First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Passion Sunday

William Loader

Passion Sunday: 9 April Matthew 27:11-54 (26:14 - 27:66)

Passion Sunday is also Palm Sunday. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ appearance before Pilate and his execution follows Mark closely, but with significant variations. It is also a narrative which has its own integrity and makes its own dramatic sense of the events.

As in Mark the trial before Pilate begins with the leading question: ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ It is easy to miss the dimensions of this encounter: the major power of Rome through Pilate its representative confronts suggestions of an alternative. You can almost sense that a callous turn of the thumb would be enough to squash this stray ant which dared to raise itself as an alternative. The power imbalance is enormous, but the stakes are high, though not from Pilate’s perspective.

The conflict has been transposed from one of impatience with another bit of Jewish nationalism to a meeting of rival claimants: Rome and God. For Matthew’s hearers the ghost of Herod might be raised. They had heard Matthew tell of the cruelty inflamed by whispers of a claimant to be ‘king of the Jews’ and the resultant slaughter of the infants. Whether through fear or impatience with the untidiness of people’s aspirations, Herod and Pilate help us make sense of Jesus’ execution. With no human rights conventions to take into account the priority was peace and stability. Dissent likely to invite dissatisfaction with the system had to be quashed swiftly. The finer nuances which could distinguish one source of dissent from another were not worth bothering about. Jesus, Barabbas, and the two brigands on either side, were all basically after the same thing: radical change which would unseat Rome (and others). It was an unnecessary abstraction to discuss how their strategies differed. Can you really respond to that? Jesus remained silent - admirable even from Pilate’s perspective and wise.

Matthew reworks the scene with Barabbas. It becomes Pilate’s initiative (not the crowd’s) to bring Barabbas into the equation. Choose Jesus Barabbas (Aramaic: son of the father) or Jesus (Son of God). The effect is to lay the blame squarely on the crowd. By inserting a report about the wife of Pilate and her dream (27:19), Matthew suggests that she, like Joseph and the magi of the birth stories, has a special connection with the divine. It could even indicate that he wants to exonerate Pilate. Washing his hands and declaring Jesus innocent (27:24) might point in that direction. Matthew certainly points to the bloody consequences for Jerusalem and its inhabitants (27:25). But, standing back from the picture, we cannot overlook Pilate’s role. Whatever game he is playing in the narrative, as such leaders are wont to do, he does not escape responsibility. The fundamental conflict remains: God’s way and Rome’s.

As in Mark the irony works itself out as we see the mock coronation. It is more than cruel ridicule. At a deeper level it subverts the emblems of power and will portray a new kind of human (and divine) value about leadership (and about God!). The narrative plays out what Jesus had already explained: true greatness is not enjoying control over others and exploiting them, but living with compassion and caring towards others. Here is a different understanding of leadership and greatness. The passion narrative weaves together images from the psalms, especially Ps 22 and 69, to portray Jesus’ innocence and brokenness not as a derailment of the divine strategy, shortly to be rectified by resurrection and triumph, but as God’s way and ultimately as God’s being (when we reflect beyond Matthew).

In Matthew the mockery is slightly tweaked to evoke earlier scenes. He adds, ‘If you are the son of God’, in 27:40, to remind hearers of the temptations in the wilderness. The accusations about destroying the temple will be thrown back on the assailants when the temple curtain is torn, a sign of God’s judgement on its authorities.

The cry of forsakenness with which Psalm 22 begins has been rendered in a form which reflects the Hebrew more closely (27:46). Matthew distracts us from reflection on the questions it raises by depicting a scurrying about under the cross to quench Jesus’ thirst and a mishearing that Jesus was calling for Elijah, reflecting a common belief that he would come to save people (see also 16:10-13). Matthew’s Jesus was not recanting or abandoning faith, but, like Mark’s, crying out in faith, not on the assumption God was not there, but in the awareness that God was not rescuing him. I doubt that Matthew would press it to the point of disillusionment. The Psalms are used to depict real suffering and real need and a choice to be there (Matthew suggests a choice in 26:53).

To Mark’s account of the tearing of the temple curtain Matthew adds an earthquake and reports of holy people coming from their tombs and making appearances after Easter. The timing is awkward. The risings would have fitted better after the earthquake of 28:2. Matthew is probably merging older traditions which had not yet settled on a three day sequence of events. The point for Matthew is that this event is more than just an incident on a hill far away. It is something of cosmic significance. Like the star at Jesus’ birth, the earthquake makes an earth statement: this killing and dying is representative. It focuses into itself the violence of all people against all people, against the earth and against God. As the heavens declare the glory of God so, here, the earth declares God’s pain. It provides the instrumental music for the lament which the execution evokes.

With these new swathes of meaning on the canvass, Matthew now has the centurion joined by his companions witnessing not only how Jesus died (Mark 15:39), but also the earthquake and its sequels and declaring to all the world that Jesus is truly the Son of God (27:54). As in Mark, here the Gentile response gets it right, but in Matthew the focus is primarily on the fact that Jesus is ‘Son of God’, a designation he has added in both 27:49 and 40. That drives the poetic and had already done so in Mark who surrounds the moment of death in darkness.

The killing of love, the killing of Jesus, becomes the would-be killing of God. It is paradigmatic for all time. ‘Son of God’ is Matthew’s way in part of claiming that what happened here happened to God in some sense. This event became a point of revelation of God and evil, of love and hate. It will be mythologised far beyond Matthew’s earthquake and Mark’s darkness and spawn the imaginations of faith. Some will be helpful, some, unhelpful; some, fitting the event back into the values of deals and transactions, some, simply allowing the blood to flow and finding it in all violence and sin; some, putting it into competition with others’ insights, some, seeing it as a light which seeks its companions universally.

We stand under its impact and mystery. Our role is not to explain it down, but to open it up so that people will have an opportunity like generations before them to find in it their own story and find it in their own story.

Epistle: Passion and Palm Sunday: 9 April Philippians 2:5-11