Children of the God of Israel
Palm Sunday, the Liturgy of the Passion: Matthew 27:11-54
By Ellen T. Charry
In reading the Gospels, it helps to keep several things in mind. One is that those who wrote, collected, or edited them were not intentionally writing the Bible. Another is that the writers, in this case, the one we know as Matthew, was not a Christian. He was a Jewish follower of Jesus arguing vociferously against other Jews for what Judaism should become now that it was in ruins after the Romans destroyed the temple and the priesthood and controlled the nation politically and militarily. Further, even if material in Matthew’s Gospel originated during or even shortly after Jesus’ lifetime, Matthew’s biography of Jesus was constructed from multiple sources at least 60 years later.
The Gospels realistically report confusion and conflict surrounding Jesus’ identity at the time of his ministry and the purpose of his movement following his cousin John. He was teaching, healing, and encouraging people, yet threatening, reproaching, and excoriating them by turns. Jesus was causing trouble throughout the land and did nothing to quell it. Titles applied to him — “king of the Jews,” messiah (in a purely human sense), and “Son of God” in this passage, along with “son of man,” “prophet,” and the one who inaugurates the reign of God in other Matthean passages — amply illustrate the confusion swirling around him.
It could seem that the confusion flummoxes Jesus as well. After all, he nearly starved himself to death in the desert struggling with whether to support his cousin’s claim that God was about to pierce the world and separate docile “sheep” from gruff, kicking “goats.” Without the priestly sacrificial structure of the Jerusalem temple, personal repentance becomes the way to prepare oneself for what Jesusites thought was the imminent divine judgment of individuals. The shift from bringing a gift to the priest to atone for cultic infractions to self-recrimination for moral shortcoming was vast. Battling universal temptations to power, from the crass to the subtle (“the devil,” Matt. 4:5-11), Jesus struggled to emerge from his 40-day wilderness self-examination grasping the fullness of his identity and calling. Who was he to be now?
Roles with titles of king and messiah are politically, not religiously, threatening to occupiers, while the religious roles people consider might apply to Jesus suggest what he wanted Judaism to become in totally uncharted territory. Perhaps “king of the Jews” was the most provocative of all. There had been no formal king of Judea since Herod the Great (d. c. 4 B.C.E.), and he had imposed heavy taxes to pay for his colossal building projects and planted a Roman eagle at the temple entrance. Jews chafed under him. Pilate was asking implicitly if Jesus aimed to be another Herod.
What later became the ontologically weighted roles of Messiah and Son of God, and the biblically freighted roles of prophet and son of man (Dan. 7:13-14), were each shocking in a different way that would recreate Judean religion in unanticipatable directions. With Rome’s sword poised above everyone’s head, should Jews try to appease the military giant, or give their lives to expel it? This is the question that preoccupied Jewish leaders devoted to maintaining peace with the Romans, delicate as it was.
Now the situation has heated up to a point that Rome feels it needs to protect its interests in the region, and some leaders of the people agree that the only way to sustain the fragile peace is to eliminate Jesus. The opportunity comes at the customary Roman practice of releasing one prisoner before Passover. Trusting their leaders’ judgment that sacrificing one man would save all their lives, the people reportedly call for Jesus’ death and for good measure take responsibility for it.
Jesus’ execution did postpone a bloodbath for about a century, but when it came, in 135 with the crushing defeat of Bar Kokba at Betar, it came with vengeance. There was utter devastation, and those who could fled the country.
Matthew 27:25, meant to ward off the sword, was deftly yet wrongly turned around against the Jews by the Church. It and 1 Thessalonians 2:15 perhaps fused in the mind of Melito of Sardis, who created the absurd misnomer of deicide, the accusation that the Jews killed God. The deicide charge, dropped by the Roman Catholic Church in 1965, was wrongheaded to begin with, and misleading. The whole Godhead did not die by crucifixion. But making that distinction did not occur to Church leaders who held all Jews responsible for murdering God for nearly two millennia.
Naturally, Jesus’ followers were distraught at his death, but the Church turned that in the opposite direction. For the Western church, the cross became the saving event of history. Would there be Christians if Jesus had died a natural death? Gentiles came to the atoning power and love of God in that seemingly tragic moment that was a gift in disguise. If Judas and Caiaphas cooperated in identifying Jesus to the Roman police, we might ask, why has the Church not been celebrating and thanking them for undertaking that dastardly deed that, as no one at that time could anticipate, enabled the salvation of Gentiles?
The liturgical renewal movement of the late 20th century cleaned out a lot of anti-Jewish rhetoric from Christian liturgy, but readings like this one, if taught without great care, can keep contempt for Judaism and Jews alive.
How to read this passage without blaming the Jews, either explicitly or implicitly? Contextualizing the story can surely help. One way is to locate it in its appropriate political context regarding both Romans and Jewish leaders and people. Another would be to place it within the context of the religious chaos following the destruction of the Temple in 70. A third would be to contextualize it among the options for reconstructing Judaism offered by Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, Paul, Mark, Luke, and Matthew.
Contextualizing is helpful but not sufficient. Next should be considering how the context recurs in Christian minds today, as Charles Dickens did in A Tale of Two Cities, and Françis Poulenc did in “Diologues des Carmelites,” based on the true story of nuns who refused to leave their convent during the French Revolution and were guillotined for their resistance to the state. Our own moment in the United States is divided blue-red, in a political civil war in which we cannot talk across these lines. Political violence is now part of the reality. An analogy between the triangle of Jesus caught between Rome and his followers, and that of democracy caught between blue and red citizens, is not exact, but the fragility and contentiousness of Jesus’ movement and what has become the fragility and contentiousness of democracy suggest frightening parallels.