Listening to Matthew 2022 + 2023
Part Three, The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ
(Begin with singing Bach’s “O Sacred Head”)
As we begin, it should go without saying by now, but I’ll say it again: This is not History. What we are given is rooted in certain basic facts, but the intention of all the Gospel writers is to interpret history, not report it. In other words what is important is what it means, not how it happened. There are here powerful theological motives for writing. Frequently important texts from the Old Testament will weave in and out shaping the way the story is told to assure us that what happened to Jesus was always God’s plan. It was not some accident or the result of some terrible mistake or the triumph of evil over good. This is God’s plan.
It all begins as each section of Matthew’s Gospel has begun with that formula: “When Jesus had finished these things….” This time another word is slipped into the signal phrase: “When Jesus had finished all these sayings…” Now there is nothing more to say.
Matthew’s desire to show the fulfillment of all the prophets moves Jesus toward his death, and so the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel, knowing the prophets, knows everything that is to take place. This is not because he has some Divine foreknowledge, but because he knows the prophets. That is important to understand. If his Divine Nature interferes with his human nature, something is wrong. What we shall see in Matthew’s Passion is the great dignity of Jesus as Son of Man, Son of God, Messiah, and King. This is Matthew’s statement about who this is, about the identity of Jesus. Around this Matthew clusters some other themes: the responsibility of the people of Israel for the blood of innocent Jesus, the founding of the church by the crucified and risen Jesus, the weakness of Peter and others in contrast to the strength of Jesus. Remember, Matthew is writing this Gospel to encourage and strengthen a church that is troubled by persecution, division, and betrayal. The failure of Peter, the fate of Judas, the failure of Jewish leaders all warn and challenge the Christians to whom he writes.
And so, it begins with Chapter 26. The fourth and final prediction of the Passion begins this section as an introduction. In the Greek, there is a change in verb tense that somehow did not get carried over into most English Translations, but I think it is worth noting. In the three previous predictions of the Passion Matthew uses the future tense. Now it is in the present tense saying: “The Son of Man is being handed over.” There is also great significance to the use of the passive verb “is being”. This is Matthew’s skill in making it clear that this is God’s doing. God is in control. God’s will or plan is being completed. In Matthew’s brilliant construction of this Gospel (Remember I pointed out earlier that some scholars refer to him as an “architect”) there is a “flash back” scene when he tells us that the chief priests and elders of the people gathered together conspiring to kill Jesus. That’s the same gathering with an earlier plot to kill Jesus in the infancy narrative. The Gospels do not agree on dates – another indication that this is not a history report. In Matthew, Jesus dies on Passover, the 13th day of Nisan which fell on a Friday that year creating a theological connection between the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb and the prediction of his death by Jesus. Those leaders want to avoid arresting Jesus during the Passover fearing a riot because at this point the people are on the side of Jesus, and it was believed that the Messiah would appear at Passover. But, since God is in charge, their plan to avoid the Passover arrest does not work out as they planned.
The whole narrative for Matthew is like a great drama. So, after a scene with the gathering of the chief priests and elders, there comes another scene in which a woman with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment pours it over the head of Jesus. The clueless disciples don’t get it, but Jesus declares this as one more indication of what is to come, the anointing of his body for burial. But there is even more to this anointing since the Messiah was to be “The Anointed” one. Matthew affirms the role of Jesus at this point as the Messiah. It’s an affirmation that will be needed as Israel’s expectation of what the Messiah will be crumbles as the passion unfolds. All through Matthew’s Passion we ought to take notice that the women come off much better than the men. This is the first example of that, and there will be more. The women are more loyal and unselfish and certainly braver. The contrast is shocking. In this scene, the men quibble over the legitimacy of a generous act of love, while the woman manifests the true spirit of discipleship. Then the contrast gets sharper between the woman, who cannot qualify as a member of the Twelve because of her gender, and Judas who appears in the next scene bargaining away his teacher for a paltry thirty pieces of silver. She has just lavished her money on a gift for her master. This happens at the home of Simon the Leper, and we know nothing about him. In Matthew, this woman is unnamed. Jesus interprets her action for us as an anointing for his burial. In Matthew’s Gospel, there will be no report of women coming to the tomb to anoint the body, and there is no Nicodemus with spices for the anointing. It happens here.
