Sixth Sunday in Lent
Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday
April 17, 2011
Liturgy of the Palms
Liturgy of the Passion
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this reading, but there is available a
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this reading, but there is available a
The passion narrative in Matthew takes up chapters 26 and 27. After Jesus is arrested the Jewish leaders, who deliver Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem, question him. Our Lectionary reading recounts the story of this Roman trial and execution of Jesus.
The Lectionary reading may be divided into two parts as follows:
1. Jesus in
court (vv. 11-31)
Even though Jesus is at the center of this drama, he is for the most part silent and passive. It's everyone else who speaks and acts, but they are all involved in one or another saying or doing something to Jesus. Jesus is in the hands of human beings, vulnerable, suffering, and silent.
Jesus in Pilate's Court (vv. 11-31)
The focus of this part of the narrative is on Pontius Pilate, who was the Roman procurator or governor of Judea from AD 26-36 (see Roman Rulers of Palestine). Matthew portrays Pilate as a weak and vacillating official. The story of Pilate's interrogation of Jesus is told in four parts:
1. Jesus standing before Pilate (vv. 11-14)
In the first part (vv. 11-14) we find Jesus standing before Pilate. Matthew wants us to see the irony of that scene. In Matthew 26:64 Jesus had told the Jewish leaders that they would see "the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power coming on the clouds of heaven," that is, as judge. And in 28:18 the resurrected Lord will say, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." But now Jesus is standing while Pilate is seated on the judgment seat. Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. Jesus says, "You say so." Jesus intentionally is giving an ambiguous answer. He neither denies nor affirms the accusation. Pilate himself must make a decision on that question. He after all is supposed to be the judge. But as Matthew wants us to see, Pilate fails miserably as a judge. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus does not come out and claim the title Messiah or king. Others must make a decision about his own person on the basis of what they see him doing and saying.
Pilate is getting nowhere and asks, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?" Still no answer. Words would be useless at this point. Whatever he says, his enemies will use it against him. Would this be a situation where the principle of Matthew 7:6 applies? In that passage in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you." Matthew wants to show that Jesus himself is setting an example to Christians in Matthew's time who are persecuted, as Jesus had said earlier in the Gospel when he sent out his disciples on their mission. Jesus said, "You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say" (10:18-19). Now he himself is dragged before a governor and handed over to him by the Jewish leaders.
In the previous chapter when Jesus was before Caiaphas and the chief priests, he remained silent there as well. Now before a gentile governor he adopts the same strategy of silence. Perhaps "strategy" is not the word, if it means a way of getting one's own desired ends. In Matthew's mind the silence of Jesus reflects the words of Isaiah 53:7 concerning the suffering servant: "like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." Earlier in the Gospel, Matthew tells us that when Jesus healed people he ordered them not to make him known (12:16). Matthew makes reference to Isaiah 42:1-4 to show that the manner of Jesus' healing ministry fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy that the chosen servant of God "will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets" (12:19). Historically Jesus may very well have adopted a way of life patterned after the servant songs of Isaiah.
Now Matthew tells us something about Pilate's state of mind, that "the governor was greatly amazed" because Jesus would not give an answer, "not even to a single charge." How does Matthew know what is going on in Pilate's mind? It's not that Matthew has investigated official records and discovered how Pilate felt. No disciple of Jesus was present at the trial. How do the gospel writers know so much about the proceedings of the Roman trial?
Two different positions have been taken on this issue. Some scholars have said that the passion narrative was created by the oral tradition by historicising Old Testament prophecies. That is, early followers of the Jesus movement read their Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and created the passion narrative on the basis of what they perceived to be messianic prophecies. Other scholars have insisted that in ancient cultures with close networking opportunities, otherwise known as the grapevine, it would not be very difficult for news to spread quickly and reliably from mouth to mouth. For example, could there have been some individuals among the crowd present at the Roman trial who would have witnessed the proceedings and later talked about them within earshot of Jesus' sympathizers at the local town square? Could there have been some in the crowd who later became convinced of the truth claims of the Jesus movement and were converted, thus providing eyewitness accounts of Jesus' trial before Pilate? All of this is of course conjecture. But it is no more conjecture than the claim of some scholars who discount the passion narrative as nothing more than historicized Old Testament prophecies.
