Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66.
This is my body ... for the forgiveness of sins.
The Revised Common Lectionary gives two sets of readings for the Sunday before Easter, one for “the Liturgy of the Palms” and one for “the Liturgy of the Passion.” (The assumption seems to be that church-goers will miss anything not read on Sunday.) As in previous years I separate these two and present the Passion texts as Good Friday readings. The hope is that Maundy Thursday or Good Friday readings will be attended to – even by Sunday church goers!
The Biblical texts discussed here are those given for the Liturgy of the Passion (Sunday) rather than those for Good Friday proper. (The Lectionary always reads Isaiah 53 and John’s Passion narrative on Good Friday.) The point is to hear Matthew’s Passion Narrative in Year A, the year of Matthew’s Gospel.
This passage is the third of the songs of the Suffering Servant. The four passages (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12, using the longer versions in each case) depict the mission, failure, and vindication of this figure of destiny – a figure eventually welcomed and honored among the nations and kings of the earth (52:15 and 53:12). The Servant is anointed, empowered by the spirit of the Lord for a mission to the nations, but suffers rejection, abuse, and death. His vindication will be astonishing news to the powers of the earth.
Our passage shows the Servant faithful to God’s instruction, instruction intended to “sustain the weary” (verse 4, NRSV). However, the Servant is abused and beaten by those who oppose God’s work. He gives his back to the lash, has his beard pulled, and is insulted and spit on (verse 6). (In ancient Jerusalem these would have been symbolic actions in a liturgical context in which a suffering figure – probably a king – receives punishment on behalf of his realm.) Through all this the Servant is confident that God will turn the tables, that in time help will come. “He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me?” (verse 8).
The Servant embodies the destiny of Israel, both its glory and its failure. But it is a peculiar embodiment. On the one hand the Servant is part of God’s ultimate plan for the nations, but on the other the worldly Israel is a failure, blind and deaf to the truth about the creator and redeemer God. (See, for example, Isaiah 42:18-22.) Only by dying and rising again from defeat and death will Israel show the real character of the God who is, in fact, giving Israel to the world as the gospel of a new reign of God
So the gospel for Israel, which the Servant must act out before the nations!
The Psalm selection is very much like the prophetic passage. It overflows with language about physical suffering and the condemned outcast. It speaks of the ultimate dismissal: “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead” (verse 12, NRSV).
Jesus in Jerusalem in his last days could have uttered the psalmist’s words when he says,
I hear the whispering of many –
terror all around! –
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life. (Verse 13.)
And the last verse of the reading is like the Servant expecting that ultimately there will be vindication beyond the current suffering:
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
The Epistle reading is the Christ hymn from Philippians. Scholars regard this as an early Christian hymn, quoted here to reinforce the apostle’s exhortation to imitate Christ. It takes a very lofty view of who Jesus was and what he accomplished in his Passion.
The hymn speaks of Christ Jesus as divine – a god, in the language of their Greek neighbors. Christ Jesus had existed “in the form of God,” but “emptied himself” to become human. The humble Jesus of the gospel narratives – often misunderstood, never recognized in his true nature until long after his resurrection – was in reality a divine being who had altered the cosmic status quo by taking on human form. Thus descending from the highest to the most humble, this slave (Servant) also gave up his life, accepting “death on a cross.” The narratives of the Passion would recite their common-appearing events with this awareness of who Jesus really was and is.
When the Servant had so given himself, God reversed the condition and “highly exalted him,” that is, returned him to his true divine status, and made him the highest of all heavenly powers. So that, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” – all the realms of reality known to folks in ancient times.
Jesus, who had died and been exalted again to rule over the powers that oppress humanity, has become the object of worship together with God the Father (Philippians 2:11).
The Passion According to Matthew
The Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Passion begins with the preparations for the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:17). However, the narrative really begins with Jesus’ word to the disciples:
You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified (26:1-2, NRSV).
The Passion was not recited to the faithful in order to inform. It tells you right at the beginning what is going to happen. The action is familiar to all except its very latest hearers. The Passion is, and was from the beginning, recited for the hearers to re-experience these events.
About the Gospel According to Matthew.