This flows very naturally into the next scene which in contrast has Judas going into action. The amount of money is only mentioned in Matthew because it is a prophecy fulfillment (Zechariah 11:12). It is a demeaning sum. In the Book of Zechariah, a slave is gored by an ox, this is the amount in reparation to the master of the slave. In other words, he’s only a slave and not worth much. Matthew offers no motive for the treachery of Judas. While some may want to make greed the motive, the little sum of money makes that improbable. Some want to propose that Judas wanted to force Jesus to become the Messiah they wanted to compel some miraculous event. Matthew is simply not interested in that guessing game. I think Matthew is content to let the mystery of evil stand on its own. Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes good people do bad things. There doesn’t need to be some other motive. The Jewish leaders who had wanted to delay the arrest of Jesus lose control with the offer Judas makes to them. Now their plan to wait will not work. Judas is in control of the timing and arrest. This along with the knowledge that Jesus has been showing all along affirms that this is the plan of God unfolding just as God designed not the work of some enemies.
At this point, Matthew has the cast of characters on stage: Jesus, his disciples, his opponents, and the machinery of betrayal and death begins to turn. It is now the eve of the Passover, and with almost majestic solemnity Jesus, preparing for his last Passover gives precise directions to disciples on how and where the Passover will be celebrated. Following the instructions of Jesus, the Passover celebration begins, and the mood is filled with sadness and exaltation. It is also amusing to me that translations into English (like the popular New American Bible) from Matthew’s Greek mention a “table.” One commentary suggests that the translators were influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting. There is no mention of a table in the original Greek. They were lying on cushions as the custom would have suggested. In that culture, any meal is a sacred moment at which a powerful bond of friendship is celebrated. Eating with someone means something beautiful, powerful, and sacred. When Jesus says: “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me is my betrayer” there is a disturbance not because this exposes one of them, but because they have all done that. In that circumstance, they all ate out of a common dish. So, when Jesus predicts that someone will violate that sacred bond of friendship, there is a disturbance that raises a question that can find an echo in every human heart: “Is it I, Lord?” As we shall see, they all betrayed him, not just Judas. Here is an example of a technique in Matthew I mentioned earlier. We know something the characters do not know. For us, the betrayer is revealed as each of the disciples uses the word, “Lord”. When Judas asks his question, he says, “Rabbi.” If they thought Judas was a betrayer, they never would have let him leave the room. In Mark’s Gospel, it is unbelievers who address Jesus by that title. Judas seems to fascinate Matthew, and there is more about Judas here than in the other Gospels.
Matthew assumes that his readers know how a Passover meal is celebrated, so there are little details until Jesus says something out of the ordinary. Imagine how surprised those disciples were when Jesus took the bread as was the custom but makes no mention of the ancient exodus as would normally happen. Instead, he says: “This is my body” leading Matthew’s readers to realize that a new exodus will occur. In the ritual, the second cup was filled with red wine symbolic of the blood of the Passover, the blood of lambs, sprinkled on the doorposts of Israelite homes so that the avenging angel would pass over. Again, the words of Jesus are a surprise. He makes no mention of the past, but speaks of the new covenant and the future. Here is that shift always in the shadow of Matthew’s Gospel. There is a new Israel, a new chosen people, a new covenant, and that people will be established by doing this in his memory. With a promise that they shall all drink the fruit of the vine in the Kingdom, they sing a hymn and depart. With that promise of a great reunion in the Kingdom of Heaven, the meal ends on a very hopeful note. They sing the traditional song that concludes the meal, the Hallel which is Psalms 113 through 118. These are psalms of praise. Taken as a whole, they are songs of deliverance. They are joyful and grateful.