Be that as it may, Pilate expects an accused person to defend himself or herself, especially when faced with the probability of execution. But this prisoner is not defending himself. He refuses to play the games that the political power brokers were playing, whether Jewish leaders or Pilate. When injustice, cruelty and oppression are the foundations upon which a governor like Pilate has built his castle, what is there that Jesus can say to defend himself? One might say, Yes, but was not the Roman Empire known for its commitment to law and peace? Answer: True, but only if you happen to be a Roman citizen. Rome ruled the subjugated nations with an iron fist. Pilate was particularly cruel and insensitive in his dealings with Jewish people. Note his atrocity referred to in Luke 13:1. Worldwide unity, peace and the rule of law were all skewed in favor of Roman dominance. So what chance would an insignificant carpenter from Galilee by the name Jesus have in Pilate's court?
In the second part of the scene with Pilate (vv. 15-23) Matthew shows that Pilate wants to release Jesus because he realizes that this prisoner is no threat to the Roman Empire or to his own role as procurator. But Pilate is faced with a dilemma. If he released Jesus, he would antagonize the chief priests and the crowd and risk an uprising. Pilate sees through the political motivation of the Jewish leaders in handing Jesus over to him, that it was "out of jealousy" (v. 18). The chief priests, who controlled the temple, were no doubt incensed that Jesus caused the disturbance at the temple that we often refer to as the cleansing of the temple. For the chief priests and elders what Jesus did at the temple was sacrilegious vandalism. But they also knew that the crowds of pilgrims who were present in Jerusalem for the Passover had rallied around Jesus and claimed him as a messianic liberator a few days earlier (21:9). The chief priests had to persuade the crowd that Jesus was not a liberator but a detriment to Jewish interests. The general Jewish populace did not particularly like the chief priests as an aristocratic and politically powerful faction in Jerusalem. But apparently they succeeded in changing the attitude of the crowd toward Jesus by arguing that a prisoner in Roman custody cannot possibly be the messiah. Messiahs don't become prisoners.
Pilate no doubt could read the tenuous situation he was facing. He must carefully calculate his next move. He tries a new ploy, the offer of amnesty to a prisoner. Matthew says that this was a regular practice (v. 15), although there is no reference to such a custom outside the gospels. It may be that occasionally Pilate and other governors had practiced it. A cruel and unscrupulous governor such as Pilate may very well have resorted to psychological games to gain political advantage and shore up his power base. Thus he offers the crowd a choice: Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah?
If Matthew's text included the name Jesus before Barabbas (the manuscript evidence is not unanimous), the choice could not have been stated with greater irony. Matthew has captured it so powerfully that unless one understands the meaning of these names in Aramaic, the point would be completely lost on English readers. So a little explanation is in order. Matthew tells us that Barabbas was "a notorious prisoner" (v. 16). But the Gospel of Mark, which Matthew used as a source, gives us a few more details. According to Mark 15:7, he was "in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection." The Jewish insurrectionists were guerrilla freedom fighters whose goal was to overthrow Roman domination and liberate Israel. The name Barabbas means son of the father. Jesus was a common name among Jewish people because it was the same name as the famed Old Testament character Joshua, which means God saves. So it is not surprising that two men in our narrative have the same first name. Matthew sees great irony in Pilate's decision to have the crowd choose between these two persons with identical first names. Will they choose one whose ideology calls for violent rebellion and killing as a means of ushering in Israel's salvation or one whose ideology is that Israel's salvation comes in peace and love. Will it be Jesus Barabbas, son of the father, or Jesus the Messiah, the anointed of God?
