Monday, March 27, 2023

April 7, 2023 -- Good Friday, the Passion

                                                 Biblical Words                                               [821]

Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66. 

This is my body ... for the forgiveness of sins. 

The Revised Common Lectionary gives two sets of readings for the Sunday before Easter, one for “the Liturgy of the Palms” and one for “the Liturgy of the Passion.”  (The assumption seems to be that church-goers will miss anything not read on Sunday.)  As in previous years I separate these two and present the Passion texts as Good Friday readings.  The hope is that Maundy Thursday or Good Friday readings will be attended to – even by Sunday church goers!  

The Biblical texts discussed here are those given in the Lectionary for the Liturgy of the Passion (the second Palm Sunday liturgy) rather than those for Good Friday proper.  (The Lectionary always reads Isaiah 53 and John’s Passion narrative on Good Friday.)
The point is to hear Matthew’s Passion Narrative in Year A, the year of Matthew’s Gospel. 

Isaiah 50:4-9a. 
(There is now a full treatment of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 on my Study Bibles blog – click here and find the Feb. 2020 posting on the blog archive Suffering Servant .) 
This passage is the third of the songs of the Suffering Servant.  The four passages (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) depict the mission, failure, and vindication of this figure of destiny – a figure eventually welcomed and honored among the nations and kings of the earth (52:15 and 53:12).  The Servant is anointed, empowered by the spirit of the Lord for a mission to the nations, but suffers rejection, abuse, and death.  His vindication will be astonishing news to the powers of the earth.  
Our passage shows the Servant faithful to God’s instruction, instruction intended to “sustain the weary” (verse 4, NRSV).  However, the Servant is abused and beaten by powers not identified.  He gives his back to the lash, has his beard pulled, and is insulted and spit on (verse 6).  (In ancient Jerusalem, in old sacral kingship rituals, these would have been symbolic actions in a liturgical context in which a suffering figure – the king – receives punishment on behalf of his realm, to purge it of offenses and guilt during the past period.)  Through all this the Servant is confident that God will turn the tables, that in time help will come.  “He who vindicates me is near.  Who will contend with me?” (verse 8).  
The Servant embodies the destiny of Israel, both its glory and its failure.  But it is a peculiar embodiment.  On one hand the Servant is part of God’s ultimate plan for the nations, but on the other the worldly Israel is a failure, blind and deaf to the truth about the creator and redeemer God.  (See, for example, Isaiah 42:18-22.)  Only by dying and rising again from defeat and death (portrayed in the Fourth Servant Song) will Israel show the real character of the God who is, in fact, giving Israel to the world as the gospel of a new reign of God. 
Such is the gospel for Israel, which the Servant must act out before the nations! 
Psalm 31:9-16.  
The Psalm selection is very much like the prophetic passage.  It overflows with language about physical suffering and the condemned outcast.  It speaks of the ultimate dismissal:  “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead” (verse 12, NRSV).  
Jesus in Jerusalem in his last days could have uttered these words of the Psalm:   
I hear the whispering of many –
      terror all around! – 
as they scheme together against me, 
      as they plot to take my life.  (Verse 13.)  
And the last verse of the reading is like the Servant expecting that ultimately there will be vindication beyond the current suffering:  
Let your face shine upon your servant; 
      save me in your steadfast love.  
Philippians 2:5-11.    
The Epistle reading is the Christ hymn from Philippians.  Scholars regard this as an early Christian hymn, quoted here to reinforce the apostle’s exhortation to imitate Christ.  It takes a very lofty view of who Jesus was and what he accomplished in his Passion.  
The hymn speaks of Christ Jesus as divine – a god, in the language of their Greek neighbors.  Christ Jesus had existed “in the form of God,” but “emptied himself” to become human.  The humble Jesus of the gospel narratives – often misunderstood, never recognized in his true nature until after his resurrection – was in reality a divine being who had altered the cosmic status quo by taking on human form.  Thus descending from the highest to the most humble, this slave (Servant) also gave up his life, accepting “death on a cross.”  The narratives of the Passion would recite their ordinary-appearing events with this awareness of who Jesus really was and is. 
When the Servant had so given himself, God reversed the condition and “highly exalted him,” that is, returned him to his true divine status, and made him the highest of all heavenly powers.  So that, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” – all the realms of reality known to folks in ancient times.  
Jesus, who had died and been exalted again to rule over the powers that oppress humanity, has become the object of worship together with God the Father (Philippians 2:11).  

