Passion Sunday: crucified

Crowning-with-Thorns-lowfThe King Is Scourged and Mocked (27:26-31a) 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.

Where the religious trial ends by mocking Jesus as the Christ, the secular trial ends with Jesus being mocked as king with a scarlet cloak (a soldier’s cape) parodying the emperor’s purple robe, a reed representing a royal scepter, and the crown of thorns. Jesus is thus enthroned as king, and offered the homage of kneeling which a Hellenistic ruler required. In this scene Matthew continues to redefine what kingship means. If this scene is a coronation, then the cross will be the throne.

Simon Is Compelled to Carry Jesus’ Cross (27:31b-32) In Roman executions, the vertical crucifixion stake was permanently fixed at the place of execution; the condemned man was typically forced to carry the heavy crossbar himself. In this spare rendering of the Way of the Cross, we hear the echo of Jesus’ declaration that everyone – himself included – must carry his own cross (16:24); such is the nature of discipleship. Simon the Cyrene (modern Libya) was pressed into service (cf 5:41) to assist in carrying the cross. In the Matthean narrative he is the only person present at Golgotha whose name we know. That a stranger carries Jesus’ cross (a) emphasizes the abandonment of the disciples and (b) anticipates the coming Gentile mission.

jesus_crucifiedJesus is Crucified (27:33-56) Christian preaching throughout the millennia and recent movies such as The Passion of the Christ have stressed the grim and cruel details of the scourging and the crucifixion. But the Gospel writers do not do so, and Matthew remarkably passes over the actual fastening to the cross in a bare participle (v. 35a). In the Greek the crucifixion is a subordinate clause of the main sentence. Matthew’s interest is more in the meaning of the event, and his emphasis falls again, as in vv. 27–31, on the element of mockery, not now by Gentiles, but by Jews reviling their ‘king’. Even more remarkably, in this improbable setting some of the highest Christological titles come to expression: King of the Jews, temple-builder, Son of God, King of Israel, and again Son of God. In their very mockery, they ironically reinforce those titles, for it is in the degrading fate of crucifixion that Jesus’ noble mission is accomplished. The shocking paradox of a crucified Messiah could hardly be more sharply underlined.

The drink of wine mixed with gall (‘myrrh’ in Mark) is usually understood as a narcotic to reduce the pain of crucifixion, and Sanhedrin 43 a tells us that such a drink was offered by the noble ladies of Jerusalem to those about to be executed (a practice inspired by Prov. 31:6–7). If so, Jesus’ refusal of it might mean that he was determined to undergo his fate in full consciousness. At any rate, for Matthew its main significance lies in the reminiscence of Psalm 69:22 (heightened by his use of the LXX word gall, not ‘myrrh’), which will be echoed again in v. 48. This psalm, together with Psalm 22, will re-echo throughout the account of the crucifixion, thus presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the figure of the ‘righteous sufferer’ of those psalms.

The imagery from Ps 22 begin with the soldiers casting lots (Ps 22:19) an otherwise standard Roman practice. But also here Matthew mentions that from this point on Jesus is guarded by the Roman authorities perhaps to counter later 1st century rumors of Jesus’ escaping death on the cross. It also paves the way for their exclamation in v. 54, which forms the theological climax of the story.

The deep irony of the whole trail, mocking and crucifixion scene is concentrated on the placard placed on the cross. It was intended as a coarse joke, but the reader knows its profound truth as the most fundamental of Christian professions: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. This would-be profession stands in stark contrast to the mocking that follows.

On the cross Jesus is derided by three groups: passersby (v.39), the whole Sanhedrin (v.41), and the revolutionaries (v.44). The narrative recalls taunts from the earlier trials (e.g., reviled here is the same as blasphemed used in 26:65) while echoing imagery from Ps 22

All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me: “You relied on the LORD–let him deliver you; if he loves you, let him rescue you.” (Ps 22:8-9)

At the same time Matthew subtly points back to Jesus’ own teaching to the disciples. The challenge for Jesus, who saved others, to save himself, while a taunt on the passersby lips is ironically Jesus teaching (For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 16:25). Their last taunt if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” is paradoxical. It is exactly because he is the Son of God that he is on the cross, to come down would be to repudiate the will of his Father. The Sanhedrin and the revolutionaries join in the same chorus. There are no repentant thieves in Matthew’s account. There are none among them who will believe.

