(All Men Must Die; All Men Must Serve)
Part 6 of the series “Lent and Easter with Game of Thrones”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 13, 2014—Lent VI, Palm/Passion Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 27:27-44
Isaiah 50:4–9 • The LORD God gave me an educated tongue to know how to respond to the weary with a word that will awaken them in the morning. God awakens my ear in the morning to listen, as educated people do. The LORD God opened my ear; I didn’t rebel; I didn’t turn my back. Instead, I gave my body to attackers, and my cheeks to beard pluckers. I didn’t hide my face from insults and spitting. The LORD God will help me; therefore, I haven’t been insulted. Therefore, I set my face like flint, and knew I wouldn’t be ashamed. The one who will declare me innocent is near. Who will argue with me? Let’s stand up together. Who will bring judgment against me? Let him approach me. Look! The LORD God will help me. Who will condemn me?
Matthew 27:27–44 • The governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the governor’s house, and they gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a red military coat on him. They twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They put a stick in his right hand. Then they bowed down in front of him and mocked him, saying, “Hey! King of the Jews!” After they spit on him, they took the stick and struck his head again and again. When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the military coat and put his own clothes back on him. They led him away to crucify him.
As they were going out, they found Simon, a man from Cyrene. They forced him to carry his cross. When they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Skull Place, they gave Jesus wine mixed with vinegar to drink. But after tasting it, he didn’t want to drink it. After they crucified him, they divided up his clothes among them by drawing lots. They sat there, guarding him. They placed above his head the charge against him. It read, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” They crucified with him two outlaws, one on his right side and one on his left.
Those who were walking by insulted Jesus, shaking their heads and saying, “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.”
In the same way, the chief priests, along with the legal experts and the elders, were making fun of him, saying, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son.’” The outlaws who were crucified with him insulted him in the same way.
Throughout Lent, we have been using HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire as a literary sounding board for some of the ideas that we encounter in scripture as we make our way through the wilderness from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. That series, and the novels on which they are based, are full of sudden dramatic reversals that keep the reader off balance. The plot will be cruising right along and suddenly a main character that you’d been rooting for will wind up dead. An argument could be made that it is precisely that lack of safety for the characters that makes the series so compelling; the characters’ narratives are full of risk. Their adventures matter because unlike other dramas, nobody is safe.
As David pointed out in his sermon a few weeks ago, this can be a frustrating literary device. After all, what kind of story kills off its main character right as you think things are going to come to a satisfactory conclusion? But, it was a reminder that as Christians, we should be used to this kind of reversal. Especially during Holy Week.
Today is, after all, Palm Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the culmination of his public ministry and the beginning of the Passover festival. Now, in years past, we were content to call this Sunday Palm Sunday alone. But as church attendance became less and less regular, it could no longer be assumed that churchgoers were going to Holy Thursday and Good Friday services as they had in years past. The net result was that a lot of Christians were going straight from the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Alleluias” of Easter without having to go through the cross on the way. And so it became customary in the churches to begin to observe Palm/Passion Sunday: a Sunday that begins with the shouts of “Hosanna” but ends with “Crucify him!” It is a reminder that there is no journey to the Empty Tomb that does not go through the Cross.
The passion narratives found in the Gospels are likely the oldest parts of the Christian story. That is, while only two gospels have an account of Jesus’ birth, and only one has any account of his childhood, all four share accounts of his entry into Jerusalem, his conflict around the temple, his final meal with his disciples, his betrayal and arrest, his suffering, and his crucifixion. These narratives, although they disagree on a number of details, are nevertheless representative of the oldest parts of the Christian narrative proclamation. That is, when Christians first told stories about Jesus they did not start with his birth, they started with his passion. We even get a hint of this in Luke’s gospel in the story of the men on the Road to Emmaus, who in responding to the questions of the resurrected Jesus (whom they do not recognize), they say:
They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.” (Luke 24:19–20)
It is a curious thing that at the heart of the gospel proclamation is this stunning reversal of fortune. The main character, the hero of the story, who had done such wonderful deeds and given hope to so many, is betrayed by those closest to him, made to suffer, and killed. It is a stunning twist to the story. And in the context of the story, no one, except Jesus, sees it coming. The disciples, the crowds. All are stunned by this sudden change of fortune. In fact, the net result is that many abandon him and the disciples themselves cower in fear.
III. VALAR MORGHULIS
And so, given how foundational this reversal of fortune is for the Christian narrative, more people ought to have seen it coming with Game of Thrones. Perhaps our inability to anticipate such a dramatic reversal is because literature is more likely to have a Hollywood ending where everything works out for the hero, and while there are often setbacks there are rarely mortalities. Though if you spend any time with those stories, you learn quickly that the rules of George R.R. Martin’s world are quite different.
In fact, in the world that Martin has created, there’s even a saying that underscores this reality well. There is a common saying in the language of Old Valyria, the Game of Thrones’ equivalent of the Roman Empire (except that the Romans never had dragons, only legions): Valar morghulis. “All men must die.”  It is not an imperative; it is a statement of fact. All people eventually die. Death is our lot.
