Liturgy of the Passion
April 5, 2020
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, "."
I don't really agree with the Lectionary turning Palm Sunday into Passion Sunday. Sundays are always supposed to be celebrations of the Resurrection - even in Lent. And this text just does not lend itself in any way to a Sunday liturgy. It needs a special day all to itself - like, for example, Good Friday.
If you want to follow the Lectionary, one good suggestion I've seen in this year's United Church of Canada's Gathering magazine is to have a traditional Palm Sunday service, but move into Holy Week by ending with a dramatic reading of the shorter passage, Matthew 27:11-54.
But before we plunge in, let's remember a couple of important historical contexts.
The most crucial translation mistake to correct is it's "Judean Authorities" not "Jews." Don't be shy about this; don't hesitate. Get out a permanent black ink marker and go through every copy of the Bible in your church and cross out "Jew," and write in "Judean Authorities," or "the followers of the Judean Authorities." That is what the Greek word actually means. The translation, "Jews" is just plain historically incorrect. Don't "honour" the received translation - correct it.
And while you're at it, write a note in the margin: "Jesus is from Galilee."
And you'll probably also have to add a second note: "Judeans thought Galileans were hillbillies. Uneducated bumpkins. That Roman governor, Pilate, really insulted Judeans by suggesting they would be so stupid and low-class as to have a Galilean as their King. Jesus, King of the Judeans! Outrageous! Kill him!"
And just to be fair to the Judean Authorities, also add a footnote: "At the time of Jesus, Israel had been conquered by the Romans. The Judean Authorities were under the iron fist of the Roman occupiers and allowed to be "Authorities" only on the condition that they kept the peace among their own people, and collected taxes for the hated occupiers. Jesus - a nobody from the boonies - came to the capital city, Jerusalem, at a time when it was filled with pilgrims from the countryside - precisely the worst time for social unrest as far as the authorities were concerned. Without the gift of knowing how things would actually turn out, how would any of us have acted at the time if we had been one of the authorities?"
Secondly, remember that then - as now - the Bible is all about bonding; about unhesitating loyalty; about honouring and trusting God - holding nothing back. So read the story, NOT as a play with each of the people following a pre-written script. Read it as real people, making real decisions in real time - not knowing all the facts; not knowing how it would all turn out. And read it as real people trying to discern just what being loyal to God means in the face of possible violent death - either by the Romans executing one man, or by the Romans brutally putting down a revolt.
Thirdly, as Crossan and Borg helpfully point out in their book, The Last Week, the PASSION of Jesus was for God's kingdom. As Matthew 4:17 puts it, Jesus' ministry begins with:
From that time (after his baptism and testing in the desert) Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near."
Proclaiming the Kingdom of heaven has come near within a country that is occupied by the Roman Empire can only end badly. Can only end in an excruciating, painful, shameful, humiliating death.
As all of the Gospels make clear, Jesus did NOT see that his purpose on earth was to suffer and die. His purpose on earth was to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. Faced with the choice of being loyal to God or suffering Rome's torture, Jesus chose God.
Fourthly, it is important not to shy away from the brutality and humiliation of Jesus' death.
Mocking, flogging, stripping completely naked, and nailing to a cross lifted high for public viewing and exposure to the elements and carnivorous birds and animals was a deliberate, well-thought out form of execution used by the Romans for a very specific reason.
It was designed to cause the maximum amount of pain for the maximum amount of time. (Usually the crucified person suffered for 2 or 3 days before dying. Their body would be left for birds and animals to eat at before finally being taken down and cast into a mass grave.)
And it was designed to cause the maximum amount of shame and humiliation.
Because the Romans were not just trying to kill the person.
They were killing what the person stood for. They were killing any reputation the person may have had. They were killing any movement the person may have started. They were killing any possibility that anyone would remain loyal. They were killing any possible future. They were killing hope.
But of course we now know the end of the story.
Jesus was killed.
But his loyalty to God; his hope; what he stood for; God's loyalty to him; God's hope; what God stands for - these were not killed.
The Jesus who died on Good Friday was still dead on Easter Sunday.
But the embodied passion of Jesus that did not hesitate in the face of humiliating, torturous death did not die on Good Friday, and was seen to be actually, factually, really alive on Easter Sunday.