Modern scholars have recognized, over the last hundred and fifty years, that Matthew’s Gospel is an expanded version of Mark, adding much more of Jesus’ teachings. In many of the narratives Matthew repeats Mark nearly verbatim, only abbreviating and smoothing out Mark’s somewhat rough Greek. (In preparing this study, I have been newly impressed with just how much of Matthew, in the Passion narrative, is in verbatim agreement with Mark.) Matthew takes over Mark’s Passion without significant change, though sometimes small changes in wording are very significant (e.g., “the forgiveness of sins,” 26:28). Occasionally there are also substantial additions, unique to Matthew (as with the sword-speech at the arrest, with Judas’ fate, and with the guards at the tomb).
The long-standing consensus among critical scholars dates Matthew’s Gospel to around 85 CE, probably written for second-generation Christians in Syria, the metropolitan center of which was Antioch. (Many conservative Protestants prefer an early dating, placing the synoptic Gospels and Acts before 62 CE. The issue is whether Luke knew the outcome of Paul’s trial when he wrote the present ending of Acts.)
These Christians of Antioch had Jewish neighbors who denied that Jesus was the Messiah, and the disputes between them, reflected in the Gospel, had been intense and occasionally violent. Matthew’s Gospel does not label these opponents simply “the Jews” (as do Luke and John); Jesus’ opponents in Matthew’s Passion are the high priests, the scribes, and the elders. (The Pharisees, condemned so fiercely in chapter 23, do not appear in the Passion.) Matthew does, however, insist that “all the people” called for Jesus’ death and took responsibility for that action (27:25).
The following discussion focuses on Matthew’s own presentation. Differences from Mark are mentioned only if they reflect a special interest of Matthew. As usual in these Passion studies, I have used a word-count in the Greek text to show how time is distributed over the total narrative, showing what percentage of the whole (beginning at 26:17) is occupied by each episode. (The entire narrative is 1831 words in UBS 2nd ed.)
The Last Supper, 26:17-30, 242 words, 13%.
In Matthew, two things happen at the Last Supper: the Betrayer is announced, and Jesus says powerful words over bread and wine.
The narrator dwells a bit over arrangements for doing the Passover (verses 17-19). The disciples are sent to a confidant in the city at whose place they will prepare the Passover. Jesus’ message is striking: “The teacher says, ‘My time is near; with you I will do the passover...’” (26:18, my translation). There is an aura here: it is sufficient to say simply, “the teacher says...,” and awareness of a special “time” (Greek is kairos) is assumed. The hearers of the narrative understand the overtones and nuances of the words used.
“One of you will betray me,” 26:20-25, 94 words, 5%. It is important for Jesus to confront all the disciples with this scandal of a betrayal by one of them. This is not news to the hearers of the whole narrative, because we just heard Judas himself strike a deal with the chief priests to sell Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (26:14-16).
Our narrative, however, dwells at some length on each disciple asking plaintively, Surely not I, Lord? (This is verbatim from Mark.) No one denies the statement (as they will later deny his prediction of their falling away). Instead they ASK, though giving themselves the benefit of the doubt: “Surely not I?” You can’t suspect me!!
The Matthew tradition is very hard on Judas, and now we hear him in blatant hypocrisy repeating what the others say: Surely not I, Rabbi? To doubly assure that there is no mistake, the narrator adds to Judas’ name the comment, “who betrayed him” (verse 25). The hearers are expected to cringe in horror at such an evil character.
And Jesus himself speaks an awesome condemnation of Judas: “The Son of Man goes as is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born” (verse 24, NRSV). We seem a long way from, “But I say to you, Love your enemies...” (Matthew 5:44). But for Matthew Judas seems to be a special case, evil beyond any bounds. (He is finished off below in 27:3-10.)
The Bread and the Cup, 26:26-30, 87 words, 5%. The elements of the Last Supper (to be “the Lord’s Supper” in the life of the church) are quite simply treated. The bread (dealt with in a single verse) is taken, blessed, broken, and given to the disciples. The words are, “Take, eat; this is my body” (verse 26, NRSV). A command and a meaning.