Martin’s use of this idea may be an echo of a sentiment found in Ancient Rome. According to the church father Tertullian, when a Roman general would parade through the streets of Rome on what was called a “Triumph,” there would be a servant standing behind him whispering in his ear. According to Tertullian, what the servant was saying was Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori! “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you’ll die!” A reminder of his mortality, and thus his humanity. Valar morghulis.
In preparation for this series, I finished reading through the five books of the series that have been published. David has likewise been going through the books. Every once in a while he’ll text me a photo of the page he’s just finished reading. In one case, it was a page on which a character had just died. Accompanying this photo was the word: “Nooooooooooooooo.”
I texted back: Valar morghulis.
It is a common theme in the Christian story, to be honest. In the very beginning of the story, the human man and woman are told not to partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest they die. They partake. Valar morghulis.
Their children get into a fight and one murders the other. Valar morghulis. After a few generations, the world has become so wicked that God sends a flood to wipe the slate clean and start over. Valar morghulis. The list of genealogies frequently end with the phrases like ““In all, Methuselah lived 969 years, and he died.” (Genesis 5:27) Valar morghulis. St. Paul notes that “all die in Adam.” Valar morghulis. In fact, some version of the word “die” shows up in 1,361 verses of the Bible. By comparison, “love” shows up 891 times. Valar morghulis.
On some level, our attitude toward Jesus’ crucifixion ought to have been more sanguine. As soon as the high priest declares Jesus a blasphemer and the priests declare, “He deserves to die!” we ought to have understood what was coming. Valar morghulis.
IV. VALAR DOHAERIS
One interesting note about that phrase as it occurs in the series, is that unlike the Roman phrase memento mori, there is a response to valar morghulis. In the cities of the east where the language of Old Valyria is still spoken, when someone says Valar morghulis “All men must die” the usual response is Valar dohaeris, “All men must serve.” I suppose you could look at the two sentiments in a particularly fatalist way: life is service followed by death. But is there something that this rejoinder has to teach us as Christians?
The passage from Isaiah that was read earlier is a passage from one of the four “Servant Songs” found in the later chapters of that book. In these four songs, we encounter a figure who is a servant of God who brings salvation for others but who suffers on their behalf. In his mission, the servant evidences a willingness to suffer for the sake of the mission and for this reason is often referred to as the “Suffering Servant”. The mission of this servant is not carried out in power but in gentleness: “a dimly burning wick he will not quench; a bruised reed he will not break.”
The text in Isaiah never makes clear the identity of the servant or even whether the servant is an individual or the people as a whole. But the servant’s mission is one whose suffering is turned to redemptive purposes and perhaps a reflection that those working for the sake of establishing justice choose to take a path that may lead to suffering.
In light of this, Jesus’ death is not seen as merely another inevitable death, indistinguishable from the deaths of every other living creature; it is a death that is infused with Jesus’ work in service of God’s kingdom.
This interpretation of Jesus’ ministry as a manifestation of the Suffering Servant is an old one. The gospel account we read earlier contains mockery, beating, humiliation, scorn, derision, and crucifixion. It is hard to read the passages in Isaiah and not picture the scorned and rejected Christ. It is hard to hear the words “I didn’t hide my face from insults and spitting” and not picture Jesus’ passion. “He was despised and avoided by others; a man who suffered, who knew sickness well.” (Isaiah 53:3 CEB) And further: “He was pierced because of our rebellions and crushed because of our crimes. He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5 CEB)
The oldest gospels, Mark and Matthew, are full of this Suffering Servant imagery. Jesus is the Servant of God, who suffers for the sake of the Kingdom.
See, the story of Jesus’ death is a stunning plot reversal, but not in the way we think. It’s not in the tragedy of betrayal, of a promising career suddenly and tragically cut short. To be honest, that kind of reversal is all too common in this world. The reversal is that Jesus came to change the world, not through the usual channels of power and violence, but through his willingness to suffer, even to the point of death. And in so doing, demonstrates something radical about God.
All men must die; all men must serve. But in Christ we encounter a God willing to serve, a God willing to suffer, a God willing to go through death with us.
Yes, all people must die, and traditionally that was the difference between gods and human beings. In Greek religion, because the gods were immortal, they could not be considered heroic, because they had nothing to risk. In short, they were like the main characters of most fiction, placed in all kinds of challenging circumstances, but never in any real peril. But the God we encounter in Christ is a God willing to undergo even the brokenness of death, to experience death within God’s own being. Such a declaration of solidarity is transformative. It means that there is no experience of this broken world we can encounter in which God is not present: no betrayal, no reversal, no tragedy, no death in which we are removed from God’s presence.
While we all must experience death, death no longer has the last word. As Paul writes, “In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) In Adam valar morghulis—All men must die; In Christ valar glaesilzi—All men will live.
There is humbling wisdom in the phrase “All men must die; all men must serve.” On one hand, it can serve as a reminder of our own mortality, our own contingency. But as we consider the life and witness of Jesus, we encounter an even more powerful message.
For while we all must serve and we all must die, the Son of God serves by being willing to die, to know our death, so that in the greatest reversal of all, we might live.
 Were this sentiment found in scripture, it would be translated in gender neutral language as “All people must die.” Here we leave the text as George R.R. Martin wrote it.