The Passion According to Matthew 

Overview Comments 
The Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Passion begins with the preparations for the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:17).  However, the narrative really begins with Jesus’ word to the disciples:  
You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified (26:1-2, NRSV).  
The Passion was not recited to the faithful in order to inform.  It tells you right at the beginning what is going to happen.  The action is familiar to all except its very latest hearers.  The Passion is, and was from the beginning, recited for the hearers to re-experience these events.  
About the Gospel According to Matthew.  
Modern scholars have recognized, over the last hundred and fifty years, that Matthew’s Gospel is an expanded version of Mark, adding much more of Jesus’ teachings.  In many of the narratives Matthew repeats Mark nearly verbatim, only abbreviating and smoothing out Mark’s somewhat rough Greek.  (In preparing this study, I have been newly impressed with just how much of Matthew, in the Passion narrative, is in verbatim agreement with Mark.)  
Matthew takes over Mark’s Passion without significant change, though sometimes small changes in wording are very significant (e.g., “the forgiveness of sins,” 26:28).  Occasionally there are also substantial additions, unique to Matthew (as with the sword-speech at the arrest, with Judas’ fate, with Pilate’s wife’s dream and Pilate's hand washing, and with the guards at the tomb). 
Date and Context.  The long-standing consensus among critical scholars dates Matthew’s Gospel to around 85 CE, probably written for second-generation Christians in Syria, the metropolitan center of which was Antioch.  (Many conservative Protestants prefer an early dating, placing the synoptic Gospels and Acts before 62 CE.  The issue is whether Luke knew the outcome of Paul’s trial when he wrote the present ending of Acts.)  
These Christians of Antioch had Judean neighbors who denied that Jesus was the Messiah, and the disputes between them, reflected in the Gospel, had been intense and occasionally violent.  Matthew’s Gospel does not label these opponents simply “the Jews” (as do Luke, in Acts, and the Gospel of John).  Jesus’ opponents in Matthew’s Passion are the high priests, the scribes, and the elders.  (The Pharisees, condemned so fiercely in chapter 23, do not appear in the Passion.)  Matthew does, however, insist that “the people as a whole” called for Jesus’ death and took responsibility for that action (27:25).  
The following discussion focuses on Matthew’s own presentation.  Differences from Mark are mentioned only if they reflect a special interest of Matthew.  As usual in these Passion studies, I have used a word-count in the Greek text to show how time is distributed over the total narrative.  This count shows what percentage of the whole (beginning at 26:17) is occupied by each episode.  (The entire narrative is 2029 words in the Greek text of the United Bible Society, 4th ed.) 
The Last Supper, 26:17-30, 242 words, 12%.  
In Matthew, two things happen at the Last Supper:  the Betrayer is announced, and Jesus says powerful words over bread and wine.  
The narrator dwells a bit over arrangements for doing the Passover (verses 17-19).  The disciples are sent to a confidant in the city at whose place they will prepare the Passover.  Jesus’ message is striking:  “The teacher says, ‘My time is near; with you I will do the passover...’” (26:18, my translation).  There is an aura here:  it is sufficient to say simply, “the teacher says...,” and awareness of a special “time” is assumed (the Greek term is kairos).  The hearers of the narrative understand the overtones and nuances of the words used.  
“One of you will betray me,” 26:20-25, 94 words, 5%.  
It is important for Jesus to confront all the disciples with this scandal of a betrayal by one of them.  This is not news to the hearers of the whole narrative, because we just heard Judas himself strike a deal with the chief priests to sell Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (26:14-16).  
Our narrative, however, dwells at some length on each disciple asking plaintively, Surely not I, Lord?  (This is verbatim from Mark.)  No one denies the statement (as they will later deny his prediction of their falling away).  Instead they ASK, though giving themselves the benefit of the doubt:  “Surely not I?”  You can’t suspect me!!  
The Matthew tradition is hard on Judas, and now we hear him in blatant hypocrisy repeating what the others say:  Surely not I, Rabbi?  To doubly assure that there is no mistake, the narrator  adds to Judas’ name the comment, “who betrayed him” (verse 25).   The hearers are expected to cringe in horror at such an evil character.  
And Jesus himself speaks an awesome condemnation of Judas:  “The Son of Man goes as is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!  It would have been better for that one not to have been born” (verse 24, NRSV).  We seem a long way from, “But I say to you, Love your enemies...” (Matthew 5:44).  But for Matthew, Judas seems to be a special case, evil beyond any bounds.  (He is finished off below in 27:3-10.)  
The Bread and the Cup, 26:26-30, 87 words, 4%.  
The elements of the Last Supper (to be “the Lord’s Supper” in the life of the church) are quite simply treated.  The bread (dealt with in a single verse) is taken, blessed, broken, and given to the disciples.  The words are, “Take, eat; this is my body” (verse 26, NRSV).  A command and a meaning.  
The wine gets slightly fuller treatment.  It is spoken of as a “cup”; the word wine is not actually used, but there is no ambiguity about what “fruit of the vine” means (verse 29).  Here too there is a command and a meaning:  “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (verse 28).  The very last phrase here is important.  “...for the forgiveness of sins” is added by Matthew to the rest of the text repeated from Mark.  Forgiveness has become an increasing concern for Matthew’s hearers in the second generation of Jesus followers.  
All these remembrances and repeated actions are done in expectation of the exalted Lord’s near return.  “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (verse 29, NRSV).  Until the day I drink it “with you...”  The Lord’s Supper is done in constant anticipation that those present will soon drink with Jesus himself!  