The wine gets slightly fuller treatment. It is spoken of as a “cup”; the word wine is not actually used, but there is no ambiguity about what “fruit of the vine” means (verse 29). Here too there is a command and a meaning: “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (verse 28). The very last phrase here is important. “...for the forgiveness of sins” is added by Matthew to the rest of the text repeated from Mark. Forgiveness has become an increasing concern for Matthew’s hearers in the second generation of Jesus followers.
All these remembrances and repeated actions are done in expectation of the exalted Lord’s near return. “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (verse 29, NRSV). Until the day I drink it “with you...” The Lord’s Supper is done in constant anticipation that those present will soon drink with Jesus himself!
Side comment: If there was ever a relation between the Lord’s Supper of Christian practice and the Jewish Passover in Jesus’ time, it was lost or glossed over well before Christian practice was written down. It is true that three of the Gospels make the last supper a Passover meal. But none of the details of a Jewish Passover are actually presented in the New Testament texts, and most historians recognize that the arrest and trial could hardly have happened on a Passover night.
What Mark, Matthew, and Luke are insisting on is that the later Christian observance of the Last Supper took place at the same time as the Jewish Passover. When (in the diaspora) the neighboring Jewish people were preparing for the Passover, Jesus followers held their own observance – a kind of counter-Passover, filled with betrayal, denial, abandonment, and death. The Passion narratives were all composed for this Christian observance. Two days after the Jewish Passover (as observed in the first century), Jesus people would have their own joyous and ecstatic celebration – Easter. (Sometime after 100 CE, Christians shifted Easter to a Sunday-only event, and the connection with Passover, which has no fixed day in the week, gradually faded away.) But for the early Christians, when the Jews began clearing all leaven from their houses, it was time to hear again the Passion narrative of Jesus. That’s why the Passion narratives begin with the observance of Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread.
At the Mount of Olives, 26:31-56, 471 words, 26%.
Prediction of Flight and Denial, 26:31-35, 87 words, 5%. Between the Last Supper and the Prayer in the Garden we get a scene that is pivotal for the whole Passion.
Jesus announces that everybody is going to run away, and Peter in particular is going to deny knowing Jesus. This is not Jesus’ word only; it is authorized in prophecy (first scripture quotation in Matthew’s Passion):
I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. (Verse 31, quoting Zechariah 13:7.)
Pivotal, because of the next statement: “After I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Matthew, as well as Mark, expects the appearances of the risen Jesus to be in Galilee. (These Gospels know nothing of the disciples staying in Jerusalem, which is so dear to Luke’s agenda in Acts 1.) Jesus is giving the long perspective on the crucifixion; he is, in effect, giving them permission to run for their lives – even to deny three times that they know him. God’s overall plan allows for that!
Peter and the disciples, however, are full of bravado: “ ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,’ and so said all the disciples” (verse 35).
Praying in Gethsemane, 26:36-46, 195 words, 11%. In most places Matthew condenses Mark’s narrative, making a smoother and more succinct (if less colorful) recitation. Here, however, Matthew not only keeps all of Mark’s detail but enhances it. (Matthew’s version is longer by 16 words. Contrast Luke’s more exotic variations on Mark, Luke 22:39-46.) Matthew’s prayer scene is a marvelous piece of narrative art, one of the finest in the synoptic Gospels.
The Garden has the structure of a temple: The first station is where all the disciples are told to sit and wait while Jesus goes on further to pray. A second station is where Jesus shares his agony with the three closest disciples (Peter, and James and John Zebedee). Finally, Jesus alone goes to a third station, the holy of holies, as it were, where he falls prostrate and speaks (for our hearing) that most awesome of prayers.
Not only is the space structured in three stations, the prayer unfolds in three stages, marked by check-ups on the drowsy disciples. The disciples are not, of course, up to the occasion. They sleep.
We hear Jesus’ prayer in its fullest form on the first occasion; then, in the second hour, a shorter version, though it’s clearer now that Jesus will not be let off. And finally, we are simply told he “prayed for the third time, saying the same words” (verse 44).
The full prayer is a climax of the Gospel’s presentation of the human Jesus. For a Passion recital, we must hear it again:
My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want (verse 39, NRSV).
