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Last week’s post on Matthew’s Passion narrative concluded as Jesus and his disciples headed to a designated place called Gethsemane. St. John refers to the spot as a large garden; R.T. France translates the word as “an estate.” France comments that the garden scene has a duality of purpose: Jesus’ intense prayer which restores his sense of purpose and determination in contrast to the deterioration of three closest disciples (Peter, James, and John are singled out as the only three to witness Jesus at prayer) who, like the others, will ultimately abandon him as Jesus had predicted. (p. 1001)
Matthew elongates Jesus’ prayer from Mark’s account into three distinct invocations that “if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me; and yet not as I wish but as you wish.” France’s commentary is powerful and moving. That Jesus prays three times for release from his mission but remains faithful to his Father is a straightforward parallel to the three denials of the lesser man Peter. But until Chapter 26 Matthew has not revealed much of the inner stress of Jesus’ mission; he has been portrayed as in command throughout, even in the Temptation in the desert. In the Passion narrative, however, Matthew allows his readers—themselves under great stress to break faith—to see just how much fidelity to discipleship cost Jesus. This anguish will continue through till 27:46 when Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus is arrested of his own will, with no attempt to flee and no attempt by his followers to save him except for the pathetic swing of a sword that cost a slave his ear. Jesus addresses his captors that their “success” at his capture came about “so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Since we began the Gospel of Matthew back in Advent, I have not much commented on Matthew’s use of the phrase “according to the Scriptures” or a close parallel. Matthew understands Jesus as the fulfillment of the entire body of Hebrew Scripture, the New Moses who will bring the law and the prophets to dramatic fulfillment, as we will see as the narrative unfolds.
There are two trial vignettes, though as France observes wryly, there is little doubt in Matthew’s or the reader’s mind about which of the two actually mattered. Candidly, Matthew wants to lay the blame for Jesus’ unjust death squarely at the feet of the Jewish leadership. His theological reason for doing so is his contention that the Judaism of his day—which had publicly expelled its Christian brethren—was a bankrupt shadow of itself that needed to be discredited; Jesus and his followers constituted the New Israel. Matthew is the only evangelist to record Judas’s unexpected remorse and suicide (a dramatic difference from Luke’s tale of denouement in Acts 1:17), as if to show that even an accursed traitor showed more insight than Jewish leadership.
The climax of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin is the direct question put to him by the high priest, and Jesus’ reply. Technically speaking, to claim messiahship was not itself a capital offense. But in his response to the question of whether he was the messiah, Jesus answers …” from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Even though the exact meaning of the apocalyptic term “Son of Man” remains unclear even today, in this context the statement can only be understood as Jesus’ announcement that he is divinely involved in the cataclysmic events of the end of time. Jesus did establish a claim to divinity and a dramatic vindication after his death.
The far-flung Roman Empire had a considerable wealth of experience in dealing with native populations it controlled by conquest. In Jesus’ day, a Roman governor on the frontier, such as Pontius Pilate, probably had little concern about religious squabbles, in this case between a Galilean frontiersman and the religious aristocrats of the city. What Roman governors did fear was word of insurrection and costly public disorder reaching the emperor’s palace in Rome. When Jesus is brought to Pilate, his Jewish accusers do not accuse Jesus for his religious claims, but rather reword the charge in a way that would get the governor’s attention and prompt him to crucify Jesus, alleging that Jesus claimed to be a king in his own right, the King of the Jews, an implicit assault upon Roman authority.
In Matthew’s Gospel Pilate is something of a Hamlet figure (and his wife a Lady Macbeth.) Matthew 27:18 indicates that Pilate saw the matter as one of “jealousy” of the chief priests, and he is reluctant to crucify Jesus on what he knows. Casting about for a solution, he offers the release of Jesus as his annual Passover good will gesture. In Matthew’s context, Pilate may have suspected that the people in the streets—in the holy city in great numbers due to the Passover—would shout down the Sanhedrin in favor of a man they presumably admired enough to make the elders jealous. Pilate also presumed that Barabbas’ reputation would sour any thought of selecting this notorious prisoner over Jesus.
Amid Pilate’s turmoil, he receives a message from his wife, who reports a troubling dream about Jesus, suggesting that Pilate’s household had some previous information about the action of the Sanhedrin. Matthew is the only evangelist to record this domestic intervention on behalf of Jesus’ innocence, and it may be part of his grand strategy to illustrate that even the governor’s Gentile wife thought Jesus was innocent. It is worth noting that the other dreams in this Gospel are divine messages to Joseph to take Mary as his wife and to the Magi to avoid Herod’s machinations.
Unfortunately, the “crowd” has been turned by the leaders into a pro-Barabbas and anti-Jesus throng. Pilate, in his most remembered gesture, washes his hands and denies responsibility for Jesus’ death, to which “all the people replied, ‘His blood is on us and on our children.’” These word, of course, have had a long and tragic impact throughout the Christian era. Matthew’s Gospel was written about a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and contemporary thinking seems to be that Matthew had the sufferings of “our children” in mind as victims of the fall of Jerusalem. Early Christian theology interpreted the fall of Jerusalem as punishment of the Jews for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. Vatican II and twentieth century popes have vigorously denounced accusations of deicide and antisemitism based upon Gospel texts, particularly from Matthew and John.
Jesus is cruelly tortured and manhandled by Roman soldiers before taking his cross. France answers his own question about why the torture and humiliation of Jesus is put forward by Matthew in grisly detail. First and foremost, Matthew wants to depict Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah 50:6 as the suffering servant who gave his back “to those who beat me.” The verbal taunts of the soldiers are statements of fact, “All hail, king of the Jews.” And most powerfully, these tormenters will be the first to say, “Truly, this was the Son of God” at the moment of Jesus’ death.
Hanging upon the cross Jesus rejects the offer of “wine mixed with bile.” The explanation for such an offer seems to have been the potion’s narcotic effect. Crucified individuals might linger for several days. Jesus’ rejection is symbolic of his commitment to drink only his Father’s cup. After his anguished cry in the darkness, Jesus dies, unleashing an incredible stream of events of which the earthquake was the least remarkable. Matthew records that the veil of the sanctuary of the Temple was torn from top to bottom; the symbolism needs no commentary. But then he records that “tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
What an event! I never notice an eyebrow raised in my congregation when this text is read at Mass, nor have I ever heard a homilist address the opening of tombs and the rising of the dead on Good Friday. Matthew is the only evangelist to describe this—there is no mention in other Christian, Jewish, or secular sources to confirm such a thing. So, we must draw our conclusions from the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel and interpret these lines in his apocalyptic way as a projection of what will come for those who remain faithful. Jesus, in his description of himself to the chief priest at his trial as the divine figure of the Son of Man who is to come with endless life was right all along. The opening of Good Friday tombs is a prelude to Matthew’s description of another tomb to be opened in even more dramatic fashion three days hence.