While all this haggling is going on between Pilate, the chief priests and the crowd, we hear not a single word from Jesus, whose fate is being decided by others. The last word of Jesus to Pilate was "You say so" in verse 11. Throughout the narrative Jesus will not be heard from until his last cry on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (v. 46).
To add to Pilate's moral dilemma, his wife sends a word to him to warn him not to do anything to harm Jesus. "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him" (v. 19). One might wonder how Matthew or the tradition before him would have access to such information. Rather than pressing the issue of historicity, we would be on more solid grounds to ask why Matthew includes such a curious detail in his account.
It just so happens that dreams are rather significant means of revelation in Matthew. In chapter 2 Matthew tells us how the gentile Magi were obedient to God's revelation to them through dreams. Joseph was also obedient to God's revelation to him through dreams. Now Pilate's wife is given a divine revelation through a dream, and she sends a word to him. Consequently he is without excuse. Not only has he himself come to the decision that Jesus is innocent of any crime, but God has also sent him a revelation of Jesus' innocence through Pilate's wife. But will Pilate obey? To whose voice will he listen?
God has not left humanity without a witness, so that even a pagan governor who has nothing but contempt for Jews is without excuse. Pilate has the voice of his own conscience, the voice of his wife and, through her, God's own voice. But then there is also the shrill voice of the crowd, incited by the chief priests and elders, "Let him be crucified!" When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey the crowd was shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" Now the crowd is shouting, "Let him be crucified!" How could they make such an about-face in such a short time? Matthew uses the same two verbs, "they were shouting saying," in both places to highlight the dramatic change in the attitude of the crowd.
To whose voice will Pilate listen? In a moment it will become very clear.
The third part of the drama with Pilate comes in verses 24-26. Pilate realizes how volatile the situation was becoming--"a riot was beginning." He comes to the conclusion that "he could do nothing." He did not want to antagonize the Jewish leaders or the crowd and thereby jeopardize the precarious situation in Judea and endanger his own good graces with the powers that be in Rome. So he takes some water and washes his hands before the crowd and says, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves" (v. 24). Matthew is perhaps thinking of the practice outlined in Deuteronomy 21:1-9, which involves the killing of a heifer and washing of hands as a way of absolving those who discover a dead corpse out in the open country, that is, it is a case of unsolved murder. If that is in Matthew's mind, Pilate's act becomes exceedingly ironic. The cause of Jesus' death is not an unknown thing, it is not accidental. It is the result of sinful human beings acting out of self-interest. Further, Pilate washes his hands before the death has occurred and that in effect makes him responsible for a murder. No amount of hand-washing can absolve him of his responsibility.
The response of the crowd in verse 25 to Pilate's act of hand washing and his statement that he is innocent needs careful exegesis and comment. The people as a whole take responsibility for the death of Jesus when they say, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Scholars are undoubtedly correct in pointing out that these statements in Matthew have been inappropriately and sinfully used to promote anti-Semitism in later Christendom. But that is not the same thing as saying that the Gospel of Matthew is itself anti-Semitic, even though there are those who do insist that it is. It is difficult to understand how a Jewish writer can be anti-Semitic. It is clearly anachronistic to read medieval and modern anti-Semitism into the Gospel of Matthew.
It might be of interest to note that later extracanonical Christian literature has developed legendary tales about Pilate and his wife, both of whom supposedly converted to Christianity. Legend has given Pilate's wife the name Procula or Procla. According to the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, Pilate withdrew entirely from the trial proceedings against Jesus, whose condemnation came from Herod Antipas. The Coptic church in Egypt even today honors Pilate and Procla on June 25 as saints.