The Arrest, 26:47-56, 189 words, 10%. The arrest scene has three moments: Judas’s betrayal with a kiss, sword-play on an arresting officer’s ear, and Jesus’ complaint to his captors. Throughout, there is heavy emphasis that all of this is fulfilling the scriptures.
The “large crowd” that accompanies Judas with swords and clubs is not just an unruly mob. They are led by officers of the court. (The chief priests had their own temple police force.) Matthew’s phrasing, here as elsewhere, makes sure “the people” are involved, through their representatives “the elders of the people” (verse 47, where Matthew has added the phrase “of the people” to Marks words).
When Judas comes to Jesus to give the betraying kiss, he says, “Greetings, Rabbi!” In Matthew, “rabbi” is not a complimentary term. When the other disciples call Jesus “Lord,” Judas calls him “Rabbi” (in 26:22 and 25), and the disciples are told that in future they should not use the title “rabbi” (23:7-8). Thus for Matthew’s hearers, Judas gives away his character as “betrayer” when he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi.”
All four Gospels report the chopping of the ear of a high priest’s officer. All four Gospels treat the sequel differently. Mark has no sequel; only the wounded ear. Luke has Jesus immediately repair the ear by healing it. John knows that Peter was the swordsman, and that the officer’s name was “Malchus.”
Matthew, however, has the most far-reaching and amazing response to the disciple’s resort to violence. This entire speech of Jesus is unique to Matthew. Again, it sets the Passion event in a long perspective.
Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions [approximately 72,000] of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way? (26:52-54, NRSV.)
The same emphasis on the fulfillment of the scriptures marks Jesus’ complaint to the arresting officers. They have come for him as if he were a fugitive outlaw. Why did they not arrest him in the daytime when he was teaching in the temple? But – of course – we must allow the scriptures to be fulfilled (verse 56).
The scene ends with seven solemn words: “Then, all the disciples, abandoning him, fled.” (My translation.)
At the High Priest’s Palace, 26:57-75, 312 words, 17%.
Two verses give the setting for Jesus’ trial before the High Priest and Peter’s denial. Matthew knows the high priest’s name is Caiaphas, and the court will meet in his palace. Peter follows along to the outer court of the palace, “to know the end” (verse 58, my translation). While Jesus’ trial goes on inside, Peter’s goes on in the courtyards.
The Trial and Confession, 26:57-68, 196 words, 11%. Matthew leaves no doubt that Jesus gets a trumped up trial. “Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death” (verse 59). They finally find two testimonies that agree, but Jesus remains adamantly silent throughout.
Finally, the high priest throws up the witness thing and puts the issue as forcefully as possible to Jesus himself: “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (verse 63, NRSV). (This is not language a real high priest would use about a messiah; he would say “son of David.” But Caiaphas is probably seen as quoting a charge against Jesus, using Jesus-follower language.)
Jesus’ reply to Caiaphas has two parts. The first seems ambiguous, “You say (so).” (The same reply is given to Judas, 26:25, and to Pilate, 27:11.) This is surprising, because in Mark, Jesus’ answer is very clear: “I am (the Messiah)” (Mark 14:62). Why has Matthew backed off from Mark’s certainty?
Whatever the reason for that, the rest of Jesus’ reply to Caiaphas is an audacious announcement of the coming climax of God’s reign:
...you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (verse 68, NRSV).
However humble and weak my situation seems now, you will shortly be overwhelmed by the breaking out of God’s holy power. That great revolution will establish me as the judge for God’s final reckoning with the peoples and the nations. (“...he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him...,” Isaiah 52:12.)
Jesus’ words here combine two major scripture passages about the heavenly Lord. From Psalm 110:1, “The LORD says to my Lord [i.e., Yahweh to Yahweh’s son], ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ” And from Daniel 7:13, “I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven” – coming to receive “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (7:14, NRSV).
If this is really an answer to the high priest’s question, then Jesus is saying that HE IS this Son of Man, with authority from the right hand of God and dominion soon to be exercised over the peoples and nations!
How audacious were these earliest Christians! Certain that the powers of the universe were on their side and would eventually vindicate them against their opponents and persecutors!