On the way Jesus speaks of their faith being shaken, and Peter speaks up with great bravado. Again, we know something he doesn’t know his promise to never deny Jesus will be broken, and then Peter sleeps. Matthew takes great care to affirm the humanity of Jesus with the Gethsemane scene. Jesus is free to rebel against God’s will, but he learns through prayer to say not my will but yours just as he taught us about prayer. The same three disciples who were with Jesus at the transfiguration are with him now. Then they fell on their faces. Now Jesus falls on his face and they sleep. With terrible irony, Judas is awake and leading a crowd to the garden. On the surface, it would seem that Judas has taken the initiative here and is in charge, but the way Matthew presents this scene, it is Jesus who is in control What happens Jesus could easily have prevented, but he chooses not to do so. Judas calls Jesus “Rabbi” again, and Jesus calls him “friend.” The kiss is really an insult because a student/disciple would and could never be that intimate with their Rabbi/Teacher unless invited to do so. With this detail, Matthew would lead us to see that Judas is repudiating the authority of Jesus. Violence erupts, a sword is drawn, and the disciples flee, and Jesus insists that violence is not the answer nor the greatest power. It is love.
Now begins the second part of Matthew’s passion, the condemnation to death. The charge is a threat to destroy the Temple, and that is serious not because it was God’s dwelling place but because it provided the priestly caste of their livelihood and status. For them, that is most serious. This threat to destroy the Temple was a threat to national identity, self-understanding, and national pride. It was sacrilegious and treasonous. In the end however, the charge is Blasphemy. At this point in Matthew’s Passion narrative, we run right into the fact that this is not history. There are all kinds of details here that are simply in conflict with history. For instance, the Jewish high court would not have convened at night, in a private home on the eve of a major festival. Add to that fact a law which said a capital trial could not be held at night. The only way to reconcile these events is to suppose that there was a quickly assembled inquiry at night with a formal verdict being passed in the morning. It could be argued that this conflict could be explained by the fact that this was extraordinary and required secrecy and haste hence the night trial. However, St Luke has doubts about this because he sets the trial before “the council of the elders of the people” on Friday morning at its regular meeting place. John’s Gospel has no trial of Jesus before a Jewish court. So much for trying to make history out of this.
Matthew wants us to see more than a rather odd and clumsy effort to make Jesus look guilty and set the conditions for Pilate’s verdict. The focus and purpose of this scene is to provide Jesus with the opportunity to declare the purpose of his mission. This helpless victim is gradually revealed as the builder of the New Temple, the Son of God, the Messiah who sits at the right hand of God. The judges become the judged! The whole scene is framed by the report of Peter’s denial in the courtyard. As the cock crows and he remembers what Jesus had said, he recognizes that in spite of his denial he is loved and he weeps. Caiaphas, frustrated at the silence of Jesus asks a question, and we know the answer. “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” Caiaphas ends up doing what Peter cannot do. Yet we could hear what Caiaphas says as bitter sarcasm: “Are you the Messiah”. It’s like saying: “Is this all we get?” The silence of Jesus up to this point is one more example of a refusal to stop what his happening. But he cannot remain silent. So, when the High Priest’s question touches on the truth about Jesus as Messiah, Jesus simply says: “You have said it so.” With that, by assenting to the title Son of God, they have all they need. It’s Blasphemy, and that required the death penalty. Leaving the scene, Matthew switches back to Peter.
When it does come to Peter’s denial, I find it quite interesting that Matthew never mentions his name again. The very prediction of Peter’s denial affirms once again that Jesus is Prophet just as the soldiers mock and taunt him calling him “prophet”. After Peter’s denial, there is another scene in which Jesus is transferred to the Roman Governor. Then it’s back to Judas who, like Peter is overwhelmed with regret and attempts to return the thirty pieces of silver to the leaders confessing that he has betrayed innocent blood. The two betrayers stand in contrast. One repents and weeps. The other does not have repentance because that leads to a change in life. He only has regrets, despairs and then he dies.
