth, pp 98-99)