Blasphemy -- and insults. The high priest tears his very expensive and symbolic garments and cries out, “Blasphemy!” Commentators quibble about how they reached that conclusion, but there can be no doubt how Matthew understood the Jewish authorities’ verdict: “He deserves death” (verse 66).
That being determined, we get a brief statement of abuse heaped on Jesus, spitting, slapping, and taunting. “Prophesy, O messiah! Who slapped you?” (verse 68, my translation).
Peter’s Denial, 26:69-75, 116 words, 6%. While Jesus is being condemned in the high court, Peter is hounded by suspicious people in the outer courts. The story is well told in all four Gospels. Matthew follows Mark, abbreviating a little but with a few interesting variations.
Peter in fingered by one female servant, then another, and finally by a group of bystanders. In each case we hear their accusations: “You also were with Jesus the Galilean”; “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth”; “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” (Only Matthew mentions the Galilean accent as a give away.) Peter keeps moving from place to place, and his denials become more violent, with cursing and oaths. Then the rooster crow breaks his facade, and remembering, he goes away and weeps bitterly. A moving and remarkable story!
Jesus before Pilate, 27:1-31, 478 words, 26%.
The Passion narrative moves from the Jewish trial to the Roman trial. But after a two-verse report of the Jewish authorities taking Jesus “bound” to the Roman governor, Matthew interrupts the story line to tell what happened to Judas and his money.
Judas and the blood money, 27:3-10, 117 words, 6%.
What happened to Judas was a matter of legend, not history. Here Matthew tells how Judas repented, gave back the money, and hanged himself. Luke, in Acts 1:18-20, tells how Judas used the money to buy land and fell to his death there so it was called Field of Blood. In the early second century, the loquacious Papias, bishop of Laodicea in Asia Minor, told a third story in which Judas suffered physical maladies all his life and then was run over by a wagon (Davies and Allison, Matthew, vol. iii, p. 559, n. 3).
It is may be significant (as Davies and Allison suggest) that Judas’ repentance is told here, rather than after the crucifixion. The condemnation of Jesus by the Jewish court is made the tipping point for Judas. That condemnation shows Judas that he made a colossally terrible mistake – a mistake beyond forgiveness, so that only suicide is his escape. (Is this too generous to Judas to have crossed Matthew’s mind?)
Compared to the other stories, the Matthew version is somewhat charitable. It gets Judas killed off quickly, with no detail, and spends its time mostly on the money. Judas repented, tried to give the money back to the priests, and, when they refused it, he threw it into the temple and hanged himself. The money ends up purchasing a field for burying the abandoned dead – a paupers cemetery. The blood money finally came to a kind of charitable use!
In Matthew it is important that all this happened as prophesied in the scriptures. We hear a long quotation said to be from “the prophet Jeremiah” (verse 9). The quotation refers to the thirty pieces of silver, to someone who set that price on someone else’s head, and the use of the money to purchase a “potter’s field.” The problem is that there is no such passage in Jeremiah. Parts of the quote come verbatim from Zechariah 11:13, but it is clear that a lot of garbling of scripture passages – or of Christian memories – has gone on. This is not one of Matthew’s finer hours as an expert of the prophetic scriptures!
The Trial before Pilate, 27:11-26, 249 words, 14%. The Pilate scene has three stages: the questioning, the negotiation about Bar-Abbás, and the condemnation.
The Questioning, 27:11-14. The chief priests and elders have many accusations against Jesus, to which Jesus makes no reply. (You are supposed to remember Isaiah 53:7, “...like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”) While Pilate is amazed at this, he himself has only one question for Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus does answer, but it is the usual slightly ambiguous, “You say so.” We are not told how Pilate takes this probably positive answer, but it will not decide the verdict anyway.
About Bar-Abbás, 27:15-23. (This is an Aramaic name, stressed on the final syllable; “bar” means “son of” and “abbás” means “the father.” The name probably meant son of an unknown father.)
The trial now gets complicated by turning to a “festival custom” according to which the governor releases to the people one prisoner of their choice. (This custom is unknown except in the Gospel narratives.) Pilate announces that he has two candidates for release: Bar- Abbás, a “notorious” prisoner, and Jesus called the Messiah. Which do you want?
