- Isaiah 45:21-25
- Isaiah 52:13-53:12
- Philippians 2:5-11
- Matthew 26:36-75
- Matthew 27:1-66
Passion Sunday, Year A
Main Text (Hover for Text)
Irony plays a significant role in Matthew’s gospel.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.