Side comment on Passover and the Last Supper.  If there was ever a relation between the Lord’s Supper of Christian practice and the Judean Passover in Jesus’ time, it was lost or glossed over well before Christian practice was written down.  It is true that three of the Gospels make the last supper a Passover meal.  But none of the details of a Judean Passover are actually presented in the New Testament texts (in spite of Joachim Jeremias’s efforts in The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, 1955), and most historians recognize that the arrest and trial could hardly have happened on a Passover night.  (That the Last Supper in Matthew in not a Passover meal is shown by, among others, Ulrich Luz in Matthew 21-28 [Fortress Press, 2005], pp. 372-73 and 383.)  
What Mark, Matthew, and Luke are insisting on is that the later Christian observance of the Last Supper took place at the same time as the Judean Passover.  When (in the diaspora, Judean communities outside Palestine) the neighboring Judean people were preparing for the Passover, Jesus followers held their own observance – a kind of counter-Passover, filled with betrayal, denial, abandonment, and death. 
The Passion narratives were all composed for this Christian observance.  Two days after the Judean Passover (as observed in the first century), Jesus people would have their own joyous and ecstatic celebration –  Easter.   (Sometime after 100 CE, Christians shifted Easter to a Sunday-only event, and the connection with Passover, which has no fixed day in the week, gradually faded away.)   But for the early Christians, when the Judeans began clearing all leaven from their houses, it was time to hear again the Passion narrative of Jesus.  That’s why the Passion narratives begin with the observance of Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread.  
At the Mount of Olives, 26:31-56, 471 words, 23%. 
Prediction of Flight and Denial, 26:31-35, 87 words, 4%.  
Between the Last Supper and the Prayer in the Garden we get a scene that is pivotal for the whole Passion.  
Jesus announces that everybody is going to run away, and Peter in particular is going to deny knowing Jesus.  This is not Jesus’ word only; it is authorized in prophecy (first scripture quotation in Matthew’s Passion):  
I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.  (Verse 31, quoting Zechariah 13:7.)  
Pivotal, because of the next statement:  “After I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.”  
Matthew, as well as Mark, expects the appearances of the risen Jesus to be in Galilee.  (These Gospels know nothing of the disciples staying in Jerusalem, which is so dear to Luke’s agenda in Luke 24 and Acts 1.)  Jesus is giving the long perspective on the crucifixion; he is, in effect, giving them permission to run for their lives – even to deny three times that they know him.  God’s overall plan allows for that!  
Peter and the disciples, however, are full of bravado:  “ ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,’ and so said all the disciples” (verse 35).  
Praying in Gethsemane26:36-46, 195 words, 10%.  
In most places Matthew condenses Mark’s narrative, making a smoother and more succinct (if less colorful) recitation.  Here, however, Matthew not only keeps all of Mark’s detail but enhances it.  (Matthew’s version is longer by 16 words.  Contrast Luke’s very watered down version, Luke 22:39-46.)  
Matthew’s prayer scene is a marvelous piece of narrative art, one of the finest in the synoptic Gospels.  
The Garden has the structure of a temple:  The first station is where all the disciples are told to sit and wait while Jesus goes on further to pray.  A second station is where Jesus shares his agony with the three closest disciples (Peter, and James and John Zebedee).  Finally, Jesus alone goes to a third station, the holy of holies, as it were, where he falls prostrate and speaks (for our hearing) that most awesome of prayers.  
Not only is the space structured in three stations, the prayer unfolds in three stages, marked by check-ups on the drowsy disciples.  The disciples are not, of course, up to the occasion.  They sleep.  
We hear Jesus’ prayer in its fullest form on the first occasion; then, in the second hour, a shorter version, though it’s clearer now that Jesus will not be let off.  And finally, we are simply told he “prayed for the third time, saying the same words” (verse 44).  
The full prayer is a climax of the Gospel’s presentation of the human Jesus.  For a Passion recital, we must hear it again:  
My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want (verse 39, NRSV).  
The Arrest, 26:47-56, 189 words, 9%.  
The arrest scene has three moments:  Judas’s betrayal with a kiss, sword-play on an arresting officer’s ear, and Jesus’ complaint to his captors.  Throughout, there is heavy emphasis that all of this is fulfilling the scriptures.  
The “large crowd” that accompanies Judas with swords and clubs is not just an unruly mob.  They are led by officers of the court.  (The chief priests had their own temple police force.)  Matthew’s phrasing, here as elsewhere, makes sure “the people” are involved, through their representatives “the elders of the people” (verse 47, where Matthew has added the phrase “of the people” to Marks words).  
When Judas comes to Jesus to give the betraying kiss, he says, “Greetings, Rabbi!”  In Matthew, “rabbi” is not a complimentary term.  When the other disciples call Jesus “Lord,” Judas calls him “Rabbi” (in 26:22 and 25), and the disciples are told that in future they should not use the title “rabbi” (23:7-8).  Thus for Matthew’s hearers, Judas gives away his character as “betrayer” when he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi.”  
All four Gospels report the chopping of the ear of a high priest’s officer.  All four Gospels treat the sequel differently.  Mark has no sequel; only the wounded ear.  Luke has Jesus immediately repair the ear by healing it.  John knows that Peter was the swordsman, and that the officer’s name was “Malchus.”  
Matthew, however, has the most far-reaching and amazing response to the disciple’s resort to violence.  This entire speech of Jesus is unique to Matthew.  Again, it sets the Passion event in a long perspective.  
Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions [approximately 72,000] of angels?  But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?  (26:52-54, NRSV.) 
The same emphasis on the fulfillment of the scriptures marks Jesus’ complaint to the arresting officers.  They have come for him as if he were a fugitive outlaw.  Why did they not arrest him in the daytime when he was teaching in the temple?  But – of course – we must allow the scriptures to be fulfilled (verse 56).  
The scene ends with seven solemn words:  “Then, all the disciples, abandoning him, fled.” (My translation.)  
