< March 16, 2008 >

Commentary on Matthew 27:11-54


The Passion Narratives in the four gospels are similar to one another in major respects. They share in common the following major events: Jesus' arrest, his arraignment before officials of the Sanhedrin on Thursday evening, his trial before Pilate on Friday morning, his suffering, and his death. Beyond those things in common, there are distinctive features of each account.

Here is a listing of those things that are distinctive to the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Matthew.

1. The innocence of Jesus is highlighted (with details not in his source, Mark): Pilate's wife calls him righteous (27:19); Pilate finds no fault, washes his hands (27:24).

2. The deceit of accusers is stressed: The Sanhedrin sought false testimony (26:59).

3. The chief priests and elders seek Jesus' death (26:3-4; 27:1), and they influence the crowd (27:20-22). Judas conspires with them (26:15). The crowd accepts guilt for Jesus' death (27:25).

4. The passion and death of Jesus is according to the divine plan. Jesus accepts it as God's obedient Son. He does not seek to run from it, but goes willingly to the cross. He is in control of the situation, and trusts in God: (1) Matthew has a fourth passion saying (26:2; Mark has three); (2) Jesus says that his time (Greek: kairos) is at hand (26:18); (3) his prayer in Gethsemane is one of submission to God's will (26:39, 42; at Mark 14:35-36 there is a more emphatic prayer for deliverance); (4) though he could be rescued by angels, the Scriptures must be fulfilled (26:52-54); (5) at his death he "yielded up his spirit" to God (27:50; Mark 15:37, he "expired"); (6) all happens that "the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled" (26:56); and (7) all unfolds as a drama that has an ending (Greek: telos, 26:58).

5. Matthew inserts the title "Son of God" into the passion narrative (26:63; 27:40, 43), which is not in Mark's account.

6. The death of Jesus marks the end of the age, and so there is a (symbolic) proleptic resurrection of the dead (27:51b-54).

7. An Easter apologetic is included. Matthew introduces guards at the tomb (27:62-66) to prove that the Jewish rumor (that the disciples stole the body) is false.

Matthew's account portrays Jesus as a regal figure, a king who suffers and dies for his people. His purpose in coming into the world was to save his people from their sins (1:21). He carries out his role as the obedient Son of God, innocent of any wrong; yet he is crucified.

His crucifixion has to do with his saving work, the forgiveness of sins. In his ministry he forgave sins (9:2). He assures the forgiveness of sins to those who pray his prayer (6:12) and partake of his supper (26:28). He gives to his people (the church) authority to forgive sins on earth in his name (9:6-8; 16:19; 18:18). He can do this because he has all authority in heaven and earth (28:18).

When speaking about the death of Jesus, it is important to say that it was not necessary for God to take this path, even though some theories of the atonement have insisted that it was, saying that the Son had to satisfy the wrath of God.

Instead of that, it is simply the case that the way of the cross was the way God chose to demonstrate his saving grace. Christ's passion was not a matter of satisfying the justice of God for us, but a matter of God's own entry into our world, the human condition, to show his saving work (the forgiveness of sins) in the ministry of Jesus, and in Jesus' continuing ministry through the church.

Preaching on the Sunday of the Passion is a formidable task. For many in the congregation, it is primarily Palm Sunday, a kind of prelude to the glory of Easter. The Messiah comes triumphantly into the holy city. Moreover, the Gospel lesson is lengthy. At first glance, it seems too long for anyone to read and others to hear. But the story is immensely powerful and should be read on this day.

In terms of theological and homiletical concerns, there are several ways to go. Here are some possibilities.

We can ask two different questions today: "Why was Jesus killed?" and "Why did Jesus die?" The answers are quite different. If we ask the first, we find that the Gospel for the day is quite clear and helpful. In fact, it is more helpful in answering the first question than it is for the second. People colluded to have Jesus killed. The most certain fact we have about Jesus as a historical person is that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, just as we say in the Apostles' Creed. Even though he had no intentions of being an earthly king, some people thought that that was what he wanted to be. The title on the cross says it all: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (27:37). As such, his crucifixion was a political act by the Roman government. If Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews (which Pilate does not actually think, but others in power do), that was treasonous, requiring his death.

The other question is, "Why did Jesus die?" That is another, more profound question for us. The answer is more difficult to explain. But basic to it is the idea that God sent his Son into this world to reveal what God himself is like. He is a God of love, grace, and reconciliation. He is a God who seeks to have fellowship with us. He sent his Son among us, first of all, to live, teach, preach, and gather disciples. But he sent him among us also to give his life for us. Jesus took upon himself the sentence and punishment due to us for our sinfulness. This may sound cruel, but it is the way that God has worked. It is a good news/bad news story, just like life itself. Bad news, because Jesus died in our place. Good news, because Jesus died in our place. We are now set free.

The story of Jesus' passion and death remains central to our understanding of God and of Christ. The cross has become our main symbol. We understand Jesus not simply as a great teacher or as the glorious Lord of Easter. We think of him too as the crucified Christ, who gives his life for humanity. And the way we think of Christ is important for our own lives. Jesus Christ calls us to be his disciples, taking up the cross, dying to our own selves, our selfishness, in order that we might look out upon the world to serve it. We are not called upon to do anything that Christ has not done. His death for us and for humanity is sufficient. But we are set free from the consequences of sin to serve others in the world.