All of that has absolutely no historical value. The historical fact is that Pilate had nothing but contempt for Jews and for Jesus. If anyone is anti-Semitic it is Pilate. But as pointed out earlier, certain interpreters have taken this passage about Pilate's hand-washing as Matthew's attempt to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from Pilate to the Jewish authorities and the Jewish people. These interpreters see Matthew as sympathetic to Pilate. They see Matthew saying that it was not Pilate's fault that the people and their leaders demanded the death of Jesus. Matthew and the other gospel writers, these critics claim, were interested in shifting the blame from Roman authorities to the Jewish people in order to show the Romans that Jesus and his followers were not anti-Roman.
But is this the best way to read Matthew? Does Matthew really exonerate Pilate? It is far from clear that Matthew is letting Pilate off the hook. The fact that Pilate himself has found Jesus innocent and that his wife has sent him a word of caution based on her dream should have persuaded him to release Jesus. Instead, he succumbs to public pressure and condemns Jesus. Pilate is far from being exonerated.
By the same token, neither the Jewish leaders nor the crowd are exonerated either. In fact, everyone fails, including Jesus' own disciples, and particularly Judas. Matthew invites the reader to ponder a profound question: who is responsible for the death of Jesus? When one reads the passion narrative in Matthew, one cannot escape the inference that all human beings are somehow included in the crowd that shouts, "Let him be crucified!"
It must be granted that the phrase in verse 25, Matthew uses the word laos, "the people as a whole," which is clearly a reference to Israel rather than all of humanity. However, there are other statements in Matthew that would prevent us from assuming that Matthew sees the Jewish nation as a whole forfeiting the privileges of being the people of God. After all, the apostles of Jesus and Matthew and his community are themselves all Jews.
In the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus suggests that the owner of the vineyard will put these tenants to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants (21:41). Then in an attached statement Jesus says, "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom" (21:43). Whom is Jesus addressing? From the context it is clear that Jesus is not addressing the Jewish nation as a whole but the chief priests and elders, that is, the religious leaders (see 21:23, 45-46). And who are the people to whom the kingdom will be given and they will produce the fruits? It is not simply gentiles as over against Jews. It is rather the people of God, whether Jews or gentiles, who respond to and live by the words of Jesus.
The statement of the crowd at the trial of Jesus, "His blood be on us and on our children!" must not be taken as a self-imposed curse. Unfortunately many times in the history of Christianity people in the church have taken it as a curse and have even given it a shove to make sure that it came true. Pogroms, inquisitions and other atrocities against the Jewish people throughout the centuries have paved the way for the ultimate horror of the Jewish Holocaust in our century. But as far back as the fourth and the fifth century the Eastern church father Chrysostom saw the problem of making the crowd's statement a blanket curse on all Jews. He said that God loves all people and therefore he did not confirm "their sentence upon them but from the one and from the other received those that repented, and counts them worthy of good things beyond number. For indeed even Paul was of them, and the thousands that believed in Jerusalem" (Homily LXXXVI on MATT. XXVII.11,12).
Pilate has made his decision. He releases Barabbas and after flogging Jesus he hands him over to be crucified. There is no telling what might happen when sinful humanity gets its hands on Jesus. The Romans can be credited with the dubious honor of perfecting the art of maximum torture for the worst criminals, insurrectionists and defiant slaves. The flagellum and crucifixion were the most horrendous forms of cruelty ever devised. Jesus was subjected to both of these horrors. Yet what is so unnerving about the account in Matthew is that both of these unspeakable forms of punishment are referred to with a single word in Greek, and even at that the single words are participles in a subordinate clause rather than a main verb: "after flogging Jesus" (v. 26), "when they had crucified him" (v. 38). Matthew does not dwell on the horror, the gore, the blood, the agony, as some modern presentations of Jesus' passion vividly portray in graphic words or drama. One reason may be that everyone back then knew what was involved in these punishments. A more significant reason may be that Matthew is much more interested in a theological understanding of the death of Jesus and the subsequent triumph of Easter Sunday than in a detailed account to satisfy our insatiable appetite for violent scenes.