We pause for a moment to hear some comments on this situation. First, in Pilate’s mind: “He realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over” (verse 18). Then, even more interesting, a message from his wife (in the middle of a trial!), saying, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (verse 19). Some deep powers are working in Jesus’ favor, but at hand are even more powerful forces: “the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Bar-Abbás and to have Jesus killed” (verse 20).
Back to Bar-Abbás. The governor repeats his question: which do you want released? Obedient to their spiritual guides, the crowds shout, “Bar-Abbás!” And what shall we do with Jesus, called the Messiah? “Let him be crucified!” And when Pilate objects that he is innocent, they simply shout all the louder for his death.
The Condemnation, 27:24-26. (This section is in Matthew only, except for verse 26.) The governor needs to avoid a riot and so gives in to the demand of the crowds. But he wants a public demonstration that this death is not his doing – and we get the famous/infamous hand-washing scene. Shaking the water off his hands, Pilate says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood...” (verse 24).
This is followed by an even more infamous declaration by the crowd, or, as Matthew carefully phrases it, by “the people as a whole”: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (verse 25, NRSV).
Since holocaust guilt began to affect Christian commentators after World War II, there have been many scrambles to either deny or to counteract the violent anti-Judaism associations of this verse. Some terrible pseudo-history has been resorted to and a wide range of disavowals expressed. The cold reality is that there was a lot of hatred on both sides between some Jesus followers and the early-stage defenders of Rabbinic Judaism (heirs of the Pharisees).
The statement is not historical. No Jewish people in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time ever spoke the words of Matthew 27:25. The statement is a horrible self-condemnation attributed by second-generation Christians to the people who approved the death of Jesus. By the time of Matthew the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had taken place, dispersing both Jews and Christians beyond Judea. By the Christians, certainly, that destruction was regarded as God’s judgment on the unfortunate people who spoke the curse in Matthew 27:25. After that, the Christian viewpoint could (and should) have been that the curse had been carried out, and they – as had Jesus – could forgive their former enemies!! Again, in cold reality, the anti-Judaism continued on for centuries, intensified after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire (under Emperor Theodosius, 389 CE).
Condemnation is the word: “So he released Bar-Abbás for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (verse 26).
Mocked by Roman Soldiers, 27:27-31, 84 words, 5%.
When Jesus had been condemned in the Jewish court, he was immediately insulted and abused by his guards and captors. So in Roman custody, immediately after his condemnation the soldiers mock and abuse him. They dress him up as a pretend king in a scarlet robe, with a crown of thorns on his head, a reed in his hand, and then they bow and scrape before him, calling out, “Hail, King of the Jews!” The fun then turns vicious: they spit on him and take his staff and beat him on the head with it. The fun over, they put on his regular clothes and get to the business of crucifixion.
In both Jewish and Roman courts, the underlings take their leads from their superiors. The Jewish police taunt Jesus about being a prophet; the Roman soldiers mock Jesus as a king. Each circle has its priorities, and the mocking and insulting of both is actually ironic. The hearers of the narrative know who the real prophet and king is!
The Crucifixion, 27:32-56, 363 words, 20%.
The climax of the recitation has two sections: the circumstances around the crucifixion, and things accompanying Jesus’ death.
The Crucifixion, 27:32-44, 169 words, 9%. The actual crucifixion is not reported by Matthew (or the other Gospels either, for that matter). There is only a circumstantial clause: “And when they had crucified him...” (verse 35).
There are lots of details, however, surrounding the central undefined event. Simon, the businessman from Cyrene, gets his brief moment of fame by carrying the cross to Golgotha (verses 32-33). Following regular procedure, Jesus was offered drugged wine to dull the pain (which he refused; see Psalm 69:21), and after Jesus had been fastened to the cross (not described) the execution squad whiled the time by rolling dice for the clothes of the victims (verse 36; see Psalm 22:18). The victim’s crime was posted on the cross for passersby to read: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (verse 37).
The Mockery Section. Instead of any description of pain and suffering, the narrative spends its time on the mockery of all who saw it. (The narrative is shaped for later Christian hearers, and the mockery is full of double meanings and irony, which those hearers recognize and relish.)
