The Passion of Our Lord – Matthew 27:11-54
St. Paul writes, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” I Cor. 15:3-4. The First Letter to the Corinthians was written around 50-55 CE, that is, about two decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. Paul’s testimony shows that already a tradition of the Passion was developed, “in accordance with the scriptures.” The Passion narratives in the four gospels searched the Old Testament for information to make sense of the death of Jesus, none more so than Matthew. By the time Matthew’s gospel was written towards the end of the first century, the tradition had been enlarged to such a degree that a complete narrative was then handed on to the church through the ages.
The Passion narratives in the gospels are composed of materials that come from different sources, to which “Matthew has added legendary material of all kinds,” according to Bultmann. There are Old Testament interpretations and traditions that are all very late and were not intended to be historical documents. “The Passion narrative is more strongly coloured with legendary material.” The only event that has historical credibility is the crucifixion. After the arrest of Jesus all his followers went into hiding and could not possibly be eye-witnesses to succeeding events. Everything that comes after the arrest is a theologically shaped literary composition. The followers of Jesus had to find an explanation for what happened to him. The earliest oral tradition looked to the Old Testament for answers. Decades later, there were attempts at narratives that would shape the understanding and beliefs of the early Church. Under this impetus, gospels were beginning to appear. Mark was the first, and was influenced by the traditions that were before him, as were the other Evangelists. Often, the various stories that made up the whole were based on the application of Old Testament prophecies rather than on actual history. Other stories were legends created to respond to the doctrinal and apologetic motifs of the early Church. The stories were joined together by the editorial processes of the Evangelist themselves and later redactors or copyists.
Each of the four Passion narratives represents the theological and doctrinal views of the Evangelists and the Christian communities they represented. The Passion itself is a theology of history rather than an historical account of each of the events of the last days of Jesus. This theology of history is the vehicle that bears the message of Jesus and the Church from then to now. To hear the message of the story of redemption one must listen to the voice of theology as this is presented in the New Testament.
The following study is based on the reading from Matthew 27: 11-54. This section begins with the trial of Jesus before Pilate and ends with the crucifixion. The trial before Pilate is reported differently in each gospel and shows how doctrinal and apologetic motifs shape the content of the narrative. In Matthew, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus simply says, “You say so.” Apart from that Jesus says nothing to defend himself. Matthew concludes “the governor was greatly amazed.” Matthew makes an attempt to portray Pilate as a sympathetic governor. The actual fact is that Pilate was a brutal governor who would not have concerned himself with a Jewish prisoner. The story of Barabbas is a legend that has been inserted by each Evangelist for purposes congruent with his own point of view. The legend might have originally been motivated by the name, for Barabbas means “son of Abbas,” or “son of the father.” Here it is Pilate who asks whether they want him to release Jesus Barabbas instead of Jesus. There was no Roman tradition of amnesty for prisoners on days of Jewish festivals. No Roman governor would release a condemned prisoner. The demand from the crowds would have no effect on them. In any case, crowds would never be permitted at a Roman trial. The Evangelists, beginning with Mark, found in this legend a way to accommodate Roman authorities. Matthew is the only one to show Barabbas’ first name as “Jesus,” that is, “Jesus, son of the father.” The high priest encouraged the crowds to demand the release of Barabbas who is described simply as a “notorious prisoner.” Matthew intends to use this legend of Barabbas to place the burden of conviction on the Jews. Pilate as the Roman governor must have in mind first and foremost the interest of Rome. The fate of a Jewish prisoner was of no consequence to him.
Other important legends played into this, the dream of Pilate’s wife and the washing of his hands. Both of these legends absolve Pilate of guilt. While the trial was in progress, Pilate’s wife sent him word “Have nothing to do with this innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Matthew uses Pilate’s wife as a neutral observer and witness to the innocence of Jesus. When he delivers Jesus to the Jews, he is convinced that he has delivered an innocent man to them. He washed his hands publicly, in view of the crowds, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Not only is Jesus innocent according to Pilate’s wife; Pilate now announces his own innocence. He and Rome are thereby declared innocent of the fate of Jesus. Any guilt for his death is upon the Jews. This is confirmed in verse 25. “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” This verse is motivated by Pilate’s declaration of his own innocence and belongs to the legend of the washing of hands. The statement has no basis in fact. It serves Matthew’s purpose of absolving Rome of any guilt in the death of Jesus. Pilate then released Barabbas and handed over Jesus to the crowds “to be crucified,” just as the crowds demanded in 27: 22-23. The fate of Jesus is now completely in the hands of the Jews. It was important for Matthew’s audience to see that the divine submits to human judgment and punishment. It is not meant to cause distress in the church, but rather to encourage them to face persecution with the same sense of mission, courage and faith as Jesus did. Catholic Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan refers to the trail in Mark as “consummate theological fictions.” One must hear the message not only in the fiction, for that is all that is before us; one must hear the message beyond the fiction. Each story has an excess of meanings, and there is a redemptive meaning here for all who have ears to hear. Certainly these stories are compositions and reconstructions, and Crossan offers this caution. “If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.”
