The setting of the Passion is the Passover in Jerusalem, when Jews from around the Mediterranean gathered with the populace of the Holy City to celebrate Israel’s feast of deliverance from Egypt. One of the best descriptions of Jerusalem at Passover can be found in a rather obscure 1984 work, Jesus and Passover, where Anthony Saldarini describes the religious and political atmosphere of the holy season. The population of Jerusalem swelled from its normal 10,000 to around 100,000 for the feast. So many lambs were barbecued that the city was stifled with smoke. The butchering of these lambs was undertaken by the priests in the temple in the afternoon before the feast. St. John’s Gospel is the only one to clearly assert that the Last Supper was not the Passover, and thus in John’s account Jesus on the cross is lanced by the soldier’s spear at the very time the priests were lancing sacrificial lambs in the temple.
One can understand a sense of urgency among temple leaders to have Jesus discredited in the worst way at a time when 90% of the city was peopled with Jews outside the holy city, individuals who were now being exposed to Jesus’ teaching and message for the first time. The idea that these visitors would return to the hinterlands with positive response to Jesus and his New Law was not a comforting one to traditionalists. The three synoptic Gospels are clear that Jesus had come to Jerusalem for a showdown with his Jewish enemies; the Palm Sunday parade is evidence enough of that. Matthew writes with animus, since his audience was Jewish Christians expelled from mainstream Judaism around 80 A.D.
The Lectionary narrative of the Palm Sunday Gospel begins at 26:14, a transaction between Judas Iscariot and “the chief priests,” for the ignominious 30-pieces of silver. Judas is negotiating with the highest religious authorities here, official Israel, so to speak; the ultimate treachery against Jesus is not the result of a radical fringe. Matthew will consistently put the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews throughout the Passion. Matthew will depict Pontius Pilate (and Pilate’s wife, no less!) as very squeamish about the tactics of the high priests. The motives of Judas are discussed at some length by R.T. France (977-78), who finally concludes that the true intentions of Judas are lost to history. It is intriguing that Matthew records Judas’ profound grief after Jesus’ sentence of death—when he threw the coins back at his conspirators and then promptly hanged himself. One wonders if Matthew’s treatment of Judas has the purpose of placing blame for the crucifixion exclusively on Jewish leaders, Judas having repented and despairing of his life.
In my review of recent scholarly literature, I was surprised to see considerable new debate about the precise timing of the Last Supper—specifically, did Jesus celebrate the Passover ritual one night early? Matthew’s narrative portrays the Last Supper is a Passover meal. The problem seems to be an accurate determination of the calendar. You may come across varying opinions in your own reading and teaching guides. That Jesus died the day after the meal is generally accepted. The Passover dinner rite was a family event, and since Chapter 4 of Matthew the disciples have been Jesus’ Family.
The dinner scene in Matthew begins with a jarring and unsettling announcement from Jesus that “one of you will betray me.” A Passover was ritualized, and Jesus has immediately gone off script to deal with a matter needing immediate attention before other sacred deeds could be consummated. Jesus affirms that it is Judas, though the latter did not leave the table or the upper room, quite unlike John’s account of Judas rushing off into the dark of night. Given Jesus’ prediction of the punishments awaiting the betrayer, “it would be good for that man if he had not been born,” Judas’ reaction is surprisingly sanguine. It is worth noting here that in truth all the disciples will abandon him that night, some in rather dramatic fashion.
Jesus continues the meal with the formal blessings and toasts, but he deviates again from tradition to break bread and invite his disciples to take and eat his body. He invites them to likewise share the cup which is his blood, “the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus adds an interpretive comment: “…from now on I will never drink from this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the Kingdom of my Father.”
Something to bear in mind while reading Matthew’s Passion is its eschatological or apocalyptic direction (i.e. oriented toward the future.) In Matthew’s Last Supper narrative, Jesus consoles and encourages his disciples with a promise of glory after his death—then they will share the fruit of the vine again. In 26:64, testifying before the Sanhedrin, Jesus declares that “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Even more spectacular is what Matthew records at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the future immediately becomes the present. (27: 52-53)
However, after the Supper Jesus and his disciples turned to the more immediate future of what the disciples will do that every night when, as Jesus puts it, “the sheep of the flock will be scattered” when the shepherd is stricken. Even in this grim post-meal discourse, Jesus interjects a note of futuristic hope, “But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter, whose comprehension of Jesus’ plan was dull at best, makes his infamous claim to be faithful to the end. In fairness to Peter, “All the disciples also said the same thing.” In a matter of hours, the “Passover family” will deny knowing the father.