The Passion of St. Matthew is read on Palm Sunday during the A Cycle, and given that Palm Sunday is just two weeks away, I thought I would take this Tuesday and next Tuesday to look at the text. Every one of the four Passion narratives is unique, and this can certainly be said for Matthew’s. The full text of Matthew’s Passion narrative runs from 26: 14 through 27: 66; the entire text is included in the Palm Sunday liturgy at the USCCB website here. [Discussion of the April 5 Gospel is included in the previous post.]
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.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: FROM ST. JOHN
THE THREE LESSONS OF FAITH
MARCH 19, MARCH 26, APRIL 2
The present order of the Mass, including the Lectionary, was arranged at about the same time as the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. In the revised format of the sacraments, Baptism of Adults, and minors of the age of reason, takes place at the Easter Vigil after a year of preparation known as the catechumenate. The three Sundays prior to Holy Week/Palm Sunday are dedicated to the “scrutinies,” the final public examination of the candidates before the solemn observance of the Last Supper, Passion, and Resurrection of the Lord.
For these three “scrutiny Sundays” the Church has designated three lengthy and profound texts from the Gospel of John. Next week features John 4: 5-42, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The Fourth Sunday of Lent proclaims John 9: 1-41, Jesus’ healing of the man born blind; the Fifth Sunday features John 11: 1-45, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Each of these texts begins with an incident (an encounter at Jacob’s well, Jesus restoring a blind man’s sight, the death of Lazarus.) Each narrative follows a pattern of originating in confusion and ending in the light of full revelation of truth. All three episodes occur in daylight; the sun, or sunlight, is a metaphor for God’s revelation. By contrast, Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night; Judas, singled out as the traitor at the Last Supper, leaves the table “at night.” The position of the sun is a peculiar characteristic of St. John.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well brings to a climax the revelation that Jesus’ work of redemption is universal. Relations between Jews and Samaritans were not good; there was some element of risk for Jews to wander about in Samaria. The woman herself emphasizes the differences, telling Jesus that “our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [Gerizim]; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus’ reply, "Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” was probably disconcerting in a radical sort of way, both to the woman and to Jewish leaders who probably had a good idea of what Jesus preaching.
This Gospel is included in the scrutinies because it is a case study in the gradual opening eyes of faith. The titles alone are instructive. In the opening scene, the woman addresses Jesus with the colloquialism of “hey you there.” The more Jesus speaks to her, her tone improves to “sir” to “prophet” to “Messiah” to “the Christ” to finally “the savior of the world.” Another reason for the inclusion of this text on Sunday are the numerous references to water: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Clearly a Baptism/sacramental motif is at play here.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent is rich in themes, beginning with the disciples’ original question, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?," reflecting a popular view of evil and guilt in that day. But again, drawing on the metaphor of sun and light, Jesus relies that "neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
The blind man’s healing is a story of two entities heading in opposite directions. The man born blind, now healed, comes to greater understanding of Jesus throughout the day, much like the Samaritan woman. His courage—one might say his swagger—improves throughout the day until, after his expulsion from the temple, he seeks out Jesus to make a full confession of faith: " ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him.”
The healed man’s faith was costly in one sense, because of the opposition of Jewish leaders to Jesus, specifically for performing a healing on the Sabbath. Things had come to a sad point where the wonder of a charitable work—a miraculous healing, no less—was condemned on the shaky grounds that the holy day had been violated. Jesus had indicated to the Samaritan woman that a day was coming when God would be worshipped universally in Spirit and truth; the stagnant parochialism of his own contemporary Jewish worship did not escape Jesus’ notice or wrath. In this narrative, the more that is learned by Jewish leaders about the event of the healing, and the more that the healed man hailed Jesus to the point of ridiculing temple leaders for their theological density, the hearts of the priests were hardened to the point that they expelled a fellow son of Israel from the holy place.
The third Gospel sequence is the raising of Lazarus. This miracle occurs in the context of intense anger directed toward Jesus, as we saw in the preceding text of the man born blind. The disciples, in fact, upon learning of Lazarus’ death, are afraid of the danger of high visibility of Jesus around Jerusalem (and, it goes without saying, fearful for their own skins.) "Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?" Jesus returns to the theme of light and the urgency to act now despite the dangers. "Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him."
The theological thrust of this Gospel text is trust that belief in Jesus is the key to eternal life. The characters in this story—Martha and Mary in particular--are not unbelievers, but like many of their time they believe in an apocalyptic glory after death, not the guarantee of life in the here and now. The key passage is Martha’s exchange with Jesus regarding her brother’s future. Martha said to him, "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world."
Jesus, then, is the Lord of life in the here and now, and he demonstrates this by raising Lazarus from the dead. It is worth noting that John further emphasizes the power of Jesus over death with an often-missed parallel detail. Lazarus comes out of the tomb bound and tied by the burial cloths; by contrast, on Easter Sunday, when Peter and John look into Jesus’ tomb, the burial cloths are neatly folded and stored.