The flagellum was a whip made of twisted and knotted rope to which sharp pieces of metal and bone were attached. When administered to a condemned prisoner, it bruised and tore the flesh, sometimes exposing the bones and even causing death. The whipping was not limited to 39 lashes, as was the case in Judaism for humanitarian reasons. The severe scourging no doubt shortened the length of time that Jesus was on the cross. Victims on crosses were known to remain alive for days.
In the fourth part (vv. 27-31), Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers, who take Jesus to Pilate's headquarters, or praetorium, and gather the whole cohort around him to have some fun. Now Jesus becomes a pitiful spectacle with a crown of thorns on his head and a reed in his hand for a scepter. The soldiers drape him with a purple robe and bow before him to mock him as the king of the Jews. Thus Matthew not only holds Pilate responsible for Jesus' death but also gives us a vivid picture of the cruelty of the Roman soldiers. Ironically, the fake honor that the soldiers bestow on Jesus in utter contempt will turn out to be an unwitting prophecy of "all authority in heaven and on earth" that will be given to Jesus by God himself (Matt 28:18).
The soldiers' cruel mockery recalls words from Isaiah's description of God's suffering servant: "I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting" (Isa 50:6). Matthew wants the reader to see that Jesus has fulfilled the destiny of the suffering servant of God.
It should be clear from the portrayal of the Roman soldiers and their treatment of Jesus that Matthew was in no way exonerating Pilate or his entourage in order to make them look good. The fact is that all the political and religious parties and their sinful power plays and self-seeking maneuvers converge to bring Jesus to his death.
Jesus on the Cross (vv. 32-54)
This section may be divided into three parts as follows:
1. The activities of the soldiers in charge of the
crucifixion (vv. 32-38)
In this section there are no direct quotations of the Old Testament as in other parts of the Gospel, but plenty of allusions. Davies and Allison in their ICC commentary on Matthew provide a useful list of these allusions as follows. Here are some examples:
v. 34, wine mixed with gall, Psalm 69:21
There are also striking parallels between the narrative in Matthew 27 and Wisdom of Solomon 2:10-20. This writing in the Apocrypha was probably composed a few decades before the birth of Jesus. The passage in Wisdom is as follows:
These allusions clearly indicate that the passion narrative in the gospels was theological in nature and intended to show that Jesus as the righteous one suffers and dies not because he is guilty but precisely because he is righteous.
Following the mockery at the praetorium, the soldiers take Jesus out to the place of crucifixion. On the way they compel a man from Cyrene named Simon to carry Jesus' cross. When they arrive at Golgotha, the soldiers offer Jesus wine mixed with gall, which was not a humanitarian act to numb the pain of crucifixion but another cruel joke and trickery. When Jesus tastes it he refuses to drink. After they had crucified him, they divide up his clothes among themselves. Jesus was hanging naked or half-naked in utter shame.
The ridicule does not stop there. They put up a sign over his head with the words, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." It is an expression of the Romans' utter disdain of not only Jesus but also the Jewish people as a whole. The fact that two bandits are on crosses on his right and on his left is also calculated to aggravate the burlesque by suggesting that here was the king on his throne with two of his nobles on his right and on his left. Matthew may be thinking of James and John's request to Jesus that they sit on his right and on his left when he came in his kingdom.
There is no end to the insults yet. Three groups of people ridicule Jesus. The passers-by say, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!" (vv. 39-40). The chief priests, scribes and elders say, "He saved others; he cannot save himself" (vv. 41-43). The two bandits on the cross taunt him in the same way (v. 44). Unlike Luke 23:39-43, which reports the repentance of one of the bandits, Matthew says that both of them taunted Jesus.
The final part of this section recounts the death of Jesus and the ensuing phenomena (vv. 45-54). As Jesus nears death he cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" which are the words of Psalm 22:1. In contrast to Jewish and pagan martyr stories that extol the courage of martyrs who embrace death with utter confidence, heroic bravery, and unshakable faith, Mathew and Mark portray Jesus coming to the end of his life with anything but an exuberant embracing of death. Everyone has abandoned him. Now he dies with this question on his lips, with a feeling of utter loneliness. Even God seems far away (seeLetting Go of the Past: Psalm 22).
