Liturgy of the Passion
Alternate Shorter Reading B
April 2, 2023
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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.
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 publicly 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.
See Wikipedia for a description of the Roman practice of flogging. Not a pretty picture.
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.
And personally, I think Verses 55 and 56 should also be read as 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.
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!
Short, easy to use, faith inspiring explanations of the meaning of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for your sermon, homily, bible study, or reflection.
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 136-139; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See below.
Short, easy to use, faith inspiring explanations of the meaning of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for your sermon, homily, bible study, or reflection.