Since only the Roman Governor could pass a death sentence, the “authorities” had to find a way to get what they wanted. Blasphemy would mean nothing to the Roman Governor. So, they switch tactics, and with the Roman Governor the charge is changed to suggest treason as Jesus is presented as King. Dreams which have an important part at the opening of Matthew’s Gospel are suddenly again used as the wife of Pilate intervenes because of a dream. She is only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. This whole scene is theological in that it carries the message that the death sentence handed down by Pilate is really the responsibility of the leaders of the people who assume full responsibility resulting in what is stated in verse 43 of chapter 21: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” There is no real historical evidence that there really was a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover time. Luke’s Gospel never mentions this at all. That does not mean it didn’t happen, but the question pushes us to ask what it means. Pilate calls him “famous” The adjective Matthew uses, different from Mark’s is not so dark and threatening. Mark calls him a murderer. Matthew simply says he is famous which makes the choice of the people more interesting to all Christians still tempted to choose someone famous over Christ. Our present-day hero worship of celebrities is the point.
As I said, this whole scene is Matthew’s way of affirming the guilt of the Leaders. This is not something Pilate does, but he does recognize that Jesus could be used as a figurehead by a revolutionary movement. It is important when reflecting upon this and the words: “His blood be upon us and our children” as a theological conviction that Israel as a whole has rejected its Messiah in a final and definitive way and therefore deserves to be deselected as God’s special people. Matthew describes the crowds at this point, and it is important to recall that throughout the Gospel, “the crowds” were always on the brink of acknowledging Jesus as God’s son, but they have not been won over to faith in Jesus. They followed, they marveled, and they praised, but their highest praise, that Jesus is the son of David is inadequate. The crowds never called Jesus “Lord” or “Son of God”, but the disciples do. When thought of this way, as Matthew intended, this is less an attack on Jews as an explanation for the Gentile mission and for the church in which Gentiles are not predominate. This is about rejection not about murder. In a very real way, Israel (the Jewish leaders) hand Jesus over to the Gentiles (the Romans) in an ironic but clearly understood theological statement.
The abuse of Jesus as Matthew presents it leads to the crucifixion. These “soldiers” are not Roman legionaries. They would have been “auxiliaries” not Jewish inhabitants of the area. “Mercenaries” is what we would call them today. They had no love for the Jews, so having an opportunity to abuse the “King of the Jews” was all they needed. They mock the “king”. He gets a scepter (a reed). He gets a crown (of thorns). He gets the royal robe (a soldier’s red cape).
When presenting the crucifixion, Matthew gives us very little by way of details. There is nothing said about nails or pounding. He simply says: “having crucified”. The details given are not about the victim but about the spectators in this Gospel. First there is Simon the Cyrenian. No details come from Matthew. We are not informed that Jesus is too weak. Simon is simply a silent spectator. There are the soldiers who fulfill a prophesy by offering sour wine to Jesus as they split up his clothing. The two thieves, like the soldiers are negative observers. They say nothing in Matthew’s Gospel. Just their placement on the right and left ironically suggests a royal setting. Since these observers have no lines, there are others who do speak, and that gives them some prominence. These are the people passing by who mockingly quote Jesus about the temple coming down and his messianic claim. For Matthew, this is a refrain from the temptation in the desert during which Satan tempts Jesus to draw on supernatural power and save himself. The leaders of the people are there too speaking about and actually quoting what Jesus has said and done. The message from Matthew through this scene is that those who became Christians had to face a challenge from family, friends, and acquaintances. Matthew’s crucifixion scene speaks to this by showing that the indignities Jesus suffered as Messiah were all in accordance with the prophecies. Israel had expected an all-powerful Messiah, but God had sent one who would renounce the use of force against his enemies and submit instead to suffering and death for “the Son of man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The moment of crucifixion is an enthronement: Jesus, crowned, is surrounded by an improbable retinue of two others who die in the same way. The entire crucifixion story as Matthew tells it is one Old Testament Prophecy fulfillment after another. Nearly every detail has an Old Testament reference. The detail of the soldiers casting lots over the clothing of Jesus is just one obvious example. The first readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have understood and connected all these references, images, and details. Of the traditional “Seven Last Words”, Matthew gives us only one: “My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me.” Men and women of faith at that time did not consider it inappropriate to argue with God. Scenes from “Fiddler on the Roof”, if you remember, should confirm that fact. It is not unfaith, but faith that permits Job to call God’s justice into question. What most scholars accept for this moment is that Jesus is praying Psalm 22 which begins by complaining to God. The faith of Jesus is seen by the possessive pronoun, MY. Did Jesus feel abandoned by God? Probably so, why not? Matthew may have wanted to make this point. Separation from God is the price or the consequence of sin. Jesus is paying that price on behalf of others is the point. The offering of the sour wine is refused. It was probably a cruel way of prolonging the agony, and Jesus will have none of that.