The incident reported in 27:27-31 is not historical fact. But Matthew has placed that verse in the mouths of the Jewish leaders, and he has a purpose for this. His audience is Hellenistic Christian, Jewish Christian and non-Jewish such as the Canaanite woman and the Roman Centurion. His message at the early stage of the church was anti-Jewish as he wanted his church to be theologically and doctrinally different from Judaism. In the history of the interpretation of this verse, it has been repeatedly misused for anti-Semitic slander and prejudice. This was never Matthew’s intention. Crossan calls this incident a “magnificent theological fiction.” Nevertheless, the incident needs to be explored to uncover its purpose in this context. Jesus has just been declared innocent by Pilate, yet he is subjected to maltreatment by Roman soldiers right in their barracks. The mock forms regal garments, crown and scepter seem to be an attempt by the church to point to the redeemer being despised and rejected. The meaning beyond the mockery is that the mockery itself is a revelation of the kingship of God as this is presented in the person of Jesus. One of the functions of fiction is to reveal the human condition as a state of existential anxiety in the face of meaninglessness and death. Anxiety motivates the search for meaning. Theological fiction subscribes to that view also while at the same time it presents a framework within which the quest is carried out and answers revealed. The mocking and spitting arose as a reflection on Isaiah 50:6 and Psalm 22 and then became embedded in the Passion story. The message throughout the history of the church is that the redeemer suffered at the hands of sinful people; that he “became obedient unto death” and that was part of the price to be paid for the redemption of the world.
On the way to the crucifixion, the soldiers compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for Jesus. Since the earliest traditions do no normally name persons it must be assumed that this incident has been created for a specific purpose. It lends vivid imagery to the procession. It creates the impression of an eye-witness account. Cyrene, an important Roman city, is a long distance away, on the very northern coast of Libya. The early Church might have been saying that the story of Jesus is not only a local story. It reaches far beyond Jerusalem. Matthew is teaching his young Church that at times it will be necessary for strangers to share in their suffering. Again, let it not be lost to sight that it is the soldiers who recruit Simon to bear the cross. Fiction often operates at an unconscious depth that when brought to light reveals the truth behind it. The enemies of Jesus by their own actions confirm the identity and mission of Jesus. Perhaps even Matthew was unaware of how deeply the divine was embedded in this story as the one who was enabling the movement of redemption. The divine knows no strangers, only seekers. Seekers will be brought into the church and will bear the cross as everyone else. The missionary enterprise of Matthew 28 will bear this out.
Before the crucifixion, the soldiers offered Jesus wine to drink which he refused because of its taste. Mark and Matthew differ as to what substance was in the wine. Again, Matthew is demonstrating that Jesus assumes the pain of sin in its completeness. Jesus has been presented as the divine, the Son of God, the Messiah throughout the gospel. He does not need to take a pain reliever for his suffering. Then it says simply, “they crucified him.” There is no special description here of the process of crucifixion. It was not necessary. Matthew’s audience would have been completely aware of the nature of a crucifixion. A simple sign was placed on the cross: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then the soldiers sat down and kept watch.The narrative then reports that two bandits were crucified on either side of Jesus, by reason of the interpretation of Psalm 22. It indicates that the crucifixion of Jesus was of no greater importance to the Romans than the two obscure bandits. The ordinariness of the event seemed settled until people passing by began to deride Jesus. Immediately, Jesus stood out from among the three crucified as one deserving attention. Again, according to Matthew’s method, strangers point to Jesus. The deriders said, “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.” It is clear that the bystanders have no idea why Jesus was condemned and crucified. They put an old charge in his mouth that had nothing to do with his trial. Pilate himself found nothing of which to convict him. Yet there is a purpose to the taunts of the bystanders. They prove the historical fact of the crucifixion! Matthew has constructed this scene carefully to show that it is not the followers of Jesus who are bearing testimony to the crucifixion. They are nowhere to be found in any case. The enemies of Jesus are presented as eye-witnesses who can testify to what happened. Among those enemies Matthew names “the chief priests also, along with the scribes and the elders,” who were there as part of the crowd that was mocking Jesus. Both the Jewish authorities and the anonymous crowds witness the crucifixion. Even the bandits mocked him. 27:44. In Matthew’s view the sacred and secular worlds conspired against the divine. In consequence of this, the church will be seen as a gathering of strangers and exiles standing against these authorities as a characteristic of Christian life.