At the High Priest’s Palace, 26:57-75312 words, 15%. 
Two verses give the setting for Jesus’ trial before the High Priest and Peter’s denial.  Matthew knows the high priest’s name is Caiaphas, and the court will meet in his palace.  Peter follows along to the outer court of the palace, “to know the end” (verse 58, my translation).  While Jesus’ trial goes on inside, Peter’s goes on in the courtyards.  
The Trial and Confession, 26:57-68, 196 words, 10%.  
Matthew leaves no doubt that Jesus gets a trumped up trial.  “Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death” (verse 59).  They finally find two testimonies that agree, but Jesus remains adamantly silent throughout.
Finally, the high priest throws up the witness thing and puts the issue as forcefully as possible to Jesus himself:  “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (verse 63, NRSV).  (This is not language a real high priest would use about a messiah; he would say “son of David.”  But Caiaphas is probably seen as quoting a charge against Jesus, using Jesus-follower language, "Son of God.")  
Jesus’ reply to Caiaphas has two parts.  The first seems ambiguous, “You say (so).”  (The same reply is given to Judas, 26:25, and to Pilate, 27:11.)  This is surprising, because in Mark, Jesus’ answer is very clear:  “I am (the Messiah)” (Mark 14:62).  Why has Matthew backed off from Mark’s certainty? 
Whatever the reason for that, the rest of Jesus’ reply to Caiaphas is an audacious announcement of the coming climax of God’s reign: will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (verse 68, NRSV).  
However humble and weak my situation seems now, you will shortly be overwhelmed by the breaking out of God’s holy power.   That great revolution will establish me as the judge for God’s final reckoning with the peoples and the nations.  (“...he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him...,” Isaiah 52:12.)  
Jesus’ words here combine two major scripture passages about the heavenly Lord.  From Psalm 110:1, “The Lord says to my Lord [i.e., Yahweh to Yahweh’s son], ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ”  And from Daniel 7:13, “I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven” – coming to receive “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (7:14, NRSV).  
If this is really an answer to the high priest’s question, then Jesus is saying that HE IS this Son of Man, with authority from the right hand of God and dominion soon to be exercised over the peoples and nations!  
How audacious were these earliest Christians!  Certain that the powers of the universe were on their side and would eventually vindicate them against their opponents and persecutors!  
Blasphemy -- and insults.  The high priest tears his very expensive and symbolic garments and cries out, “Blasphemy!”  Commentators quibble about how they reached that conclusion, but there can be no doubt how Matthew understood the Judean authorities’ verdict:  “He deserves death” (verse 66).  
That being determined, we get a brief statement of abuse heaped on Jesus, spitting, slapping, and taunting.  “Prophesy, O messiah!  Who slapped you?” (verse 68, my translation).  
Peter’s Denial, 26:69-75, 116 words, 6%.  
While Jesus is being condemned in the high court, Peter is hounded by suspicious people in the outer courts.  The story is well told in all four Gospels.  Matthew follows Mark, abbreviating a little but with a few interesting variations.  
Peter is fingered by one female servant, then another, and finally by a group of bystanders.  In each case we hear their accusations:  “You also were with Jesus the Galilean”; “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth”; “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.”  (Only Matthew mentions the Galilean accent as a give away.)  Peter keeps moving from place to place, and his denials become more violent, with cursing and oaths.  Then comes the “cock crow” (actually a bugle call to announce the changing of the guard).  That breaks Peter’s facade, and remembering, he goes away and weeps bitterly.  A moving and remarkable story!  
Jesus before Pilate, 27:1-31, 478 words, 24%. 
The Passion narrative moves from the Judean trial to the Roman trial.  But after a two-verse report of the Judean authorities taking Jesus “bound” to the Roman governor, Matthew interrupts the story line to tell what happened to Judas and his money.  
Judas and the blood money, 27:3-10, 118 words, 6%.  
What happened to Judas was a matter of legend, not history.  Here Matthew tells how Judas repented, gave back the money, and hanged himself.  Luke, in Acts 1:18-20, tells how Judas used the money to buy land and fell to his death there so it was called Field of Blood.  In the early second century, the loquacious Papias, bishop of Laodicea in Asia Minor, told a third story in which Judas suffered physical maladies all his life and then was run over by a wagon (Davies and Allison, Matthew, vol. iii, p. 559, n. 3). 
It may be significant (as Davies and Allison suggest) that Judas’ repentance is told here, rather than after the crucifixion.  Judas hangs himself before the Roman court has even ruled on Jesus!  The condemnation of Jesus by the Judean court is thus made the tipping point for Judas.  That condemnation showed Judas that he had made a colossally terrible mistake – a mistake beyond forgiveness, so that only suicide is his escape.  
Compared to the other stories, the Matthew version is somewhat charitable.  It gets Judas killed off quickly, with no detail, and spends its time mostly on the money.  Judas repented, tried to give the money back to the priests, and, when they refused it, he threw it into the temple and hanged himself.  The money ends up purchasing a field for burying the abandoned dead – a paupers cemetery.  The blood money finally came to a kind of charitable use!  
In Matthew it is important that all this happened as prophesied in the scriptures.  We hear a long quotation said to be from “the prophet Jeremiah” (verse 9).  The quotation refers to the thirty pieces of silver, to someone who set that price on someone else’s head, and the use of the money to purchase a “potter’s field.”  The problem is that there is no such passage in Jeremiah.  Parts of the quote come verbatim from Zechariah 11:13, but it is clear that a lot of garbling of scripture passages – or of Christian memories – has gone on.  This is not one of Matthew’s finer hours as an expert of the prophetic scriptures!  
The Trial before Pilate, 27:11-26, 252 words, 12%.  
The Pilate scene has three stages:  the questioning, the negotiation about Bar-Abbás, and the condemnation.  