This is not to say, however, that God has in fact abandoned Jesus. The phenomena that occur at the death of Jesus testify to the fact that God has not abandoned him. The veil of the temple is split in two, the earth is shaken, the rocks are split, the tombs are opened, many saints are raised, and the Roman centurion and his soldiers are terrified and say, "Truly this man was God's Son!" God has been silent all during the trial, the mockery, the crucifixion and the death of the Son of God. But now God says, Enough is enough. This must not go on. But of course there is nothing else left that human beings could have done to Jesus. They have not spared any mockery, any torture or any taunt. But now God responds. God is not absent, after all. Human beings thought they could do anything their sinful imagination could dream up.
These phenomena that accompany the death of Jesus are all metaphors. The curtain of the temple splits in two and thereby opening a way for all people, including gentiles, to approach God. This is also confirmed by the response of the gentile centurion and his soldiers. The passers-by might think Jesus was a fool in making threats about the temple. God responds by tearing the veil of the temple. The chief priests, scribes and elders taunt Jesus to save himself. God responds by splitting rocks, shaking the earth, opening tombs and raising the dead to foreshadow the greater resurrection that would occur on Easter Sunday. All that humanity has done to bring about the death of this man on the middle cross will not bring an end to the story. It's as if God tells the world that in spite of the world's utter rejection, mockery and murder of his Son, the final chapter has not yet been written but will be written by God himself. And herein lies the hope of humanity. When we have done the worst and have shaken our fist in the face of almighty God, God comes back with a response that terrifies even the Roman soldiers and brings them to their knees exclaiming, "Truly this man was God's Son!" It is only by the death of Jesus that the Roman soldiers make a confession of faith. God's redemptive act is accomplished at a great price.
How can anyone develop an adequate sermon from such a narrative? Where does one begin? What preacher would presume to exhaust the depth of Matthew's passion narrative? The answer is no one. Yet this is a story that must be told. What exactly can one say?
Let us begin with the silence of Jesus throughout the story. We are so eager to speak. We are so quick to defend ourselves when we are attacked. Jesus remains silent in the face of all the accusations, innuendoes, mockery, taunts and torture. The American way is to stand up for our rights, to assert ourselves, to make our voices heard. In a country that guarantees religious freedom, Christians have gone to the courts to defend themselves and their rights. Perhaps there is a place for it in a democratic state. But under what circumstances in America, or anywhere else where Christianity is a dominant religion, can silence, suffering and denial of self be practiced in the name of Christ? How can we live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in our kind of world? Some Christians even advocate the use of guns for self-defense. Is that not the same as preferring Barabbas the violent liberator over Jesus the peaceful Messiah? Whatever happened to the call of Christ to us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him? Is there any room for such talk as the cost of discipleship, or is that a thing of the past?
In a city not far from here a church carried on a legal struggle to gain permission to erect a giant cross along a freeway. In a culture that finds it objectionable to have Christian symbols represented in public places such as offices, parks and city seals, is it in the spirit of Christ to fight for our place under the sun? Or would we be more Christlike if we maintained our witness by some other means, such as turning the other cheek, acting in humility, and remaining silent when attacked publicly or privately? Do Christians have to be in control of all the power structures of a nation, a province or a city? Is silence ever an option? If so, when? Is silence an option only in totalitarian countries where Christianity is officially forbidden? What about countries where Christianity enjoys a place of privilege? Historically, Christians with political power have not done very well. When the church became powerful because of Constantine's decision, eventually it decided to use the sword against dissenters.