The scene then shifts to the events surrounding the death of Jesus as presented in 27:45-54. The upheaval in nature suggests that this event has the character of a theophany as was seen oftentimes in the Old Testament. The curtains in the temple were torn, dead were raised, something that would also take place at the resurrection of Jesus. As with other scenes in the Passion narrative, the death scene is also a legend shaped by reflection on Psalm 22 among others, and created for the purpose of developing a redemptive history in which Matthew’s congregation is able to participate. Bultmann calls this gospel a Catechism or Teaching Book. Matthew is teaching his congregation that the death of Jesus brings in the end times when those in the graves will be restored to life and a new world will come into being. As with other gospels, Matthew is teaching that history comes to an end in the death of Jesus and that the church exists in an eschatological age. History has become eschatology.
As darkness descended upon the world, the selfsame darkness that existed before the creation of the world in Genesis, Jesus began to speak with a loud voice. But this time it is not the “Let there be!” of Genesis. This time, Jesus cries out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew has repeatedly presented Jesus as the Son of God, and as the Son of Man through whom God will inaugurate the eschatological age. The cry of abandonment from the cross cannot be understood from a point in history. It is legend, not history, and only as legend can it be understood. Matthew has to make it clear to his audience that it is God alone who has initiated these events, and this he does my putting the words of Psalm 22 into the mouth of Jesus, “My God, my God!” The invocation of God makes God present. Matthew has Jesus testify that this is a divine work, that God alone is creating the world anew as a place where redemptive life is possible. The onlookers did not understand the cry of Jesus. They believed that he was calling upon Elijah to rescue him. Let it be remembered that it is Matthew who is putting words into the mouths of the onlookers. He uses this means to tell his story. Even this thought of the onlookers subscribes to the idea that the events of the death of Jesus have their origin in the Old Testament. Malachi 4:5-6, says, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the world with a curse.” At this point Jesus cried out loudly again and then died.
At the moment of the death of Jesus the curtains of the temple were torn in two. These curtains, according to Exodus 26:31-35, served the special purpose of preserving the integrity and sanctity of the holy of holies, the throne room of the divine to which John was brought in Revelation 1. The curtain itself symbolized sacred space. Matthew is teaching that henceforth the temple is no longer the sacred space of the divine. Rev. 21:22.The death of Jesus brought the divine from hiding. It is now in the open, and it will be present wherever the cross exists. In the death of Jesus the divine manifests itself to the world. That is why the death of Jesus is accompanied by signs that are related to theophany in the Old Testament, such as Exodus 19. The death of Jesus, like his birth, is the new theophany; that is why “he shall be called Emmanuel.”
“The earth shook and the rocks were split.” The death of Jesus affected heaven and earth and under the earth. The world was plunged into darkness. The earth shook and the rocks were split, and the earthquakes so severe that graves were opened and “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised to life.” The idea here is that nothing in all of nature remains untouched with the Lord brings about the new creation. To this is added, as if by way of recollection, “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” It is clear that this verse does not belong here. It must have been part of a resurrection story that has been placed here because of its affinity with the rest of the legend.
The centurion and others there exclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s son.” Matthew has often used the stranger and the outsider to proclaim this message. He was introducing strangers and outsiders to a new way of life, a new faith. To proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God has been his one and only objective. He has brought his readers on a theological and spiritual adventure, beginning with three strangers coming from a distant land to see the child and to worship him.
He has welcomed many strangers along the way, and made them a part of his story. In the end he presented Jesus as himself a stranger dying in the midst of strangers and foreigners for the salvation of the world.