The raising of Lazarus is the final public act in Jesus’ ministry in the narrative of St. John. This Gospel proceeds to the “Book of Glory” which includes the Last Supper Discourse, The Pasion, and the Resurrection. Liturgically speaking, the Church assigns in the A Cycle the reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew to Palm Sunday on April 9, and the next Sunday Gospel blog post at the Café will go up on Tuesday, April 4.
My home communications system was down on Monday and Tuesday. I hope to have this week's Sunday Gospel post on line by Thursday evening.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 17: 1-9
SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
USCCB Link to all three readings
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him."
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
"Rise, and do not be afraid."
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
"Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
As in the case last Sunday with the Temptation narrative, this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the Transfiguration, has a long history of observance on the Second Sunday of Lent, with St. Matthew’s text the assigned annual reading until 1970 when the three-year cycle was initiated.
When I first addressed this text as a student in 1972 there was considerable mystery surrounding this text in terms of its meaning and setting. As the USCCB website acknowledges in its own commentary, some Scripture scholars believe that the experience on the mountain is a post-Resurrection event read backward into the pre-Good Friday narrative. That is not the consensus belief, but this account which appears in the three synoptic Gospels is as mysterious as any.
For reasons not clear to me, the Sunday selected text is missing the first three words from Matthew 17:1, “after six days,” even though the phrase appears in the USCCB’s own online Bible, the 2011 NABRE or New American Bible Revised Edition. One might ask, why the fuss over three missing words? The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1991) makes the connection between the missing text and Exodus 24: “After Moses had gone up [to Sinai] a cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled upon Mount Sinai. The cloud covered it for six days, and on the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.” From another source, our in-house scholar, Dr. France writes that the omitted phrase is “an unusual precise time-connection in Matthew, which suggests a deliberate linking of the two pericopae [segments] 16:24-28 and 17:1-8….” (p. 641)
To follow France’s analysis, what did happen in 6:24-28 that opens the door to understanding Sunday’s text? The preceding text is a lesson on discipleship offered by Jesus to his close followers. He speaks of the Son of Man coming with his angels in the Father’s glory, “repaying everyone according to his conduct.” (16:27) Then he adds this saying, “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (16:28) Then, six days later, Jesus selects only some disciples, Peter, James, and John, to witness Jesus transfigured or changed into glory as he will appear universally at the end of time.
Peter, James, and John are participating in the glorious future while struggling with an angst-ridden present. We sometimes say that a catastrophe like a massive earthquake has taken on “biblical proportions,” in that the catastrophe is of a magnitude to compare it with the chaos of the last days: a present moment that connects us to the ultimate end. This is the base meaning of “apocalyptic literature.” Sunday’s reading has a heavy apocalyptic tone. For a scholarly understanding of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, see the Lutheran scholar David E. Aune’s lengthy essay “Understanding Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic” (2005).
France writes that the only comparable event in Matthew’s Gospel occurs at the Baptism of Jesus, where the visible glory of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit are accompanied to the exact words of the Transfiguration: “This is my beloved son….” Three things are conveyed on Sunday’s mountain: Jesus is more than merely a human teacher; (2) his association with Moses and Elijah demonstrate his messianic role; and (3) the voice from heaven declares his identity as the Son of God. This mountain event is directed to the three disciples; they are not merely witnesses to a private communion between Jesus and his Father. In fact, when the Father speaks, he is addressing himself to them, not Jesus. If there is any doubt that the three disciples are at the center of this piece, Jesus charges them to keep the vision quiet for the moment but to proclaim it later, after the Resurrection, a time when there will be great confusion among just about everyone. Matthew actually records how the guards at the tomb were bribed and told to report that the disciples had stolen the body.
This Gospel, then, can be absorbed in two distinct settings. In its textual form, Sunday’s reading describes the Transfiguration as an apocalyptic event for the three intimate disciples as they absorbed more of Jesus’ teachings on the cost of discipleship. We are now well along in Matthew’s Gospel (the Transfiguration opens Chapter 17) and the looming specter of the Jerusalem showdown must have weighed heavily upon their shoulders.
But then there is the setting of the composition, a half-century later. There is general agreement that Matthew’s entire Gospel was directed to his own local church, in a setting where the relationship of Jewish/Christian believers who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Jews who looked upon their former compatriots as traitors was taking on the tenor of an “ugly family feud” as the NJBC puts it. Some form of the Birkat ha-Minim (or curse of heretics) was composed around 80 A.D. and Christian Jews were read out of their former families in faith.
It seems fitting, then, that Matthew would include in his Gospel a text that would restore the dignity of the Jewish roots of Christian converts by the inclusion of Moses and Elijah in this dramatic divine apparition of Jesus’ identity. And, this glory which shone forth from Jesus with such intensity that the disciples could hardly stand it would come as strong encouragement to remain faithful disciples, hopeful of the day when that glory would be theirs.