So with this background in mind, let's turn to this very long passage. Because of the length of this background commentary, I've provided links to specific passages for easier navigation. Click on the links below to go directly to a particular passage:
- Matthew 26:1-5, The Plot To Kill Jesus
- Matthew 26:6-13, The Anointing of Jesus at Bethany
- Matthew 26:14-16, Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus
- Matthew 26:17-25, The Passover Meal With The Disciples; Judas' Betrayal Foretold
- Matthew 26:26-30, The Institution Of The Lord's Supper
- Matthew 26:31-35, Peter's Denial Foretold
- Matthew 26:36-46, Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
- Matthew 26:47-56, The Betrayal And Arrest Of Jesus
- Matthew 26:57-68, Jesus Before The High Priest
- Matthew 26:69-75, Peter's Denial Of Jesus
- Matthew 27:1-2, Jesus Is Brought Before The Roman Governor, Pilate
- Matthew 27:3-10, The Suicide of Judas
- Matthew 27:11-14, Pilate Questions Jesus
- Matthew 27:15-23, The Crowd Chooses To Free Barabbas And Crucify Jesus
- Matthew 27:24-26, Pilate Flogs Jesus And Hands Him Over To Be Crucified
- Matthew 27:27-31, The Soldiers Mock Jesus
- Matthew 27:32-44, The Taunting And Shaming Of Jesus Crucified
- Matthew 27:45-56, The Death of Jesus
- Matthew 27:57-61, The Burial Of Jesus
- Matthew 27:62-66, The Guard At The Tomb The Next Day
Matthew 26:1-5, The Plot To Kill Jesus
Okay, this is not part of the Lectionary passage, but it's kind of important to know that what we are about to read happens because of a conscious decision "to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him."
Bruce Malina (Page 127, see footnote below.) comments:
After (losing) the intense conflict (with Jesus) in Jerusalem, "the chief priests and the elders" must get their satisfaction by whatever means necessary, including those normally applied in Mediterranean society by elites:
- stealth, as here;
- bribery of Judas; (Matthew 26:14-16)
- false witnesses; (Matthew 26:60)
- trumped-up accusations before the Roman governor; (Matthew 27:12)
- inciting the crowd against Jesus; (Matthew 27:20)
- and their final satisfaction, mocking him as he hung, publically shamed, from the cross. (Matthew 27:41-42)
Their fear of a riot among the people is an indication of the high regard with which Jesus is esteemed by "the people." It is precisely this high public honour that the brutal process of flogging, mocking, stripping naked, crucifixion, and taunting are designed to eradicate.
But even at the outset, before all this happens, the fact that Jesus foretells his crucifixion demonstrates to his followers that he is "above" these events and is, in fact, NOT a victim.
Matthew 26:6-13, The Anointing of Jesus at Bethany
Too bad the disciples forgot to remember and mention the name of the woman whom Jesus honours:
By my word of honour, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
Matthew 26:14-16, Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus
That the Jerusalem elites bribe Judas is par for the course.
That Judas betrays Jesus is shocking. As a core member of Jesus' inner circle, Judas, by word and deeds, would have committed himself to Jesus. His disloyalty to Jesus by betraying him into the hands of his opponents would be the lowest of the low.
Matthew 26:17-25, The Passover Meal With The Disciples; Judas' Betrayal Foretold
Passover is still celebrated by Jews today in remembrance of the events that liberated them from slavery in Egypt, created them as God's covenanted people, and brought them to this land where they could worship and serve God.
It is a special family meal, and the fact that Jesus shares it with the twelve disciples indicates the high value of their relationship as surrogate family. Jesus and his disciples share a familial closeness, bonding, loyalty and trust that is defended at all costs by Mediterranean families.
And so it is highly disturbing that the first order of business is Jesus announcing that one of them will betray him.
In a typical Mediterranean way, Jesus does not make a direct accusation of Judas. Instead, he says, "One of you." And while all of the disciples say, "Surely not I, Lord," it is only to Judas that Jesus replies, "You have said so."
Foretelling his betrayal is a re-assurance to his followers that Jesus is in onto what others are plotting, and says to them that he is not being out-witted.
Matthew 26:26-30, The Institution Of The Lord's Supper
Jesus now performs a symbolic, prophetic action. That is, he uses ordinary things to reveal divine truths.
From now on, his followers will be united with him whenever they eat bread.
From now on, his followers will be reconciled and renewed in their covenant bond whenever they drink wine.
And while the pouring out of his blood is a reference to his death; yet, death will not be the end. For Jesus gives his word of honour that death will merely be a fast from drinking until they are able to drink together in the coming kingdom of his Father.