This passion story arrests us because in it we find God coming to us in utter vulnerability. God seems absent and silent. He does not act in might, power and vengeance to stop sinful people from doing their worst to Jesus his Son. It looks as if God has abandoned his own beloved Son. Why doesn't God do something? Some people explain it by saying that Jesus had to die for our sins, that God needed someone's death as an atonement. It was God's plan and purpose that Jesus die, because without that there would be no redemption. The problem with that is that God becomes responsible for the death of Jesus; it is God who kills Jesus. Human beings were merely acting as puppets in God's hands, but God is the one who is making things happen so that Jesus would end up on the cross.
Indeed not! Rather, it is human beings that make decisions about Jesus. And God lets them. God seems weak, powerless, and vulnerable. The cross of Christ reveals a God who has so loved the world that he has given himself to us in the person of his Son. Where there is love, there is vulnerability. There are risks involved in love. If we turn our cheeks to our enemies, we might get slapped again and again. Jesus decided to act in love, and he got slapped to death. Jesus, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to use peaceful means rather than swords and guns to fight for human dignity, and they were clobbered.
Another question with which this passion narrative confronts us is, Who killed Jesus? Who was responsible? Who all are guilty? Perhaps it would be more to the point if we asked, Who is NOT guilty? I have heard Christians say, "The Jewish people killed Jesus and suffered the consequences. They got what they asked for." They said, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Rather than reading this as a curse on a particular people, a more contrite reading would be to include ourselves among the crowd that yelled "Let him be crucified!" Had we been there we all would have done what the chief priests, the crowd, and Pilate did.
So who is to be blamed for the death of Jesus? The truly Christian answer is that we are all guilty. Historically, the evidence from the gospels seems to be that both Jewish and Roman authorities worked in concert to bring about the death of Jesus. The Jewish people as a whole were surely not involved in the historical events that brought about Jesus' death. Theologically, however, we ought to say that the people as a whole, including all of us, were present in Pilate's courtyard. "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" The only answer that can be given to such a question is, "Yes, I was there." I was there not as a sympathizer or friend of Jesus. I was there as an enemy who asked for his blood. It's only then that I can truly say that he died for me. I am the one that killed him.
However, most of us do what Pilate did: we wash our hands and declare that we are innocent. I am a pretty good person. We convince ourselves that we are not responsible for the injustices in the world. It is not my fault that others are treated unfairly. But what have I done to protect those who suffer injustice and prejudice because of their race, color, religion, or gender? Am I enjoying certain privileges because of my race and gender? Should I simply wash my hands and go on enjoying my privileges and convince myself that it is the social system that is to be blamed?
As we read the conduct and words of people who are around Jesus in this narrative, we might be tempted to ask, How could people be so cruel and inhuman? How could the Roman soldiers mock and torture a helpless prisoner so mercilessly? How could passers-by wag their heads at someone on a cross and open their mouths to deride and taunt? When we read this story we might be tempted to say, How can people be so barbaric, so obscene? That was back then, we say, but now we are much more civilized. Yet it is in this so-called civilized 20th century that millions were slaughtered in Russia, Germany, Ireland, the Middle East, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Africa, the streets of Los Angeles, Montgomery, downtown Oklahoma City. The list can go on. It is in this 20th century that when a criminal is executed, supporters of the death penalty outside the prison walls celebrate with high fives.
So where is God when a righteous Son is gasping for air on a Roman cross? Why is God silent? Why does he not send ten thousand angels and show the world a thing or two? God remains silent until the fury of human defiance and sin carries out to the fullest extent its gruesome imaginations. When the life of the Son of God is snuffed out, it is then that God speaks. He speaks loud and clear. He speaks not in vengeance, counter-attack and destruction. God does not kill Pilate, the Roman soldiers, the high priests and the passers-by. Instead, he splits a curtain and makes himself open and available. He splits rocks, gives the world a shake, opens tombs and lets his saints out of their graves. It is at that point that the Roman soldiers realize how pitiful and puny they are and all their bravado melts and they gasp, "Truly this man was God's Son!" God acts in strange ways.
Color this Sunday:
Purple or Red Violet
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