The mockery section is framed by references to the two outlaws crucified on either side of Jesus (“...he was numbered with the transgressors...,” Isaiah 53:12). The outlaws are referred to in verses 38 and 44. (In Matthew there is no conversation between Jesus and the outlaws.) Between these references, we get a list of mocking things said to or about Jesus:
- You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!
- If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.
- He saved others; he cannot save himself.
- He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.
- He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to, for he said, “I am God’s Son.”
What Happened When Jesus Died, 27:45-56, 196 words, 11%.
When Jesus’ death approaches, the narrative takes on a more elevated and awesome tone. The whole cosmos becomes active in the climax. “From the sixth hour, darkness happened over the whole earth until the ninth hour” (verse 45, my translation, avoiding the somewhat domesticated tone of NRSV).
At the ninth hour (middle of the afternoon), Jesus utters his only cry from the cross in Matthew (and Mark). (The death cry in verse 50 is inarticulate.) His words are given in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (verse 46, NRSV), and translated for the Greek-speaking hearers: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Initiated hearers know that this is a quotation from the opening words of what we call Psalm 22, and early Jesus followers certainly recited Psalm 22 (as well as Psalm 69 and Isaiah 53) to fill out their sense of the holy work going on in the Passion.
But whether quoting or not, Jesus utters an agonizing cry of abandonment. That should not be underplayed. The human Jesus is portrayed as feeling wholly abandoned by ALL – even God! THIS is the “cup” that he prayed about in the Garden.
Bystanders think Jesus is calling for Elijah and want to wait for a response. Others offer Jesus more drugged wine on a pole. All to no avail: “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last “ (verse 50).
The divine response to Jesus’ death is a great convulsion of normal reality (verses 51-53).
- The curtain of the temple (in front of the holy of holies) was torn in two, from top to bottom. (The holiest center of the old Jewish order is exposed to the profane world!)
- The earth shook and the rocks were split. (Echoes of Elijah at Mount Sinai, I Kings 19:11-12.)
- Tombs were opened “and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (See Daniel 12:2, “many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake...”
- “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (verse 53). In Antioch some older people probably told about these things.
After the whirlwinds, a human voice utters the last word: “Now when the centurion and those with him ... saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (verse 52). The working soldiers of Rome have recognized the Messiah!!
But Matthew’s overall story continues – all that stuff that began in Galilee.
Many women were there also, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Mary Magdalene and the mothers of three of Jesus’ disciples. We will hear more of them in a couple of days!
The Burial and the Tomb, 27:57-66, 161 words, 9%.
The Burial. In a much quieter narrative, we hear of a rich man named Joseph from the town of Arimathea, “who was also a disciple of Jesus.” (The Greek uses a verb, who was “discipled” by Jesus.) We thought we knew who Jesus’ disciples were, but when need arises, “God will provide.”
This man wants to give Jesus’ body proper care. He has influence with Pilate and gets the body released to him. (Mark, at this point, has Pilate show great surprise that Jesus is already dead, and has the governor verify the death, Mark 15:44. Matthew ignores all that.) Proper care requires wrapping in a “clean” linen cloth (ritually clean). Joseph then laid the body in “his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock” (verse 60). The tomb was then blocked by a great stone rolled in front of it.
Two of our Galilean women are watching all this, across the way from the tomb (verse 61).
The Tomb Guards. The burial is told in all the Gospels. What comes next is Matthew only. The action is set on the day after the crucifixion, “the next day” (verse 62), thus on the Sabbath.
The Jewish leaders never quit! (The Pharisees are included in this action; first appearance in the Passion.) They know the rumors that Jesus would rise from the dead after three days (Jewish way of counting). They don’t trust Jesus’ disciples. Somebody will try to make off with the body and claim God worked a miracle. They also have influence with Pilate and request help. Pilate basically turns them down. No Roman guards will be used. You have temple police; use them to guard the tomb.
And so the chief priests and Pharisees go to the tomb, seal it, and place guards to watch it. Whichever of those guards will be on duty the following morning are in for a really big shock!