Throughout this Gospel, Matthew keeps a close eye on the conflicting expressions of power that distinguish human rulers — whether Herod, Pilate, or the Judean priests and rulers in Jerusalem — from Jesus and the power of God.
Matthew’s concern is not merely to indicate which power is greater, but more to describe the defining qualities and outcomes of each. The power that human authorities wield, even if in the name of God, persistently brings division, violence, and death. Jesus’ authority, on the other hand, yields healing, restoration, liberation, and life. The scenes of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion show us the defining expressions of these alternative forms of power.
Matthew’s interest in the nature of power has deep roots in the stories of Israel’s enslavement and exile, as well as the founding and development of the monarchy under Saul, David, Solomon, and the rest of the kings, including the truth-to-power proclamations of the prophets. The earliest canonical interest in power, however, occurs already in the creation stories of Genesis, preeminently when God grants “dominion” to humankind (Genesis 1:26-28). We should read the grant of dominion not as permission for humankind to exercise unfettered power over the rest of creation, but more as the introduction of an issue that the subsequent story — the whole Bible — will continue to explore, question, and seek to resolve.
What is the nature of this authority and where does it find true expression? What happens when dominion is used for human purposes, rather than to extend God’s blessing to the rest of creation? If this power becomes perverted, who will redeem it? These questions drive the accounts of enslavement, exile, monarchy, restoration, and finally messiah. For Matthew, the death and resurrection of Jesus resolves the long-running biblical contestation of human and divine power in the world.
Torture has been a persistent feature of human conflict and war — no less today — especially where power is imbalanced. The torture of Jesus is a concentrated expression of Roman dominion. Roman torture was a form of religious ritual and social theater meant to dehumanize victims and break down communities of resistance. Matthew describes both public and more private humiliations and torture of Jesus, beginning with his beating when Pilate announces his fate (27:26) and followed immediately by the gathering of Pilate’s cohort (500-600 men) around Jesus (27:27). He is stripped, clothed in garments that mock his identification as king, then spat upon. He is then reclothed in his own garments and put on parade along the most crowded streets.
Dramatic irony punctuates the descriptions of mockery and torture. Jesus’ adversaries mock his identity as both “King” (27:29, 37, 42) and God’s son (27:40, 43) — identifications the narrative will later confirm (see 27:54, 28:18-20). The chief priests, scribes, and elders focus on the inability of the savior to save himself (27:40, 42). For them, salvation entails escape from the cross. They fail to see that Jesus’ vocation as king and savior turns on his conquest of death, not avoidance of it. Moreover, Jesus has come not to save himself, but others, including the very people who betray, mock, and crucify him.
Matthew uses multivalent references to Psalm 69 (Matthew 27:34, 48) and Psalm 22 (Matthew 27:35, 46) to provide interpretive cues for the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Psalm 69 is both a suffering lament and an affirmation of God’s steadfast love and mercy, which concludes with a call for heaven and earth to join in thanksgiving for God’s salvation. Psalm 22 describes both abuse and abandonment, but ultimately focuses on God’s redemption of the innocent sufferer. The “cry of dereliction” in Psalm 22:1 (Matthew 27:46) is the first word in the final scene of Jesus’ life, but the final word in Psalm 22 is the turning of all the ends of the earth toward the Lord to whom dominion belongs (Psalm 22:27-29, see also Matthew 28:18-20).
The moment of Jesus’ death is the decisive turning point in the whole biblical story, when God’s power unmasks and overwhelms the powers of this world, where human dominion is perverted. English translations are unable to capture the double entendre of the moment when Jesus “breathes his last” (Matthew 27:50), which is not merely a euphemism for death. The Greek says simply: “he released the S/spirit.” The pronoun “his” is not present in the Greek. Moreover, the Greek word for “release” is not a common idiom for death. Matthew doubtless uses this phrase to say that Jesus has died, but also, more importantly, that with his death the Spirit is released into the world, initiating a series of apocalyptic events.
The tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51) confirms the Spirit’s release into the world and, perhaps, the obsolescence of a temple made by human hands. The process of reuniting earth and heaven — the cosmic temple where God is fully present — has begun. The earth itself had already joined the apocalyptic drama prior to Jesus’ death, when darkness covered the whole land during the brightest part of the day (27:45). Now the earth shakes and rocks are split, signaling both judgment (1 Kings 19:11-12; Isaiah 2:19, 29:6; Ezekiel 38:19; Psalms 68:8, 104:32, 114:7) and the transition from one age to the next (4 Ezra 6:13-16, 9:2-3; 2 Baruch 27:7, 70:8; Zechariah 14:1-5; Ezekiel 37:1-14). Most shocking of all, the tombs open and the saints are raised. The power of death is broken; the time of resurrection has begun.
As all this happens, women are watching from a distance (Matthew 27:56, 61), two of whom will become the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (28:1-10). In Mark, the women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. In Matthew, they go to “watch” or “view an event” (28:1), to see the moment when God’s Son defeats the powers of empire and death, claiming dominion over all of earth and heaven and initiating the reconciliation of all nations (6:10, 28:18). The mission of the church begins with the recognition that a different kind of power now rules both heaven and earth.
Grieved God, your only son Jesus fell to the earthly desires of humanity. Forgive us for our sin and restore us to your grace. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Ah, holy Jesus ELW 349, H82 158, UMH 289, NCH 218
They crucified my Lord ELW 350/trad.
The Crucifixion, John Stainer