Passion Sunday, Year A
The Lesson: Isaiah 45:21-25
Thus says the Lord, "Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’ Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed, all who were incensed against him. In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory."
Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him–his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men– so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
The Epistle: Philippians 2:5-11
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Gospel: Matthew (26:36-75) 27:1-54 (55-66)
[Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I go yonder and pray." And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done." And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand." While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him." And he came up to Jesus at once and said, "Hail, Master!" And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, "Friend, why are you here?" Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, "Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled." Then all the disciples forsook him and fled. Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter followed him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end. Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, "This fellow said, `I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.'" And the high priest stood up and said, "Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?" But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his robes, and said, "He has uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?" They answered, "He deserves death." Then they spat in his face, and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, "Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?" Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him, and said, "You also were with Jesus the Galilean." But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you mean." And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him, and she said to the bystanders, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth." And again he denied it with an oath, "I do not know the man." After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you." Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, "I do not know the man." And immediately the cock crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.] When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor. When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." They said, "What is that to us? See to it yourself." And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, "It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money." So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me." Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You have said so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge; so that the governor wondered greatly. Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said, "Let him be crucified." And he said, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified." So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves." And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" And they spat upon him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked h
im, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull), they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews." Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, `I am the Son of God.’" And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And some of the bystanders hearing it said, "This man is calling Elijah." And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, "Truly this was the Son of God!" [There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre. Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, `After three days I will rise again.' Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, `He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
Irony plays a significant role in mimetic theory.
Reading Matthew’s version of the Passion Narrative requires us to keep both of those statements in view.
In chapter 18, Jesus teaches his followers how to handle it when offended by another member. First, speak alone to that member. Then, if the member refuses to “listen” to you, take another member with you, to confirm all that happens. If the member still won’t listen, take the issue to the church. If the recalcitrant member won’t listen to the church, then that one is to be to you as a “Gentile and a tax collector.”
Usually, this is read to mean some sort of “exile,” or “banishment,” which tells us more about the reader than the text itself. The irony of this last recommendation is that Jesus does not banish or exile Gentiles and tax collectors. He treats them with special care, with greater love so as to win them. Gentiles and tax collectors are understood to stand outside the group of believers. You don’t share a common understanding with them of God’s love or God’s purpose. You have to “love them” back into community so that you can then explain to them their error. What seems on the surface to be condemnation is in fact a statement of mercy for the outsider.
In Matthew’s 23rd chapter Jesus pronounces the “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees. Over and over Jesus appears to castigate them for their blindness, their stubbornness, their hypocrisy, and then our impression is turned on its head by the inclusion of the Lament over Jerusalem. This is an integral part of the “woes,” as it is set apart from the following section on the destruction of the temple by the narrative marker “As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away.”
What would, on the lips of any other speaker be a series of “curses” (as in the Deuteronomic curses and blessings) becomes a prelude to the lament, a cry of deep compassion. “Woe,” the onomatopoeic cry that imitates the moan of the person grieving becomes Jesus’ cry of anguish at the scribes and Pharisees’ failures. He weeps over them as he does over the city. Again the irony makes of the reader’s initial reading a reading of the reader.
Mimetic theory shows us that, in the Passion of Jesus, the scapegoat mechanism that threatens our very survival is made by God into the vehicle of our salvation.
As we read Matthew’s version of the Passion, the most startling moment from a redaction critical standpoint is the amazing cry of the Jews as they stand before Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Christian readers have, for centuries, allowed this text to read them because they have missed the irony of it. They read it as though Matthew believed that the Jews were somehow rejected, cast out as a result of the death of the Messiah. They read this as though the Jews had called down a curse upon themselves.
Indeed, if this were not the Gospel at work, if it were not so that the truth of the Gospel is often revealed in irony, this would be a curse, a “blood libel,” as it has often been called. But the cry of the Jews before Pilate serves as the ultimate irony.