Ecce Homo "Here is the Man."  Painting by Hieronymus Bosch, died 1516. 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity School Library. 
Bosch had no qualms about portraying the Jesus story in the costume and style of his own town!
The Questioning, 27:11-14.  The chief priests and elders have many accusations against Jesus, to which Jesus makes no reply.  (You are supposed to remember Isaiah 53:7, “ a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”)  While Pilate is amazed at this, he himself has only one question for Jesus:  “Are you the king of the Jews?”  Jesus does answer, but it is the usual slightly ambiguous, “You say so.”  We are not told how Pilate takes this probably positive answer, but it will not decide the verdict anyway.  
About Bar-Abbás, 27:15-23.  (This is an Aramaic name, stressed on the final syllable; “bar” means “son of” and “abbás” means “the father.”  The name probably meant son of an unknown father.)  
The trial now gets complicated by turning to a “festival custom” according to which the governor releases to the people one prisoner of their choice.  (Historically, there was probably no such custom.  It is unknown except in the Gospel narratives.)  Pilate announces that he has two candidates for release:  Bar- Abbás, a “notorious” prisoner, and Jesus called the Messiah.  Which do you want?  
We pause for a moment to hear some comments on this situation.  First, in Pilate’s mind:  “He realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over” (verse 18).  Then, even more interesting, a message from his wife (in the middle of a trial!), saying, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (verse 19).  Some deep powers are working in Jesus’ favor, but at hand are even more powerful forces:  “the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds  to ask for Bar-Abbás and to have Jesus killed” (verse 20).  
Back to Bar-Abbás.  The governor repeats his question:  which do you want released?  Obedient to their spiritual guides, the crowds shout, “Bar-Abbás!”  And what shall we do with Jesus, called the Messiah?  “Let him be crucified!”  And when Pilate objects that he is innocent, they simply shout all the louder for his death.  
The Condemnation, 27:24-26.  (This section is in Matthew only, except for verse 26.)  The governor needs to avoid a riot and so gives in to the demand of the crowds.  But he wants a public demonstration that this death is not his doing – and we get the famous/infamous hand-washing scene.  Shaking the water off his hands, Pilate says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood...” (verse 24).  
This is followed by an even more infamous declaration by the crowd, or, as Matthew carefully phrases it, by “the people as a whole”:  “His blood be on us and on our children!” (verse 25, NRSV).  
Since holocaust guilt began to affect Christian commentators after World War II, there have been many scrambles to either deny or to counteract the violent anti-Judaism associations of this verse.  Some terrible pseudo-history has been resorted to and a wide range of disavowals expressed.  The cold reality is that there was a lot of hatred on both sides between some Jesus followers and the early-stage defenders of Rabbinic Judaism (heirs of the Pharisees).  
The statement is not historical.  No Judean people in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time ever spoke the words of Matthew 27:25.  (Matthew is the only source for it.)  The statement is a horrible self-condemnation attributed by second-generation Christians to the people who approved the death of Jesus.  By the time of Matthew the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had taken place, dispersing both Judeans and Christians far from Jerusalem.  By the Christians, certainly, that destruction was regarded as God’s judgment on the unfortunate people who spoke the curse in Matthew 27:25.  After that, the Christian viewpoint could (and should) have been that the curse had been carried out, and they – as had Jesus – could forgive their former enemies!!  Again, in cold reality, the anti-Judaism continued on for centuries, intensified after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire (under Emperor Theodosius, 389 CE).  
Condemnation is the word:  “So he released Bar-Abbás for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (verse 26).  
Mocked by Roman Soldiers, 27:27-31, 84 words, 4%.  
When earlier Jesus had been condemned in the Judean court, he was immediately insulted and abused by his guards and captors.  So in Roman custody, immediately after his condemnation, the soldiers mock and abuse him.  They dress him up as a pretend king in a scarlet robe, with a crown of thorns on his head, a reed in his hand, and then they bow and scrape before him, calling out, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  The fun then turns vicious:  they spit on him and take his staff and beat him on the head with it.  The fun over, they put on his regular clothes and get to the business of crucifixion.  
In both Judean and Roman courts, the underlings take their leads from their superiors.  The Judean police taunt Jesus about being a prophet; the Roman soldiers mock Jesus as a king.  Each circle has its priorities, and the mocking and insulting of both is actually ironic.  The hearers of the narrative know who the real prophet and king is!  
The Crucifixion, 27:32-56, 365 words, 18%. 
The climax of the recitation has two sections:  the circumstances around the crucifixion, and things accompanying Jesus’ death.  
The Crucifixion, 27:32-44, 169 words, 8%.  
The actual crucifixion is not reported by Matthew (or the other Gospels either, for that matter).  There is only a circumstantial clause:  “And when they had crucified him...” (verse 35).  
There are lots of details, however, surrounding the central undefined event.  Simon, the businessman from Cyrene (Africa, just west of Egypt) gets his brief moment of fame by carrying the cross to Golgotha (verses 32-33).  Following regular procedure, Jesus was offered drugged wine to dull the pain (which he refused; see Psalm 69:21), and after Jesus had been fastened to the cross (not described) the execution squad whiled the time by rolling dice for the clothes of the victims (verse 36; see Psalm 22:18).  The victim’s crime was posted on the cross for passersby to read:  “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (verse 37).  
The Mockery Section.  Instead of any description of pain and suffering, the narrative spends its time on the mockery of all who saw it.  (The narrative is shaped for later Christian hearers, and the mockery is full of double meanings and irony, which those hearers would recognize and relish.)  
The mockery section is framed by references to the two outlaws crucified on either side of Jesus (“...he was numbered with the transgressors...,” Isaiah 53:12).  The outlaws are referred to in verses 38 and 44.  (In Matthew there is no conversation between Jesus and the outlaws.)  Between these references, we get a list of mocking things said to or about Jesus:  
  • 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. 
  • He saved others; he cannot save himself. 
  • He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 
  • He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to, for he said, “I am God’s Son.”
What Happened When Jesus Died, 27:45-56, 196 words, 10%.  
When Jesus’ death approaches, the narrative takes on a more elevated and awesome tone.  The whole cosmos becomes active in the climax.  “From the sixth hour, darkness happened over the whole earth until the ninth hour” (verse 45, my translation).  
At the ninth hour (middle of the afternoon), Jesus utters his only cry from the cross in Matthew (and Mark).  (The death cry in verse 50 is inarticulate.)  His words are given in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (verse 46, NRSV), and translated for the Greek-speaking hearers:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  
Initiated hearers know that this is a quotation from the opening words of what we call Psalm 22, and early Jesus followers certainly recited Psalm 22 (as well as Psalm 69 and Isaiah 53) to fill out their sense of the holy work going on in the Passion.  
But whether quoting or not, Jesus utters an agonizing cry of abandonment!  That should not be underplayed.  The human Jesus is portrayed as feeling wholly abandoned by ALL – even God!  THIS is the “cup” that he prayed about in the Garden.  
Bystanders think Jesus is calling for Elijah and want to wait for a response.  Others offer Jesus more drugged wine on a pole.  All to no avail:  “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last “ (verse 50).  
The divine response to Jesus’ death is a great convulsion of normal reality (verses 51-53).  
  • The curtain of the temple (in front of the holy of holies) was torn in two, from top to bottom.  (The holiest center of the old Judean order is exposed to the profane world!) 
  • The earth shook and the rocks were split.  (Echoes of Elijah at Mount Sinai, I Kings 19:11-12.) 
  • Tombs were opened “and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”  (See Daniel 12:2, “many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake...” 
  • “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (verse 53).  In Antioch some older people probably reported that they remembered these things.  
After the whirlwinds, a human voice utters the last word:  “Now when the centurion  and those with him ... saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (verse 52).  The working soldiers of Rome have recognized the Messiah!!  
But Matthew’s overall story continues – all that stuff that began in Galilee.  
Many women were there also, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.  Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.  
Mary Magdalene and the mothers of three of Jesus’ disciples.  We will hear more of them in a couple of days!  
The Burial and the Tomb, 27:57-66, 161 words, 8%. 
The Burial.  In a much quieter narrative, we hear of a rich man named Joseph from the town of Arimathea, “who was also a disciple of Jesus.”  (The Greek uses a verb, who was “discipled” by Jesus.)  We thought we knew who Jesus’ disciples were, but when need arises, “God will provide.”  
This man wants to give Jesus’ body proper care.  He has influence with Pilate and gets the body released to him.  (Mark, at this point, has Pilate show great surprise that Jesus is already dead, and has the governor verify the death, Mark 15:44.  Matthew ignores all that.)  Proper care requires wrapping in a “clean” linen cloth (ritually clean).  Joseph then laid the body in “his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock” (verse 60).  The entrance to the tomb was then blocked by a great stone rolled in front of it.  
Two of our Galilean women are watching all this, across the way from the tomb (verse 61).  
The Tomb Guards.  The burial is told in all the Gospels.  What comes next is Matthew only.  The action is set on the day after the crucifixion, “the next day” (verse 62), thus on the Sabbath.  
The Judean leaders never quit!  (The Pharisees are included in this action; first appearance in the Passion.)  They know the rumors that Jesus would rise from the dead after three days (Judean inclusive way of counting days).  They don’t trust Jesus’ disciples.  Somebody will try to make off with the body and claim God worked a miracle.  They also have influence with Pilate and request help.  Pilate basically turns them down.  No Roman guards will be used.  You have temple police; use them to guard the tomb.  
And so the chief priests and Pharisees go to the tomb, seal it, and place guards to watch it.  Which ever of those guards will be on duty the following morning are in for a really big shock!  