Matthew records three events at the moment of the death, an earthquake, splitting of the rocks, and the Temple veil being torn from top to bottom. These are all biblical signs of the end of the world. In a very true sense, the death of Jesus did mark the end of a world without hope and the beginning of new age of God’s Spirit. The tearing of the Temple veil is followed by a Gentile (Roman soldier) confessing faith in Jesus. We can assume that Matthew, is still addressing that community struggling with Gentile inclusion. He sees the torn veil as sign of universal access by all to Jesus. Unique to Matthew’s Gospel is the addition of the men who are with that centurion. They all say those words: “Truly this was the Son of God.” These are Gentiles, not Jews. With this detail, Matthew affirms the place and the faith of Gentiles among the newly chosen People of God. Women are also present leading to the scenes of the burial and the resurrection.
Matthew, as with all the other Gospels describes the burial of Jesus for one reason, to confirm the reality of the death. Remember, in Mark, there is a Centurion dispatched to pierce the side of Jesus to confirm that Jesus is dead. We do not find that in Matthew. He goes straight to the story of Joseph of Arimathea. His action of providing a family tomb is extravagant. Romans threw the bodies of the crucified on the ground as food for scavengers. Jewish law forbids this, but a criminal’s body was not allowed in the family tomb, so there was a common grave. We know from Matthew that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin who probably opposed this death. If he had his own tomb, he was a rich man, and with that detail, another Old Testament prophesy is fulfilled. (Isaiah 53,9 “They made his grave with a rich man.”). The Gospel accounts make it clear that there is something special here, and the clean linen cloth emphasizes that.
Matthew’s concern is not whether or not Jesus is dead, he wants to confront the rumor that the body was stolen. For the leaders, an empty tomb would be an incontestable fact. If it were not empty, the leaders could easily refute any preaching about the resurrection by displaying a corpse. This is a dilemma. So, they come up with that rumor as a way to explain an empty tomb. The placing of the guard is only found in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s one more effort to refute the rumor that the body was stolen. The fact that this rumor existed is in itself an indication that the tomb was empty! Matthew shows the rumor to be false because it is based on the laughable testimony of witnesses who admit to sleeping through the whole event. Now the women come into the scene. There are only two of them this time. There is no way to guess or figure out why two and where the third woman was. Matthew is the only Gospel writer who tells us that the tomb was guarded. There is something ironic here when the Jewish leaders want Pilate to have the tomb guarded. It would seem that they put more stock in a prediction by Jesus that after three days he would rise from the dead. Meanwhile, his disciples seem to have forgotten all about that. Suddenly, these leaders want to join forces with the power of Rome to prevent the resurrection as best they can with a sealed stone and posted sentries. This is all part of Matthew’s effort to confront the rumor of the time that the body was stolen not brought back to life. These guards at the tomb, unlike the ones at the cross do not confess belief. Unbelieving, they became as “dead men.” Yet, like the magi at the beginning of this Gospel, they leave with the same great joy that filled the magi who came to see the new born king. In his appearance to these women, he sends them to his “brothers”. He does not say “disciples” because all is forgiven.
