Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

Witness an atrocity

Painting of Jesus carrying cross by Hieronymus Bosch
"Carrying the cross," by Hieronymus Bosch; from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee; licensed under CC0.

April 2, 2023

Alternate Gospel
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Commentary on Matthew 26:14—27:66

Can Jesus’ followers abide with the reality of his crucifixion? Can we?

Matthew’s passion story brings out several unique emphases. Together, some of these features confront readers with the awful nature of Jesus’ fate—and with our reluctance to deal with it. Yet Jesus abides with us all. He feeds us all.

Before we turn to exegesis, let us acknowledge where many Christians abide, those who will hear our Passion Sunday preaching. Some folk glory in the grim details of Jesus’ suffering. The Gospels do not dwell on these points, taking for granted that ancient audiences understood the brutality of flogging and crucifixion. But some believers participate in the grisly spirituality of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and amplify what Jesus endured. There is no good news in the degree of Jesus’ suffering.

More of us Protestants minimize the brutal reality of Jesus’ death. The crosses we hang in our churches and around our necks are empty, a quiet affirmation of the resurrection. We are eliminating blood language from our hymnals, and I generally endorse this trend. We say things like, “Jesus died to show God’s love for us.” Frankly, I do not understand how Jesus’ death demonstrates love—at least not apart from the entire story of Jesus as Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), come to heal us by living and dying among us. We stop short of appreciating with Paul that Jesus’ execution amounts to a scandal (often translated, “offense”; 1 Corinthians 1:23). We would avoid the full horror of the cross.

I understand. I didn’t make it through the film 12 Years a Slave.

Matthew does not amplify the horror of the cross, but the Gospel does show us how it looks when Jesus’ followers cannot endure witnessing it.

Judas provides our first example. It does no good to conjure up explanations for Judas’ betrayal. Matthew presents it as a matter of greed, all but unimaginable. Judas approaches the chief priests and offers: “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” (26:15). The story suggests nothing good about Judas or his motives.

Jesus subtly identifies Judas during the final meal (Matthew 26:20-25). Here Judas singles himself out: “Surely not I, Rabbi?” As reprehensible as Judas’ behavior has been, Jesus serves him along with the rest of the Twelve. The Twelve will all fail Jesus, but Jesus will not fail them.

Alone among the Gospels, Matthew returns to Judas (27:3-10). Luke’s tradition concerning Judas occurs in Acts. Judas, Matthew reports, repents. The repentance seems genuine, as Judas abandons his thirty pieces of silver, but it also happens way too late. Jesus already faces Pilate. When Jesus’ arrest is a theoretical matter, Judas is all too willing to assist—for the right price. But when Jesus has already been arrested and abused, his death imminent, Judas cannot bear the burden. So he hangs himself. Judas cannot follow through on his bargain because he cannot tolerate Jesus’ unmerited suffering, much less his own role in it.

Judas alone betrays Jesus, but Jesus’ male disciples all abandon him. At the Mount of Olives Jesus tells them they “will all become deserters” (Matthew 26:31). Like Judas, Peter singles himself out: “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you” (26:33). In Gethsemane, Peter, James, and John cannot even stay awake to keep Jesus company in his distress (26:40). Of course the disciples all flee—Peter too—when Jesus is arrested (26:56). Like Judas, they cannot bear Jesus’ fate. We imagine they also don’t want to share it. They are not up to the crisis.

One anonymous disciple would avert Jesus’ fate in a different way. He draws a short “sword” and wounds a member of the arrest party, a person enslaved to the high priest (Matthew 26:51-54). His is an impulsive courage, short-lived. But this act of violence also betrays an aversion to endure Jesus’s arrest, suffering, and death.

Peter has promised he will not desert Jesus. Jesus says Peter will deny him, if not desert him (Matthew 26:34). Readers often overlook that Peter has supposedly abandoned Jesus before he sneaks in to overhear Jesus’ interrogation. Having fled with the rest, Peter, like Judas, revisits his failure. We find Peter in the courtyard of the high priest, a distant witness to Jesus’ interrogation and humiliation. At this safe distance Peter might remain with Jesus to the end, were he not identified by two enslaved women and some bystanders. Having denied Jesus three times, Peter leaves the scene to weep alone (26:69-75). He will no longer observe Jesus’ ordeal.

At the cross none of the male disciples remain with Jesus. But “many” women do, most unnamed and three singled out (Matthew 27:55-56). These are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph (probably not Jesus’ mother), and the unnamed mother of James and John. In contrast to the Twelve and other male disciples, these women bear witness to it all.

Even Pilate wants to distance himself from Jesus’ fate. Pilate’s wife has already warned the governor that Jesus is innocent, advising him not to get involved in Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:19). He protests to the crowd, somewhat weakly for one who embodies Caesar’s presence: “Why, what evil has he done?” (27:23). He even washes his hands and proclaims his own innocence (27:24). Pilate may flog Jesus and hand him over to crucifixion, but he will not witness the final events.

Passion Sunday asks that we pause to witness an atrocity. Jesus, God with us, humiliated, tortured, executed, and buried. But if we want to appreciate what it means for God to dwell with us in all the glory and all the horror of our condition, it is time to sit still and hear this story. Jesus stays with us, however uncomfortable that makes us.