April 2, 2023 -- Palm Sunday

                                                  Biblical Words                                           [820]

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11.  
The Revised Common Lectionary splits the traditional Palm Sunday in two, one liturgy for the Palms and one for the Passion.  The idea is to get once-a-week church-goers involved in both the Palm Sunday triumphal entry and the profound depths of the Passion of the Christ (Good Friday). 
For these Lectionary studies, however, I have stayed with the traditional structure, keeping this Sunday exclusively for the palm-waving entry into Jerusalem and saving the long Passion liturgy for Good Friday.  Not a perfect arrangement, but at least its closer to what the Gospels themselves do!  (Again, for the Passion, read the Lectionary studies for Good Friday.)  

The Liturgy of the Palms in the Lectionary contains only two readings, the Psalm and the Gospel.  The two are hand in glove:  the Psalm excerpts are from an old liturgical drama in which the king enacts a salvation brought to anxious worshipers in the Jerusalem temple.  This destiny-making figure has survived great dangers by God’s help and his arrival at the temple gates signals that salvation for all has arrived.  
The Gospel reading, the basics of which are common to all four Gospels, presents Jesus in his own time re-enacting that ancient liturgy, being acclaimed by his disciples and popular followers as was the ancient king of Jerusalem by the worshipers in the procession and in the temple.  
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29.  
The Psalm reading is the call to worship (verses 1-2) and the last half of the psalm that ends the Egyptian Hallel, the group of praise psalms (113-118) used at major festivals in Jerusalem.  In the Gospel stories of Jesus’ entry, this psalm is quoted by the people greeting the coming Jesus.  For those Gospel-hearers, Jesus is the royal speaker in the psalm.  
Following the call to worship, the reading skips to the point at which the king is approaching the east gate into the temple.  In the following exchanges, the people (and priests) reply from inside the city.  The king speaks.  
Open to me the gates of righteousness, 
      that I may enter through them 
      and give thanks to the Lord. 
The gatekeepers reply.  
This is the gate of the Lord; 
      [only] the righteous shall enter through it. 
The king speaks his thanksgiving to God, showing that he is among the righteous.  
I thank you [O Lord] that you have answered me 
      and have become my salvation.  
The people inside declare the significance of this occasion, leading up to the prayer pronounced, “Hosanna!”  
The stone that the builders rejected
      has become the chief cornerstone. 
This is the Lord’s doing; 
      it is marvelous in our eyes.  
This is the day that the Lord has made;
      let us rejoice and be glad in it.  
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord [hōshī’ānnā]!
      O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!  
The answer to the people’s cry for deliverance is the king’s actual passage through the gates.  (These gates are in fact a large building, with a passageway over twenty-five feet long, with chambers opening off the insides; see Ezekiel 40:6-16.)  
The passage through the gate leads into the outer court of the temple.  As the king passes through this entry, he is proclaimed by those who accompany him:  
Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who enters! [my translation]  
The priests and worshippers inside the temple respond, and go on to declare that this coming signifies that God’s light has shined on the people.  
We bless you [plural; the king’s followers] from the house of the Lord.  
The Lord is God [literally, “Yahweh is El”] , 
      and he has given us light.  
Bind the festival procession with branches, 
      up to the horns of the altar.  
[The meaning of the Hebrew in this last verse is a little uncertain.]  
The king figure has now reached the inner court of the sanctuary where the altar of animal sacrifice stood.  There he makes a final declaration of his thanksgiving for deliverance.  
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; 
      you are my God, I will extol you.  
This thanksgiving concludes the liturgical action of the psalm, and the singer repeats the opening summons, calling on all to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good…”  
Matthew 21:1-11.  
The narrative of the triumphal entry in Matthew is presented in two parts, the preparation and the actual event.  The acclamations of the crowd interpret the event.  

