Commentary on Matthew 27:27-61
Researchers have been exploring the power of writing and re-writing personal narrative as a tool to help individuals gain perspective on their lives and identify the obstacles that prevent them from taking steps towards positive change (“Writing Your Way to Happiness” by Tara Parker-Pope, NYT, Jan 19, 2015).
This is not far off from early Christian practices of entering the narrative world of scripture in order to examine our own lives. There are, of course, limitations to this approach. We may think we know the story better than we do and impose on it our own narrative rather than seeing and hearing what is really there. Or, it can become a way of indulging our emotions and imaginations rather than seeking honest self-awareness. Yet when faced with a narrative, like the crucifixion of Jesus, that we have heard many times before, it can provide an opportunity to see the story anew, to raise questions of ourselves, to gain perspective, and, perhaps, identify obstacles that prevent us from moving further along the path of discipleship.
As the story opens we are with the soldiers of the governor to whom Jesus has been handed over for crucifixion. As readers, we know Jesus to be innocent; in the story, the guards only know Jesus to be an enemy of the state. They strip his clothes from him, dress him up in scarlet, mock him as “King,” strip the robe from him and put his own clothes back on, only to remove them again when they crucify Jesus so that they can cast lots for what now becomes their spoils. Participating in this action, we may be reminded of our own tendency to strip people of their identity, dress them up using language and images that fit a narrative of our own making, and compel others to participate in the charade to bolster our worldview. In the story, we see irony in the actions of the soldiers, for we know that Jesus is a king, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth will be handed. But it is not a kingship the soldiers recognize and this, in turn, reveals an additional danger for us. We too have a tendency to dress Jesus up, and it is just possible that in doing so, we may not only fail to see the irony of our actions, but find ourselves casting lots for what we mistake as the prize.
At v. 39 our attention moves from the actions of the soldiers to Jesus, as he hangs on the cross. Almost nothing is said about the actual act of crucifixion (see v. 35); there is no blood, no torn flesh. The cross is, instead, a place of temptation. We experience this in the language of those who taunt Jesus, echoing the words spoken by Satan to Jesus in the wilderness, “If you are the Son of God” (vv. 40, 42; see 4:1-11). In both the wilderness beyond the Jordan and the wilderness of the cross, Jesus is being challenged to use his power as the “Son of God” to prove himself by exercising that power for self-preservation or gain. However, this is completely contrary to how Jesus has described his own understanding of what it means to be ‘Son of God’: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Yet Jesus’ words from the cross are not “I did it!” but rather “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (v. 46). The disciples, who have fled long before this moment, may be wondering the same. Which raises, again, the question of where we might see ourselves in this part of the story. Perhaps, like the disciples, we may want to distance ourselves as far as possible from the cross, from the cost of discipleship. Or we may find ourselves among those challenging Jesus: “if you are the Son of God … ” in an effort to construct a Jesus who fits our expectations. Or perhaps we recognize that we are also faced with temptation, to use our God-given abilities for self-preservation, or recognition, or gain.
When Jesus gives up his spirit (NRSV “breathed his last” [v. 50]), a sequence of responses ensues. The heavens respond by rending the curtain at the entrance to the Temple (a judgment, perhaps, against the religious leaders who have conspired with those who wield political power to put Jesus to death). The earth quakes, tombs are opened and the saints who have died are raised, an expression of the hope brought about by the resurrection of Jesus. A centurion and those with him — the representatives of those who have put Jesus to death — come to believe that Jesus is, indeed, God’s Son (or, at least, “a Son of God” — the translation is ambiguous). Women from Galilee watch and wait, setting fear aside and providing a witness of presence. And Joseph of Arimathea, a man of means and influence, approaches Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus so that he can place it in a new tomb that he had purchased for himself; a tomb that will give way to resurrection.
There is tremendous room here to ponder where we might locate ourselves. Perhaps we are moved to speak an uncertain word of faith. Or to watch and wait. Or to use the means and position we have to perform an act of compassion that recognizes in others the suffering of Jesus. Or perhaps our world is shaken up, causing us to look at the events around us in new ways. However we respond, it is the act of entering the story that offers us an opportunity to examine ourselves in a way that leads to self-awareness, to ponder the ways in which we create obstacles for ourselves and others, and to identify steps we can take that will help us move us further along in our journey towards discipleship.