Whereas Passover remembers events that begin in Egypt and travel to the promised land, Jesus now adds the symbolic meaning of celebrating the coming of God's kingdom into the promised land.
There is no nowhere else to go; God's kingdom is drawing near this place; near right here, right now.
As we are about to leave for the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, it is crucial to remember that this proclamation of the coming of God's kingdom is what Jesus' ministry and purpose is.
Matthew 26:31-35, Peter's Denial Foretold
So just in case we thought Judas was the only rat in the bunch, Jesus now foretells the disloyalty of all of them - they will all desert him.
And good old impetuous Peter who always over-promises learns that he will not only be a deserter, but also will deny even knowing Jesus. Not quite as low as betraying Jesus, but getting down there.
Matthew 26:36-46, Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
I'm not quite sure which is the worst behaviour for a leader to experience from his closest followers: betrayal, desertion, denial - or falling asleep while you are in deep anguish. It's hard to believe that we owe our faith to this illustrious group of failures.
Jesus knows what lies ahead and his spirit is willing but his flesh is recoiling at the thought of the torture and humiliation that lies ahead.
His prayer is that "this cup," this brutal death, can be avoided.
But like a loyal and worthy son, he also prays without hesitation, "Not my will but yours be done."
What is God's will for Jesus?
It is NOT God's will, God's purpose and intent, that Jesus be killed.
It IS God's will that Jesus not waver or hesitate from proclaiming the drawing near of God's kingdom.
Even in the face of knowing that continuing to proclaim this Good News will lead to a bloody conflict with Roman power.
In effect, Jesus is praying for courage and assurance from God "for the facing of this hour." And though the text does not say it explicitly, his prayer seems to be answered, as he is finally able to come and say to his sleeping disciples:
See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.
Matthew 26:47-56, The Betrayal And Arrest Of Jesus
The stealth of the chief priests and elders is now put into action.
They operate by cover of darkness, with a large armed crowd. (Note: this is not the same crowd as greeted Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.)
They have a pre-arranged signal to identify who is to be arrested.
Again, Jesus' followers don't get what is happening. How does love respond to coercion and violence? With reciprocal coercion and violence? No. Jesus is not without the power to respond this way. But it is not the way of love, not the way of the Kingdom of heaven.
In fact, Jesus shows the weakness of their arms by pointing out that he taught openly in the Temple day after day, and could easily have been arrested then. The fact that they have resorted to arresting him at night indicates their fear and their weakness.
Matthew 26:57-68, Jesus Before The High Priest
We have already noted that false charges and false witnesses are part of the tactics used by elites to protect their privileged positions. This is part of their "stealth."
Notice in Verse 64 that Jesus, like a worthy Son, does NOT claim for himself this honour. His reply, "You have said so," indirectly affirms, "You have spoken the truth," without saying it himself.
And notice that the question here, "Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God," is exactly the affirmation of Peter in Matthew 16:16 where Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say I am?"
Jesus' reply is truly blasphemous to the ears of the priests, and so the verdict is "Death."
And immediately they begin to shame and taunt Jesus to begin tearing down his reputation; to begin showing him who is the boss; to begin putting him in his proper place.
Matthew 26:69-75, Peter's Denial Of Jesus
Peter lies to strangers to protect his honour. This is not an altogether bad thing since a goal of Mediterranean social relations is to keep outsiders from knowing anything about one's close personal relationships.
But Peter has given Jesus his word of honour that he would not do this. And that is what causes Peter's anguish.
Matthew 27:1-2, Jesus Is Brought Before The Roman Governor, Pilate
Again there is more plotting. Binding Jesus and handing him over to the governor furthers his humiliation, and demonstrate the elite's power over him.
Matthew 27:3-10, The Suicide of Judas
Judas repents. He turns his life around. Takes back the money, and confesses that he has betrayed "innocent blood."
Strictly speaking, this could have been a turning point. The chief priests might have said, "You're right. We'll let Jesus go." But they said, "What is that to us?"
Since reconciliation has been ruled out, Judas is left with only one honourable option - to take his own life.
Matthew 27:11-14, Pilate Questions Jesus
The "many accusations" can be understood as the beginning of painting a revisionist history of Jesus as the peasant, blaspheming rebel.
Notice that the only accusation Pilate refers to is: King of the Judeans. This is probably because Pilate, as Roman governor, was the latest in a series of governors that took over in 6 A.D. from Herod, the last of the Kings of the Judeans. This accusation amounts to a charge of treason against Rome.