Now the picture begins to change, as we see both in the accompanying events and in Jesus’ own words and attitude something of the true significance of what is happening. As before, Matthew shows no interest in the physical nature of Jesus’ suffering, or the medical cause of death, but by a series of clear allusions to Old Testament passages continues to point to Jesus’ death as the moment of fulfillment, leading up in v. 54 to a climactic confession of faith from the most unlikely source.

There could not be a natural eclipse at the time of the Passover full moon. What could account for the darkness? Perhaps it was caused by a dust storm, or heavy cloud cover, but it is more likely to be understood, as Matthew surely intended, as a direct sign of God’s displeasure, as in Amos 8:9 (On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun set at midday and cover the earth with darkness in broad daylight.)

The scene of Jesus’ cry out from the cross is marked by uniqueness within Matthew’s narrative – from the use of the word anaboaō (cried out used only here in the New Testament) to the remarkable address to God: this is the only time in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus addresses God without calling him “Father.” The words are, of course, a quotation of the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm which moves from despairing appeal to triumphant faith, and the Christian reader can, with hindsight, see the appropriateness of this total message. But it is dishonest to interpret Jesus’ words as referring to the part of the psalm which he did not echo – something we perhaps do to allow us to quickly move beyond the cross. As throughout the crucifixion scene, it is the suffering of the righteous man in Psalm 22, not his subsequent vindication, which is alluded to. But the fact that Jesus can still appeal to ‘my God’ places his sense of abandonment worlds apart from a nihilistic despair. This moment on the cross, this moment of abandonment – this is the ‘cup’ which he has willingly accepted from his Father’s hand (26:36–46).

Jesus’ cry is heard by those nearby as calling for Elijah, understood in Jewish piety as the one who would bring comfort and succor from God to the afflicted one. Perhaps the offer of wine was an act of kindness, to which others in the crowd mockingly objected that, if any relief was to be given, it should be given by Elijah in response to Jesus’ supposed appeal.

But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit. Matthew gives no indication whether the ‘cry’ is the triumphant ‘It is finished’ of John 19:30, or a further cry of agony like that in v. 46, but the use of the verb krazō (‘cry’) may be a further reminiscence of Psalm 22, where this verb occurs in the LXX of vv. 2, 5, 24. The expression gave up his spirit (translated in other texts as “breathed his last”) is perhaps intentionally theological on Matthew’s part. He could simply have written “and he died.” The Greek aphiēmi means “let go, leave, leave alone, release, forgive” coming from the noun aphesis release (noun), liberation, forgiveness [EDNT 1:181]. It might be that Matthew intended us to understand that in this point what Jesus gives is redemption, his forgiveness for the sake of not just those nearby who mocked and disbelieved, but to all the world.

At this juncture the eschatological signs witness to the great event that has just happened. The tearing of the veil of the sanctuary (see Notes below; probably that separating off the ‘holy of holies’, though there was also a curtain at the entrance to the sanctuary building from the Court of the Priests), while perhaps physically caused by the earthquake, is surely understood as a symbol of the opening of access to God through the death of Jesus. In the light of Jesus’ words about the coming destruction of the temple the tearing of the curtain may also be seen as a foreshadowing of the more drastic events to come in 70 AD.