The East Gate of the temple area, as rebuilt in the 1530s by Suleiman the Magnificent.  (The Gate is sealed because in Ezekiel’s vision Yahweh had entered through it and ordered it permanently shut, Ezekiel 44:2.  Photo by Jay Wilcoxen.)
The geography of the event is quite clear.  
Jesus mounts the animal(s) on the Mount of Olives, which is to the east of Jerusalem, and rides down into the Kidron Valley and up the steep hill to the east gate of the city – which leads into the temple.  Even if the first hearers of the present Gospel (probably living in Syria) were not familiar with the topography of Jerusalem (which had been destroyed by the time this Gospel was written), they were familiar with what was said about it in the Scriptures.  
Some hearers would remember that the original “son of David” had ridden a mule when he was anointed king and made a triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  
So the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites [David’s personal body guards] went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and led him to Gihon [a spring in the Kidron Valley].  There the priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon.  Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!”  And all the people went up following him [out of the Kidron back into the city], playing on pipes and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth quaked at their noise.  (I Kings 1:38-40, NRSV.)  
In the Gospel Jesus sends two disciples to get a donkey and a colt (there are two animals only in Matthew), which they will find tied, as if waiting for them.  If bystanders ask about the disciples taking the animals, they are to say that “the Lord needs them.”  In the Gospel’s view, there are people out there ready to do the Lord’s bidding without question, without any explanations about secret plans, such as we might wish for.  
A prophecy of the event.  Between Jesus’ instructions and the disciples’ carrying them out, Matthew makes a point of saying that this business with the donkeys is fulfillment of prophecy.  He quotes the prophecy in question, though his quotation is a bit odd.  The first clause – “Say to the Daughter of Zion” – either is not a quote, or it is a little fragment from Isaiah 62:11.  The rest, “See, your king comes to you…” is from Zechariah 9:9, except that it only quotes a fragment of the verse, and it does not follow either the Hebrew or the Greek texts (as these are known to modern scholars) in exact wording.  (Such text variations reinforce the view that oral recitation was the mode of transmission of such much-discussed texts.) 
The point of the prophecy as presented, however, is that the prophets announced that Jerusalem’s king is coming to her, and he is coming in a humble manner, riding on a donkey, “and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (verse 5).  (The “humble” note may have been ironic for some:  Solomon, the first “son of David,” rode on a simple mule – but he became the mightiest king!)  
Two animals?  Someone in the milieu of Matthew’s Gospel thought it was important that two animals are (or seem to be) mentioned in the prophecy – the mother donkey and its colt, the little he-donkey.  Therefore, in Matthew’s story, and his story only, Jesus rides two donkeys in the triumphal procession.  
The Christian scribe quoting the prophecy probably did not bother his head much about how to visualize that riding.  The scripture said two donkeys, and so there were two. (The movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar [1973 release] has a laughing and cheering Jesus standing up as he rides, with the camera angles such that the animals are not shown!  Can’t prove it either way by them!  Some later Greek manuscripts of Matthew change “they put their garments on them,” to “put their garments on it,” thus harmonizing the passage with Mark, which has only one animal.)  
The event of the ride into the city is accompanied by the spreading of garments ahead of the donkeys, as if the red carpet were being rolled out.  The way is also adorned with tree branches (“palms” are mentioned only in John 12:13).  At the beginning we hear about “a very large crowd” (verse 8), but as things go forward, we hear of  “the crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed…” (verse 9).  It is a large popular demonstration, as Matthew presents it.  
And these crowds are shouting the “Hosanna!” – the cry for salvation that is the climax of “the Egyptian Hallel” (Psalms 113-118; the Hosanna specifically in Psalm 118:25).  
Except – as Matthew’s community retold the event, the crowds were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  The psalm does not refer to David (by name), though all the other Gospels make clear, each in different words, that the Jesus who enters Jerusalem is a king (see Mark 11:10Luke 19:38; and John 12:13).  This was a major point from which the Jesus confessors of Matthew’s time could begin their discussions with their Judean neighbors and relatives – that Jesus was the son of David and the hoped for Messiah.  The Matthew narrative proclaims this royalty publicly and joyously in this entry scene.  
The paradox of Jesus’ kingly status has yet to be demonstrated, and will become clear only through the full course of the passion narrative.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

March 26, 2023 -- 5th Sunday in Lent

                                                      Biblical Words                                                 [819]

Ezekiel 37:1-14Psalm 130Romans 8:6-11John 11:1-45.

As Lent nears its end, the  faithful hear rumors of resurrection to a new life in the Spirit.  
The Fifth Sunday of Lent comes just before the climax of Palm Sunday and the Passion.  It focuses on the hope for the resurrection (Ezekiel’s dry bones and Lazarus from the tomb) and the life in the Spirit to which it leads.    

Ezekiel 37:1-14. 