And again notice that Jesus does not answer the accusation directly. "You say so" means "I have the honour that you - and others - ascribe to me. I have not claimed it for myself. (Because that would be dishonourable and not worthy of a true Son of God.)" And therefore it also subtly implies, "You have spoken the truth."
In Mediterranean culture a lower class person would never ask questions of are make accusations to a higher class person. Only a higher class person could do that to a lower class person. And the lower class person would always respond; never remain silent. And similarly, a higher class person would never respond to questions or accusations from a lower class person.
So when Jesus refuses to answer to the accusations he is silently asserting that he is the higher class person. This is somewhat akin to his teaching about turning the other cheek - a non-violent way to expose and oppose unjust violence. And this is why Pilate is amazed. Is he amazed in an admiring sort of way? Or amazed in a troubled sort of way? And by troubled I mean, "Here's an upstart who needs to be shown who's really the boss around here."
Matthew 27:15-23, The Crowd Chooses To Free Barabbas And Crucify Jesus
It is important to note that the crowd in this scene is NOT the same group that welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday. This crowd are loyal to the Jerusalem authorities.
It is highly unlikely that Matthew would ever be privy to the inner thoughts of Pilate, and so Verse 18 can only be a bit of speculation on his part. What it does accurately reflect though is the Mediterranean social norm of envying those who have acquired honour / goods / status that they were not born with. Thus the Jerusalem authorities are jealous of Jesus, and it is this jealousy that motivates their acting to put Jesus in his place - a low class, country bumpkin from Galilee.
Again, Verse 19, can at best only be a bit of gossip that somehow has made it into public lore. Sharing of such intimate details outside of the inner household would be shocking and degrade the honour of Pilate as it would mean that his wife or servants were not properly respecting his authority and privacy.
The effect of Verses 18 and 19 however, is to inform we the readers that Pilate is aware that the Jerusalem authorities are accusing Jesus only because of their jealousy, and that he has received a divine message that Jesus is innocent.
Matthew 27:24-26, Pilate Flogs Jesus And Hands Him Over To Be Crucified
Pilate publically asserts his innocence for the death of Jesus, and the crowd accept responsibility.
Verse 25 has likely resulted in more pain, torture and death than any other verse in the Bible as it is still read today as legitimization for the persecution of Jews.
Matthew 27:27-31, The Soldiers Mock Jesus
The soldiers mocking Jesus is simply one more step in a ritual that is designed to completely strip Jesus of his dignity - indeed of his identity. The goal is to reduce him to a nobody, a non-person, with whom no one else would identify.
The physical handling of Jesus, stripping him, dressing him in a mock royal robe and crown of thorns, placing a reed in his hand, spitting on him, hitting him with the reed - all of these demonstrate Jesus' powerlessness. They show how completely he is outside anyone's protection; anyone's authority or power to prevent this happening.
Calling him, "King of the Judeans," demonstrates the Romans lack of awareness of the divisions within Israel and of Judeans' low regard for Galileans. The Roman soldiers' use of the term to refer to a Galilean who is now in such a state of physical degradation would (probably unintentionally on their part) just add insult to the Jerusalemite's injury, to their jealousy.
Matthew 27:32-44, The Taunting And Shaming Of Jesus Crucified
Jesus would be half-dead from the flogging and too weak from loss of blood to carry the beams used for the cross, so the soldiers use their prerogative to conscript a local person to carry their equipment. Simon is remembered by Matthew as the person so conscripted.
The offer of wine to drink and the divvying up of his last possessions would all be standard crucifixion practices.
The sign, "This is Jesus, King of the Judeans," is mocking. It says, loudly and clearly, "And this is what will happen to anyone else who thinks they can replace the Roman Governor."
And again, intentionally or unintentionally, it also mocks and insults the Judean population. It says, loudly and clearly, "Here is what Rome thinks of your 'kings.' Here is a naked, humiliated, nobody for your king."
Verses 38 to 44 complete the humiliation and degradation of Jesus as he is powerless to respond to the mocking taunts of all those present: Those who passed by; the chief priests, scribes, and elders; the two bandits crucified on either side.
Notice that the taunts here are similar to the testings in the wilderness at the outset of Jesus' ministry, and which we read on the first Sunday in this Lent, Matthew 4:1-11.
And notice that the chief priests, scribes and elders refer to Jesus as "King of Israel," not "King of Judeans."