Here, at the feast of the Passover, wherein the readers celebrate one founding murder, that of the spotless lamb whose blood spared them the wrath of the destroyer, the Jews anticipate a new murder, a remade identity. As the founding murder creates our cultural identity, they cry out, “His blood be on us,” as a claim that this murder will re-make the corporate identity that has been lost in the emergence of the mob (throubos, 27:24 as opposed to the normal ochlos). What appears at first to be a calling down by the Jews of vengeance upon themselves becomes the opposite. A new identity is formed, but not the one they or the readers expect. Jesus’ blood does for them precisely what he says, in the eucharistic narrative it will do, brings forgiveness of sins for “many.” (peri pollon, a translation of a hebraism meaning “for all.”)
For all. They call down the consequence of Jesus’ blood upon themselves.
In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, it would have been easy for Matthew’s readers to read this too literally, to betray themselves by their oversight of the irony, just as Christian interpreters have betrayed their own nascent anti-semitism by doing the same thing. But Matthew claims here what he has claimed elsewhere, that among the “many” for whom Jesus’ blood was shed are included the “Jews,” the “lost sheep of Israel.” (15:24, 10:5).
This is also the point of the ‘ransom for many’ (Matthew 20.28). The blood of the [new] covenant (26.28) is for both sets of persecutors, Israelites and Gentiles. It is an inclusive blood offered for all (‘polloi’), inasmuch as all have participated in the sacrificial mechanism that began with Abel and runs all the way through salvation history (23.35). The death of Jesus is likened to the founding murder for it alone reveals that forgiveness of all enemies differentiates itself from the cry of the founding victim. Jesus’ blood ‘speaks a better word than that of Abel’ (Hebrews 12.24). Not only Paul and the writer to the Hebrews, but also the writer of Matthew’s Gospel seem to have understood that Jesus’ death, the shedding of his blood, was for all. Thus, rather than interpreting the Passion of St. Matthew from the perspective of the persecutor, which can only result in anti-Semitism, we can recognize that the gospel reveals the mythology of exclusion and retaliation by including both Jews and Gentiles in the shedding of his blood, a blood which cries to heaven for forgiveness for all.
It is frequently assumed that Matthew’s stance toward Judaism is one of negative mimetic conflict. Rather, we must see that the Matthean community weeps for its brothers and sisters who will not see the power of mercy offered in the life and death of Jesus. The spirituality of the Matthean Beatitudes, indeed the Sermon on the Mount, make little sense if any other part of the Gospel is interpreted in an anti-Semitic fashion. It may not be exegetically fashionable to interpret the Passion of Matthew’s Gospel as we have done, (though we’d suggest that says more about the assumptions of the exegetes than it does about the text) but it is congruent with the Matthean portrait of Jesus.
On PreachingPeace we have often underscored the difference between myth and gospel. Myth demands scapegoats and then hides its own scapegoating. Gospel rehabilitates scapegoats and reveals forgiveness for those who scapegoat others. These fundamental distinctions and differences between myth and gospel are woven throughout the Passion Narrative.
There are tendencies today in Christian churches and communions to seek out persons of difference and scapegoat them. There are tendencies toward exclusion, judgment and condemnation toward those who see things differently. It is time we no longer lived in the perpetuation of a new (which is really an old) Christian myth. It is time for contemporary Christianity to rise out of its slumber and once again live in the light of the passion of Jesus, the forgiving One.
Some Sermon Thoughts
Perhaps you’re in one of those churches that read the Passion Narrative as a play on Palm Sunday. Divided up into parts, with the congregation reading the part of the crowd? If you’ve never done this before, this is the year to start. Let your congregation hear themselves saying “His blood be on us, and on our children!”
I’ll have them repeat it. And repeat it, and repeat it.
And then we’ll sing, “Nothing but the blood,” or “Let thy blood in mercy poured.”
At that point, since it’s already a long service, and a very long Gospel reading, I may sit down. They’ll get it without a lot of explaining.