Passion Sunday: the sheep scatter

Jesus arrestedJesus Predicts Desertion and Promises Reunion (26:30b-35) The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is quite lengthy and so will not be included here. It can be found at the USCCB website:

One of the curious “tests” that some scholars apply to a passage regarding “authenticity” (by which they really mean historicity) is “would it embarrass the early church?” If it would, then it must be so “authentic” and compelling that the sacred writer includes it even though it is embarrassing. Jesus’ prediction that all the disciples would abandon him in his hour does not reflect well on the future leaders of the nascent Christian movement.

The NSRV says “You will all become deserters [skandallisthēsesthe]…” – and though it more literally means to “fall away” “be caused to stumble” – there is something scandalous that will shake their faith to the very core. This the word that Matthew uses to describe the hometown folk, the Pharisees, and those who profess belief in Jesus but who stumble when the world or persecution arises on account of Jesus’ word (13:21).

And because of this they will indeed desert Jesus. As serious as this desertion would be, it was not final, since Jesus promised to meet the disciples in Galilee after he was raised from the dead (cf. 28:7, 10, 16). Perhaps the picture of Jesus going ahead of the disciples to Galilee is intended to cause the reader to picture a shepherd going ahead of his sheep (cf. John 10:4). The shepherd image has already been raised with the reference to Zech 13:7 where it is God himself who strikes the shepherd, scattering the flock

Matthew has consistently portrayed Jesus as a messianic king who will shepherd God’s people (2:1-6), who has compassion on the people as sheep without a shepherd (9:36), and who understands his mission as regathering and reconstituting the lost sheep of the house of Israel into the saved community of the people of God (10:6; 15:24). So too the disciples will endure their own scattering and be regathered by the risen Jesus who goes before them.

Where previously Peter had spoken for the group, now the group is breaking down and Peter boldly speaks for himself – the others speak for themselves – and already the sheep are scattering. Peter has yet to learn the weakness of his faith without the Good Shepherd leading him.

Jesus Prays and Is Arrested (26:36-56) This remarkable narrative gives perhaps the most intimate insight into the nature of Jesus’ relationship with his Father, as well as into the cost of his Messianic mission. It blends together the reality of his humanity with the uniqueness of his position as Son of God. At the same time it illustrates the weakness of the disciples, and prepares us for their subsequent failure.

The three who accompanied Jesus at the transfiguration are with him now apparently simply for companionship. But it may be significant that it is these three who have explicitly declared their readiness to share Jesus’ fate (20:22; 26:35); they are now called to share with him in preparing for it, and even at this level they will fail. To feel sorrow and distress (v.37; lypeisthie; vexed) hardly does justice to the Greek verbs which suggest an anguish of wretchedness. My soul is sorrowful (again a weak translation of the uncommon word perilypos, ‘deeply grieved’) is an echo of the LXX translation of the refrain of Psalms 42–43, ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul …?’, the lament of a righteous sufferer who knows his hope in God will ultimately be vindicated. The phrase even to death probably indicates the scale of his grief, but may also define its cause—it is grief as he approaches death. In this emotional turmoil Jesus wants company; that the Son of God should want the ‘moral support’ of three fishermen (and that he should be disappointed, v. 40) is a wonderful illustration of the paradox of the incarnation.

While others sometimes fell on their faces before Jesus (17:6; cf. Luke 5:12; 17:16), this is the only time Jesus is said to have prostrated himself. The posture indicates the strength of the emotion which leads to prayer. But the address My Father (cf. on 6:9; 11:25–27) lifts the whole episode from that of an abject appeal to the intimate communion of the Son of God with the Father. The issue is not whether or not Jesus should accept the Father’s purpose, but whether that purpose need include the cup (cf. 20:22) of suffering, or whether there is some other way. Hence the blend in this verse of a clear request with the acceptance that that request might not be granted—a blend which could well be imitated in much of our praying, with its often peremptory demands. The only issue that matters is what are the limits of the will of God. Jesus’ prayer is an exploration of those limits, but never attempts to break outside them.