As to the resurrection of the saints from their tombs, France (1989, p.406-7) writes:

Apart from perhaps explaining how the curtain came to be torn, the earthquake is presented as the means by which the tombs were opened. In the Old Testament an earthquake is a symbol of God’s mighty acts (e.g. Judg. 5:4; Ps. 114:7–8), especially in judgment (e.g. Joel 3:16; Nah. 1:5–6). This extraordinary sequel to the earthquake is nowhere else recorded outside Matthew. Jewish theology had developed from such passages as Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2 a belief in a bodily resurrection in the last days (Ezek. 37:1–14 was interpreted of that eschatological resurrection, and the words used here suggest that Matthew had that passage particularly in mind), and John 5:25–29 records Jesus as teaching that ‘the hour is coming, and now is’ when this hope would be fulfilled through his agency. This account therefore presents that belief in concrete form, apparently as the result of Jesus’ death. After his resurrection, however, unless it represents an unexplained delay of two days between the rising of the saints and their arrival in the holy city, perhaps suggests that Matthew has not recorded these events in strict ‘chronological’ order, and that the rising of the saints is seen as the sequel not so much to Jesus’ death as to his resurrection, thus reflecting the view ‘that Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of the general resurrection at the end of time’, a view picked up in e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:20ff. The saints are presumably the people of God in the Old Testament, those who according to Hebrews 11 all died ‘in faith’ looking forward to resurrection to a better life (Heb. 11:13–16, 35, 39–40); through Jesus that hope now comes to fruition. The theological significance of this event is therefore important for Matthew’s analysis of the meaning of Christ’s death; it was, in any case, a unique occurrence and is not to be judged by the canons of ‘normal’ experience.

The effect of these signs is profound. The soldiers are converted and presage the first of the Gentiles who will believe: “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

Jesus is Buried (27:57-61) In Matthew’s account, the faithful women have viewed from a distance. Their appearance at this point of the narrative emphasizes their key role of witness after all the men have fled. Only later do others appear, namely Joseph of Arimathea (cf. John 3), who in Matthew is not mentioned as a member of the Sanhedrin. Thus it is not a sympathetic member of the opposition who buries Jesus, but a disciple of Jesus. Jesus is buried in a known place of a prominent man, not a place where there would be confusion regarding its location. And at the end of it all, two women remain, keeping watch.

Jesus’ Tomb Is Sealed and Guarded (27:62-66) These final verses begin a new day. The guard, so important in Matthew’s account of the resurrection, are not mentioned in the other Gospels. His reason for mentioning them is presumably that a story about the disciples stealing Jesus’ body was being used to discredit Christian claims; Justin says that such stories were still being actively disseminated in the middle of the second century (Dial. 108). The fact of such propaganda in itself indicates that it could not be denied that the tomb was empty; what was questioned was how it came to be empty.

A Final Thought Matthew’s account is devoid of the graphic violence, the blood, and prolonged description of the suffering endured. There is no emphasis on the saving efficacy of the act of crucifixion (as in John and Paul). Matthew’s intent seems to be to affirm his most basic themes:

  • This truly is the Messiah, the Son of God
  • The one who was rejected by opponents and abandoned by disciples – forming humanity’s response.
  • But Jesus has formed a people called out (ekklesia) – Jews and Gentiles alike – who are formed into the people of God in the forgiveness, and
  • The center of their faith is Jesus, the righteous one who modeled the right relationship with God the Father in life, in word, in act and even in death.

NOTES
Matthew 27:33 Golgotha: Presumably a regular place of execution outside the city, in a prominent public place so that the deterrent effect of crucifixion could operate. While no certainty is possible, the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (which is outside the city wall of Herodian Jerusalem) seems the most likely location.

Matthew 27:38 revolutionaries: The word lēstēs is also used in 26:55 and of Barabbas in John 18:40. It can apply to a highway bandit (Luke 10:30; 2 Cor. 11:26), but is used by Josephus of political insurgents (such as Barabbas), so that these two may have been not so much common thieves as political rebels which was, of course, the charge against Jesus too.

Matthew 27:45 noon…three in the afternoon: Literally, the sixth and ninth hours.

Matthew 27:46 Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?: Jesus cries out in the words of Psalm 22:2. In Mark the verse is cited entirely in Aramaic, which Matthew partially retains but changes the invocation of God to the Hebrew Eli, possibly because that is more easily related to the statement of the following verse about Jesus’ calling for Elijah.

Matthew 27:51 veil of the sanctuary: The word used here, naos properly means “temple.” [EDNT 2:456] The word hierós is the one which describes the inner sanctuary or Holy of Holies [TDNT 3:221].


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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