Words of Institution

Jesus absorbs imperial violence to expose its death-bringing power

bread and wine on white cloth
Photo by Morgan Winston on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 6, 2023

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Commentary on Matthew 26:17-30

Matthew 25 concludes with the vision of Jesus’ triumphant return as Son of Man who holds the nations accountable for their (mis)treatment of the vulnerable. Immediately, chapter 26 begins to narrate his crucifixion. Verses 1-16 of chapter 26 present four perspectives on Jesus’ death.

  • Jesus asserts control in giving himself to die (Matthew 26:1-2). 
  • The Jerusalem leaders plan his death (26:3-5). 
  • An unnamed woman subversively anoints Jesus as a ruler (26:6-13). 
  • A disciple, Judas, betrays Judas (26:14-16).

Verses 17-30 introduce a new setting that centers on Jesus’ observance of the Passover with his followers. 

The festival of Passover or Unleavened Bread celebrated victory over Egyptian tyranny. Pressured by plagues, Pharaoh freed the people from slavery. The Jewish historian Josephus indicates that its celebration carried an impetus toward freedom from foreign ruling powers. This impetus carried a sub-text of deliverance from Roman power. It framed Jesus’ death as liberative.

Disciples approach Jesus to serve him. He orders them to carry out his wishes for observing Passover (Matthew 26:17). His plan to eat Passover with his followers and not his birth family (12:46-50) reinforces solidarity with them. They will not, however, be able to maintain it subsequently. 

Verse 20 advances the action in time (evening) and setting. The meal has been prepared. The fourfold verb “betray/hand over” focuses the scene (26:21, 23, 24, 25). 

The “outing” of Judas as the betrayer starts in verse 21. Jesus declares to the twelve males that “one of you will betray me” (26:21). They respond with “distress.” One-by-one, they seek assurance that “it is not me?” (26:22). Addressing Jesus as “Lord” expresses loyalty and commitment. 

Jesus’ declaration about one who “has dipped his hand into the bowl with me” still does not identify Judas (Matthew 26:23). Verse 24 continues to present Jesus as the dominant male who gives himself to die. His death is noble because he is neither surprised nor defeated by his betrayer. Jesus authoritatively condemns the betrayer. The woe expresses the grave eschatological consequences of rejecting and betraying God’s agent. 

Verse 25 names Judas. In verse 22, disciples addressed Jesus as “Lord.” Judas uses the forbidden term “rabbi” (23:7-8). The term isolates Judas. His question, “is it I,” is disingenuous since he has already been paid to betray Jesus (26:14-16).

Jesus now redefines the meal’s food and drink (26:26-30). The scene recalls Jesus’ previous statement about giving his life as a ransom for many (20:28). As there, Jesus interprets his imminent, noble death as a self-giving that absorbs imperial violence, reveals its death-dealing power, and benefits others. 

Jesus identifies the broken bread with “my body.” The bread itself cannot be Jesus’ literal body since he is the speaker of the statement. Rather the act of breaking and distributing the bread is a representational act. Jesus’ body absorbs and is broken by punitive, crucifying Roman power and its Judean allies. Eating the bread suggests a participation in the benefits of his death, just as eating the Passover lamb signified a means of participating in the benefits of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. 

Verses 27-28 repeat the action with a cup. In giving the cup of wine to his followers, Jesus elaborates its significance threefold. 

First, he identifies the cup as “my blood of the covenant.” The phrase recalls Moses sealing the covenant between God and Israel after the exodus from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 24:8).  After 70 CE, evoking this covenant indicates that God’s covenant with Israel is not broken despite Rome’s punitive action. 

Jesus functions as the agent of God’s saving power (Matthew 1:21-23). A new exodus is under way comprising deliverance from Roman power.

Second, Jesus declares his blood is “poured out for many.” The verb “poured out” has multivalent referents.

  • It denotes sacrifices (Leviticus 4:7, 18, 25, 30, 34).
  • It evokes the violent death of the faithful, killed by those who resist God’s purposes (Matthew 23:35). 
  • It echoes Isaiah 53:11-12 to recall those delivered from Babylonian imperial power in 587-539 BCE. There the servant absorbs violence, bears the sin and suffering of others, and pours out his life to death to benefit others with life (Isaiah 53:4, 10; Matthew 8:17; 12:17-21). The echo aligns Jesus’ death with this previous act of deliverance from imperial power, then Babylon, now Rome. Jesus absorbs imperial violence to expose its death-bringing power. In his subsequent resurrection and victorious return, he benefits others with new life.

Third, Jesus identifies his death as accomplishing “the forgiveness or release of sins.” Saving from sins is central to Jesus’ mission (1:21). Post 70 CE, it denotes being set free from the punishment for sins imposed by Rome in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (22:7). 

Contemporary texts often translate the noun “release” (aphesis) as “forgiveness” and understand it as a spiritual forgiveness of individual sins.

Yet the noun occurs at various points in the biblical tradition to denote societal transformations and release from oppressive political, economic, and social systems. It occurs, for example, fourteen times in Leviticus 25 where it is commonly translated as “year of Jubilee.” That year releases slaves, returns lands, cancels debt in a resetting of society for just interactions (also Isaiah 58:6; 61:1).

How, then, might Jesus’ death accomplish such a release from oppressive structures for many? 

Jesus’ crucifixion exposes the lengths to which Roman power will go to protect its interests. Rome employs violence to secure its elite-benefitting, hierarchical status quo. His death reveals the hubristic and destructive nature of imperial power. Moreover, his subsequent resurrection exposes the limits and pretense of Roman power. Roman power cannot keep him dead. Divine power outpowers imperial power. 

The scene closes with the conviction that divine rule will replace Roman rule. Verse 29’s reference to Jesus’ imminent participation in the final establishment of the empire/reign of God, signified by abundant feasting, secures the emphasis. It glimpses the different world Jesus anticipates, a world marked by fertility and just societal structures and practices.

The closing reference to their departure to Mount Zion (26:30) reinforces the eschatological focus. Mount Zion is the place from which the divine reign/empire is established in full (Zechariah 9-14).


God of promise, you made a covenant with your people in Israel, which you renewed at Jesus’ last supper. Renew your covenant with us daily, so that we might learn to live in your light and peace. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.


My song is love unknown ELW 343, H82 458, NCH 222
Go to dark Gethsemane ELW 347, H82 171, UMH 290, NCH 219
For the bread which you have broken ELW 494, H82 340, 341, UMH 615


Ave verum, Richard Robert Rossi