Meanwhile the disciples wrestle with their humanity: a willing spirit but a weak flesh – and they miss Jesus’ wrestling with the same humanity, but with a different result. Jesus moves from praying for deliverance from death (v.39) to trust and commitment to God’s will (v.42) – all while using the identical words that Jesus has taught his own disciples in giving them the Lord’s Prayer (6:10).

And the Father’s will becomes evident as Judas again enters the narrative (vv.46-7) – although he had never clearly left in Matthew’s narrative. Judas arrives with a generically described “large crowd.” Scholars conjecture that since they were sent, in part, from the chief priests and the elders that the crowd includes Temple police/guards. In such a context, hardly friendly, Judas overture “Hail, Rabbi” is met with “Friend.” Some have speculated that “friend” is said to remind Judas that he had shared table fellowship with Jesus; other see a politely cool generic form of address to some unknown (or in this case who has separated himself from the community of believers).

The phrase that we have as “do what you have come for” can also be translated as a question (What have you come for?) or the command – the normal translation option as it indicates Jesus’ sovereignty.

John supplies the names of both the disciple (Peter) and the high priest’s slave (Malchus), and Luke tells of the restoration of the ear. But Matthew simply tells the bare facts in order to draw out Jesus’ sovereign control of the events even if he appears as the helpless victim. The disciple who tried armed resistance had simply misread the situation. Jesus is not a helpless victim, needing any human help available. He is being arrested because he chooses; if he wanted help he could call on far more than a few swords. His refusal to thwart his enemies’ plans either by evasion or by supernatural power derives from his repeatedly voiced conviction that his mission must be one of rejection and suffering (see on 16:21; 17:22–23; 20:17–19, 28). Behind these earlier predictions it has not been hard to discern the scriptures as the source of Jesus’ conviction; now that source is made explicit. And for Jesus there is no other option but that the scriptures be fulfilled. That issue had been settled in Gethsemane.

As the scene closes the sheep are now truly scattered: the disciples left him and fled (v.56).


Notes
Matthew 26:30 singing a hymn: The hymn was presumably Psalms 115–118, the last part of the Hallel, which were sung at the end of the Passover meal.

Matthew 26:31 for it is written: This fate of the Messiah and his followers is already written in Zechariah 13:7, a rather cryptic passage which is probably to be understood as one of a series of pictures in Zechariah 9–14 of a humble rejected Messianic figure, the shepherd-king. In Zechariah 13:7–9 the shepherd who ‘stands next to’ God is struck by God’s sword and the flock is scattered; but eventually one-third of them, refined and purified, are restored to be God’s people. So the suffering of the Messiah has its devastating effect also on his people but will lead in time to their establishment as the Messianic community.

Matthew 26:36 Gethsemane: Meaning ‘oil-press’ was a ‘garden’ (John 18:1), perhaps an enclosed olive-orchard, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. It was a regular rendezvous for Jesus and his disciples (John 18:2; cf. Luke 22:39–40), perhaps their overnight bivouac for the festival (cf. vv. 6, 30), so that Judas knew where to find them.

Matthew 26:50 do what you have come for: The phrase can also be translated as a question (What have you come for?) or the command – the normal translation option as it indicates Jesus’ sovereignty.

Matthew 26:53 twelve legions of angels. A legion is a Roman military unit numbering six thousand soldiers. The number twelve has obvious implications. Jesus had power available to him in the form of thousands of angels (cf. 4:6, 11; 13:41; 16:27; 25:31), but he would not oppose the plan ordained for him by the Father in the Scriptures (26:24, 56).


Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) 90-100
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 463-97
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 503-40
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 976-1095
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 364-410
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 361-407
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 898-902
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 620-97
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 313-58
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 335-369

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

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