The Sunday of the Passion - Palm Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Liturgy of the Palms
Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Saint Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

Background: Passion Sunday

In searching for materials that describe the intents and foundations of this Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, I came across an article published in The Christian Century, by Karoline M. Lewis, entitled “Against Passion Sunday.” In her arguments for the suppression of the Passion Narrative on “Palm Sunday”, she notes something that I think is very important, and that may argue against her stance here: “What is Passion Sunday’s theological raison d’être?”[1] Perhaps the answer to her question is that the theological purpose of the day is to acquaint the believer with the whole spectrum of emotion that is wrapped up in a single liturgy.  In his wonderful article in the New York Times, Peter Wehner, outlines this same purpose in “After Great Pain, Where is God?” He writes: “For those of the Christian faith, God is a God of wounds, where the road to redemption passes directly through suffering. There is some solace in knowing that while at times life is not easy for us, it was also hard for the God of the New Testament.”[2]  In our living of life we walk through both joy and sorrow, and contemporary Christianity seems to want only praise and joy. It is a misreading of the shouts of “Hosanna”, which W. F. Albright points out, is not an ejaculation of joy, but rather a prayer of “Save now!”[3] Raymond Brown argues this same point when he talks about the use of Psalm 22 in the Passion Narrative of Mark. Was the inclusion of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” of a symbolic nature – reminding the reader of Jesus connection to the people of Israel. Or, was it a true quotation of Jesus pain as he faced the cross. Brown argues for the latter. Finally it is a matter of how complete we want our proclamation to be. Will it only be the joy of the Palm Sunday Liturgy, sans Passion, met up with the joy of Easter Sunday? Were we certain that our people would experience all of the Holy Week liturgies, then this argument might suffice. We know, however, that this is not the case – the Passion must be heard following the joy of the palms. Dwight Zscheile puts it well, “At the heart of the gospel is an apparent failure that shocked Jesus’s students (disciples)— the crucifixion.”[4]

For those who wish to delve deeper into the Passion Narratives and their meaning, may I suggest two volumes:

Brown, Raymond E. Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year, Liturgical Press, Collegeville.
This is a slim volume that gets at all of the salient features throughout the liturgical year, and so is useful in the Christmas Cycle as well as the Easter Cycle. It is a perfect volume for a church Bible study.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah – From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, Doubleday, New York.
This is a work of greater depth and scholarship that focuses on the Passion Narratives. A companion volume, The Birth of the Messiah, focuses on the Birth Narratives. Both are excellent resources.

The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel: St. Matthew 21:1-11

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

Why does Jesus enter Jerusalem? Is it to have a show of triumph, or is to go to the city that kills the prophets – to meet the fate that he has deigned to complete? Does he come in as king, or does he come in as Messiah? Quotations from Zechariah and from Isaiah point to the latter. Jesus is seen as fulfilling the messianic hopes of these two prophets. You may want to look at the entire context of the Isaiah text in chapter 62, in order to capture the flavor of the quote. The difficulty is in that even this messianic symbolism and hope can be misunderstood as to intent, purpose, and fulfillment.

In his commentary on Matthew, W.F. Albright has an interesting side note on the use of the donkey in the text, and refers us to Zechariah 9, the source of the second half of Matthew’s quote. He comments on the use of a sacrificial donkey cited in texts from the city of Haran, where the sacrifice sealed the treaty between the Apiru (Hebrews?) and local kings. Would this subtext have played at all to those who saw Jesus as the Righteous One coming into the city? The phrase used in the Mari texts is the same phrase used here, in Zechariah, and in Genesis 49:11. It presents us with the somber realities of this entry into Jerusalem.

Breaking open Matthew:
1.          In what ways is Palm Sunday a triumph?
2.          In what ways is it a defeat?
3.         Why do you think Jesus entered Jerusalem?

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 Confitemini Domino

     Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.
2      Let Israel now proclaim, *
"His mercy endures for ever."
19    Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the Lord.
20    "This is the gate of the Lord; *
he who is righteous may enter."
21    I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
and have become my salvation.
22    The same stone which the builders rejected *
has become the chief cornerstone.
23    This is the Lord's doing, *
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24    On this day the Lord has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.
25    Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! *
Lord, send us now success.
26    Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the Lord.
27    God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.
28    "You are my God, and I will thank you; *
you are my God, and I will exalt you."
29    Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

If you read through the entirety of the psalm, you may soon realize that it is a bit disjointed, offering up several themes and threads. In some manuscripts it is divided into five separate psalms. In our usage here, verses have been chosen that tie the text to the Palm Sunday entrance and our own liturgical procession. The structure of the initial verses shows a distinctly liturgical flavor, with a refrain that follows each half verse.

The second segment of the psalm begins with verse 19 and forms a request for entry into the Lord’s sanctuary. You might want to read through Psalm 15 and 24 to see similar notions of the “righteous entry.” In the psalm, it is the one who has been saved who enters. In verse 21, the author gives thanks to the one who has provided a day of salvation.

Some see in this psalm not an anonymous “righteous one”, but the king, and so look at verses 22 through 24 as a liturgical response on the part of the assembly to the entrance of the king into the temple. The cornerstone passage speaks not only of rejection, but also more appropriately of the strength required being the cornerstone, the stone that accepts the weight of the entire structure.

Beginning in verse 26, we have blessings given by the priests to the entering king. Thus Matthew connects Jesus to the ancient kingship of Israel. The conclusion of the psalm is a chorus of thanksgiving.