Well, what about it? What sort of saviour does not save himself? Why does Jesus not come down off the cross?
That would have to be the kind of Saviour who doesn't turn stones into bread, but instead lives by "every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4, NRSV)
The kind of Saviour who does not recklessly put himself in a position where he must be saved by angels, but instead trusts God unhesitatingly and never puts God's faithfulness to the test. (Matthew 4:7)
The kind of Saviour who is not tempted by visions of glory and loses sight of his one true calling: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him." (Matthew 4:10, NRSV)
The Saviour who doesn't save himself is the kind of saviour who breaks the cycle of the tired old story of good versus evil where a miracle happens and the forces of the good guys ride in from the outside at the last minute and save our hero. Been there. Done that. Got the movie poster. Doesn't really change a thing.
The Saviour who doesn't save himself shows that "saving" is totally what God is NOT about.
God in Jesus did come to "save" us.
This must mean that we do not need saving.
What do we need?
Apparently, Jesus seems to be showing us that what we need is to unhesitatingly - unwaveringly - trust that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. That God is with us and for us. And that it is not rocket science to live now as those who are getting ready to be citizens of God's kingdom while still living in this real world and it's so-called nations.
Jesus is also showing us that this kind of unwavering trust in God may require unimaginable courage.
Matthew 27:45-56, The Death of Jesus
Verse 46, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," could be Jesus quoting the first verse of Psalm 22. Certainly the first verses of this psalm of lamentation describe Jesus' situation. If so, the final verses will also describe Jesus' deep trust in God.
Jesus' death is surrounded by a number of cosmic actions that indicate God's presence:
- Darkness replaces daylight.
- The curtain in the Temple is torn in two - revealing the sacred inner sanctuary of the Holy of Holies. And possibly as the tearing of clothes as a sign of outrage and anguish.
- The opening of tombs and the raising of the saints.
The testimony of the Roman soldier, "This man was a Son of God," is high praise indeed, and is the first sign that the degradation of Jesus is not going to work out as planned by the Jerusalem authorities.
Matthew notes that many of the women followers of Jesus were there.
And delicately points out by not explicitly stating it, that none of his male disciples were there. As Jesus had foretold, they had all deserted him.
Matthew 27:57-61, The Burial Of Jesus
Obviously only a rich man would have the access to Pilate that Joseph of Arimathea has.
Although it is not stated in the text, very likely Pilate would only take the unusual action of releasing Jesus' body in exchange for some kind of wealth or favour from Joseph.
The whole point of the brutal crucifixion process was to reduce the person to a nobody by having their final end be an unmarked mass grave.
Releasing Jesus' body to Joseph violates this degradation ritual because it returns Jesus' body into the realm of real bodies. Bodies that have a place within the web of kin and close friends. Bodies that can be properly prepared, and buried in marked and known locations. Bodies that can be remembered, mourned, and attended to.
Pilate let his greed get the better of him.
This is the second sign that the degradation of Jesus is not going to work out the way the Jerusalem authorities had hoped.
Once again, Matthew notes that two the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, note where Jesus has been buried.
Among other things, the witnessing of these things by these two women provides evidence continuity:
Evidence management is the administration and control of evidence related to an event so that it can be used to prove the circumstances of the event, and so that this proof can be tested by independent parties with confidence that the evidence provided is the evidence collected related to the event.
Matthew 27:62-66, The Guard At The Tomb The Next Day
And just in case we might think that later events were a hoax, Matthew relates that the Jerusalem authorities take steps to guard the tomb.
So come first light on Easter Sunday morning, we can be sure about:
- That Jesus was crucified on Friday.
- That Jesus truly died - breathed his last - and was not in a coma.
- That his dead body was sealed in a guarded tomb.
- That this is not a hoax.
Whew. It has been a long and bloody day. Evening has come. And for the two Mary's and the other followers of Jesus, the coming Sabbath day will be one of mourning. Perhaps they'll draw comfort reading the whole of Psalm 22 together.
And in their Sabbath prayers remember that this is not the first time God's people have been left with only the presence of God.
And by that I mean, have been left with no concrete earthly sign, which our hearts too eagerly cling to, and thereby neglect the reality behind the sign.
How hard it is for us to be left with only the presence of God!
Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, see link below, pages 128-139.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Permission is granted for non-profit use of these materials.
Acknowledgement in oral presentations is not required.
Otherwise, please acknowledge source as, "David Ewart, www.holytextures.com."