The first reading is from the prophet Ezekiel, his famous prophecy of the dry bones that return to life. 
As is often the case with Ezekiel, God uses something that has gotten the prophet’s attention – especially something that will annoy or anger him – to fashion a word of prophecy about Israel’s condition and destiny.  In this case, Ezekiel overhears the grumbling and cynical comments of his fellow exiles in Babylon:  “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (verse 11, NRSV).  The prophet’s inspired vision takes off from this despairing indictment about the dry bones.  
Ezekiel had a dual mission
(1) to condemn the over-confident sinners still in Jerusalem (in most of Ezekiel 4-24) and 
(2) to inspire endurance and hope among those recently exiled to Babylon (most of chapters 33-48).  
The hope is presented, however, in very large terms (in contrast to Jeremiah’s pragmatic advice to the same exiles in Jeremiah 29):  
the entire house of Israel, now seemingly so utterly dead, can have a new and vigorous life.  
Few visible objects evoke dead-and-gone as forcefully as dried bones lying in a dry valley.  The word of God to Ezekiel emphasizes the bleakness of these bones, in order then to visualize their astonishing restoration to life.  Bone by bone they reconnect, sinew appears to string them together, flesh appears to empower them, and skin comes to protect the new body.  
But bones, flesh, and skin are not yet a living being.  The essential requirement is spirit – the word is ruah in Hebrew, translated “breath” in verses 6-10 by the NRSV.  Spirit is the vitalizing power; it makes a body a living being.  In Israel’s case, for this prophecy, the living will spring up from the dead.  
An Israel slaughtered and consumed as carrion, leaving bones to litter the landscape, will live again.  That is the power of God’s spirit – when the time for its action comes.  

Psalm 130.  

The Psalm is that marvelous expression of hope that begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (NRSV).  
This is a profound statement in itself.  It communicates that the speaker has fallen into severe conditions, verging on the finality of death. 
A whole story could be behind this, and in some other psalms such a story is told (for example, Psalm 32, another one of the seven “penitential” psalms).  The speaker here does not deny that sin may have contributed to the distress, but does affirm that God does not always hold sin ruthlessly to account.  “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (verse 3). 
However, this very same opening statement declares that in the worst condition of distress, the speaker does cry out to the Lord.  
When all else is lost, that is what the suffering servant does – calls upon the Lord, the servant’s only true hope.  To be delivered “out of the depths” is equivalent to returning to life from a death sentence. 
It is this hope for resurrection that the speaker utters toward the One who does forgive sins (verse 4).  

Romans 8:6-11.  

The Epistle reading poses a sharp contrast between the domain of “flesh” and the domain of “the Spirit.”  
Those included in the new life in Christ Jesus have the possibility of living in the Spirit rather than in the bondage to the law of sin and death (verse 2).  The punch line of this new life, stated at the very end of our reading, is the resurrection yet to come through the Spirit.  “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (verse 11).  
The present situation of believers is a time of living by the Spirit rather than by the flesh (our old human nature).  “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (verse 6).  
The Greek here that translators have paraphrased “to set the mind on” is a single term, phronēma.  This word means something like “habit of thought,” or “inclination of the mind/self.”  The only place in the New Testament this term is used is Romans 8.  The disciplining of one’s thought and mental orientation so that it is exclusively on the Spirit is part of the growth of life-in-Christ appropriate to the season of Lent.  
Such habit of mind is the work and pleasure of living between the law of death and the glorification that is coming (see verse 30 later in this chapter).  

John 11:1-45.  

The Gospel reading is the story of the raising of Lazarus.  This is the last of the “signs” that Jesus does in John’s Gospel, the one that precipitates the decision of the authorities to put Jesus to death (John 11:47-53; see also 12:9-10).  
The story deliberately interweaves Jesus’ failure to prevent Lazarus’ death with God’s own intention to raise Lazarus from the dead.  
The two sisters, Martha and Mary, send word to Jesus that his dear friend is on the verge of death.  Jesus delays two days longer before starting to Bethany where Lazarus lives – making sure Lazarus was dead more than three days before Jesus finally gets to him (verse 17).  Jesus explains to the disciples that this illness is not (ultimately) fatal, but is an occasion for showing God’s glory (same motif as with the man born blind, 9:3).  Lazarus dies while Jesus, far away, discusses his case.  
Before Jesus gets to Bethany the disciples ask naïve questions that prompt Jesus to speak more bluntly.  “Lazarus is dead.  For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”  Clearly the point of the journey was not to save Lazarus.  To make the trip at all, however, is dangerous because of the hostility of the Judean leaders.  This prompts Thomas the Twin to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (verses 14-16, NRSV).  
Both of the women lament (read “complain”) that Jesus did not get there in time, and these laments are occasions for Jesus to make enigmatic responses to what is really going on.  
Martha comes first, and when Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha agrees somewhat stoically, believing as Pharisees and early Jesus followers did in the resurrection of the righteous in God’s final judgment.  This gives Jesus occasion to make one of the major declarations of this Gospel.  “I am the resurrection....  Those who believes in me, even though they die, will live...  Do you believe this?” (verses 25-26).  And Martha affirms that she believes Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, “the one coming into the world.”  
Mary is next.  She too laments that Jesus did not get there in time to prevent Lazarus’ death.  Mary always seems to precipitate very strong emotional responses rather than theological reflections.  She weeps.  The Judean friends who have come to the household weep with her.  Finally, having been taken to the tomb, Jesus joins in their weeping.  (Providing what I learned as a child is the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” [11:35, King James Version].)  And at this the Judeans – and these are some of the friendly ones – express the complaint for the last time:  “He opened the eyes of the blind man.  Could he not have prevented this man’s death?” (verse 37).  
The time has come to get to the heart of God’s action here:  the miracle.  Jesus goes to the tomb and tells them to open it.  To Martha’s practical objection about hygiene, Jesus reminds her of her earlier affirmation of faith.  The tomb is opened, Jesus yells a command, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man, almost a mummy in his grave wrappings, stumbles out to be set loose from the garments of death, to return to life for the greater glory of God.  
The Judean friends, seeing the resurrection and the life, believe in Jesus (verse 45).