As Matthew draws this to an end, there is nothing about the resurrection itself. All we get is the effects with two points of view: an empty tomb and the disciples meeting the risen Lord. Again, there is an earthquake. It’s the second one. The first one at the moment of his death when Matthew says, “The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” This second earthquake announces another opening. The women went “to see the tomb”. What is important to Matthew is not what they were coming to do, but what happened to them. An angel comes for the first time since the opening of this Gospel. Notice that the angel rolls the stone for them. There is no suggestion that the opening of the tomb is necessary to allow the risen Christ to come out. He has already risen when the angel rolls the stone. The women do not come to see him rising, but to see that he has already risen. The invitation to see the place where he lay is addressed to the same persons who watched the body being placed there, so there is no mistake. It’s not the wrong grave, and the stone was still in place when they got there. Then comes the instructions: to tell and go to Galilee, and with that note, Matthew, once more, emphasis the importance of Galilee making it the place where the story ends because that’s where the ministry of Jesus began.
The presence of Jesus after the resurrection is quite different in each of the Gospels. Yet, it is likely that a common story of the commissioning of the Twelve is shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, each of them relates this event from the perspective of their own theology. The location says something. Mark has it happen in Jerusalem, Luke and John have it happening in Galilee. Matthew, who is the focus for us right now places the appearance where? On a mountain! Several times in Matthew, important events occur on the mountain: the final temptation, the transfiguration, and then there is THE mountain of the Beatitudes. These final verses are unique to Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus comes as the Son of Man to found and commission his church. While he sent his apostles only to the land and people of Israel during his public ministry, he now sends the eleven to all nations, with baptism, not circumcision as the initiation rite, and with his commands, not the Mosaic Law, as the final norm of morality. Here for the only time in this Gospel the address is to “the eleven”, a sad reminder that Judas is lost. What they saw there on that mountain is not given to us. Matthew is more concerned with what is said. All through chapters 24 to 26 “Son of Man” is the title Matthew uses for Jesus. Then he changes in Chapter 27 to “Son of God.” Finally, in this last chapter, the title, “Jesus” is the only one Matthew uses to make certain that there is a connection between the risen Lord and the earthly Jesus. Matthew tells us that when they saw him they worshipped him but some doubted. The word, “doubt” here means hesitation. Jesus approaches them Matthew tells us. He speaks first of himself, then to them with the words of commission, and finally the most comforting and reassuring words in all of the Gospel: “I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Our scientific age and our need for scientific proof for something to be real or true crashes when it comes to the Resurrection and that Empty Tomb. So, we like to soften the reality that we cannot explain by suggesting that the disciples felt that Jesus was still with them in spirit. Add to this the fact that the details presented by all four Evangelists have huge discrepancies: who first discovered that the tomb was empty? When did they do so? How and when was the stone rolled away? Was there one angel or two? Or was there any angel at all? Early Christians were not very concerned about detail accuracy. This is a faith story intended for believers. Non-believers will never be convinced of anything about an empty tomb. This is not so much about Jesus as it is about God. To believers, there is no doubt at all that God could raise Jesus from the grave. The purpose is to ask a question: “What is this story telling us about God?”
The cry of Jesus on the cross is answered. At the same time, we must avoid thinking that the resurrection was just automatic because after all, Jesus was divine. That thinking deprives Good Friday of its significance. If the resurrection was because Jesus was divine, then the whole business of the cross was just an act a charade. Matthew insists that this is God’s act. To make that as clear as possible, Matthew uses the passive voice of the verb: “He has been raised.” The empty tomb is not proof of anything. It is a sign of the resurrection. The resurrection is not a carefully constructed myth but an inexplicable event. The story is only believable because God is believable.