Breaking open the Psalm 118:
1.         What does it mean to you to be righteous?
2.         Is there a “righteous one” that you know?
3.        Where is righteousness in your city?

at The Liturgy of the Word

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

Our reading is the third song of the Suffering Servant. In it we have the curious combination of elements of lament and of confidence. The speaker is a student and God is the teacher, a role that the servant will also undertake. Each day is governed by his listening, hearing, and understanding. This attention given to God is made all the more remarkable in the servant’s giving himself over to difficulty and suffering. It is the ideal theme for this day as Jesus enters the city as the son who is to be killed. So the servant gives himself up to “those who struck me.” Verse 5 gives us the extremes of this vision, the disciple who listens, but who also faces the trouble due his allegiance. The confidence of the verses that follow this change of scene are best seen in the words “therefore I have set my face like flint.” This is utter resolve, but it is not a resolve without hope for the verse continues, “and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” With confidence he invites the contention and confrontation. This is the servant who rides into Jerusalem.

Breaking open the Isaiah:
1.         Where do you see suffering in your life?
2.         Was it yours or someone elses?
3.        What can you learn from suffering?

Psalm 31:9-16 In te, Domine, speravi

     Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; *
my eye is consumed with sorrow,
and also my throat and my belly.
10    For my life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing; *
my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed.
11    I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance; *
when they see me in the street they avoid me.
12    I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; *
I am as useless as a broken pot.
13    For I have heard the whispering of the crowd;
fear is all around; *
they put their heads together against me;
they plot to take my life.
14    But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord. *
I have said, "You are my God.
15    My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
16    Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me."

In painting a picture of despair and desolation the psalmist uses a pastiche of materials from other psalms, the Book of Jonah (see Jonah 2:8 and Psalm 31:6), and the laments of Jeremiah. Here, however, the lament is accompanied by a sense of thanksgiving and relief. To get the entire sense of the psalm, please read it in its entirety. The mingling of despair and hope signals some similarity to the materials from Isaiah in the First Reading. Here the suffering leads to a profound experience of God and trust in God. Thus the prayer is made that God not only rescue and save but that God bless the suppliant as well.

Breaking open the Psalm 31:
1.         How do you see God in the midst of your difficulties?
2.         How do you structure prayer in your troubles?
3.        What kind of answers have you received?

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In Philippians, Paul exhorts his readers to steadfastness and unity, and now in this pericope he proposes to use the example of Jesus himself. There needs to be a change of the mind itself, indeed it needs to be the mind of Christ. The sheer poetry of these verses has led many to believe that the verses here either mirror or are in themselves an ancient Christian hymn. Regardless, we need to look at Paul’s argument in either including these materials or writing them himself. The pericope has two parts, verses 6-8 in which Jesus expresses the mind of the divine, and verses 9-11 in which he expresses the human mind. In these verses we see both what it was that Jesus did (“did not regard equality with God…” etc., and “humbled himself,” and also the how of what he did (“but emptied himself”, and “became obedient.”) The temptation of thinking on these verses as a hymn robs them of their narrative value – a value that is of supreme importance on this day.

In these passages we can began to understand what Paul taught about Jesus, his Christology. Here the pride of “triumphalism” goes before the fall. God is all about emptying, and pouring oneself out. Paul contrasts the life-giving God that offers the Son to the other rulers of the world that do not deserve the bending of a knee. In calling Jesus “Lord” (a term of political significance) Paul lifts up Jesus in comparison to the world’s rulers. It is a contrast that is typical of Paul, something akin to his Christ/Adam comparisons, here being the Divine Mind/the Human Mind. It is the actions that surround Christ that informs life – the life of the Philippians, and the life of all Christians. The example offered needs to become the life lived. That is the exaltation not only before the entire world, but in our own hearts as well. Christ is the pattern of living, and the expression of God that makes for a new mind in us.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. Describe Jesus’ humiliation.
  2. Describe Jesus’ exultation.
  3. Which gives you the greatest strength?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 26:14- 27:66

One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? 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.”

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him,

“You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

The Passion for Matthew takes place in the midst of belief and denial, failure and escape. We have characters that have been lifted up by Jesus (Peter in particular), who then find it difficult to stand beside him in the hour of trial. There is a pattern in Matthew in which the expected is overturned by the unexpected. The Gentile magi visit the newborn Christ, and the wife of Pilate pleads for his exoneration. Thus there are those who stand beside the suffering one, and those who accuse.

In the Birth Narrative, Matthew uses certain types from the Hebrew Scriptures as models for what he has to say about Jesus. So one can find in the Jesus story shadows of Joseph, Moses, and Daniel. The same is true for the Passion Narrative, but we must be careful to separate out what Matthew intends to offer as symbolic, from that which he portrays as actual event. So in the retirement to Gethsemane we can see both – a look backward to Davidic times and Absalom’s rebellion, and at the present the betrayal of Judas. It is a mix of both.

The suffering of Jesus in Matthew’s Passion Narrative is not symbolic, but rather real. There is a pointing to the Psalms among other materials to accentuate the emotion of the scene, such as the use of Psalm 42:6 in Jesus’ prayer in the garden. In that prayer we understand reflections from the “Our Father”, Jesus using his own instruction for the sake of making his own prayer. Throughout the text we realize the purpose as that “the prophetic Scriptures might be fulfilled.”

Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the Innocent, and to that end he places him in several moments of trial, before the Sanhedrin, and before Rome, in addition to the personal “trials” exacted by individuals in the Narrative. Was Peter’s denial such a trial? In the end it is the innocent one, not the truly evil Barabbas, who is sentenced to death. Indeed, even Pilate recognizes the innocence, “I am innocent of this just man’s blood.” Such is the turnabout in Matthew.

What follows is quite difficult, however, for both preacher and reader. The Jewish people answer Pilate’s gesture with a contentious phrase that has done much harm, “His blood on us and on our children.” Two quotes from Raymond E. Brown might be helpful here.

“Sooner or later Christian believers must wrestle with the limitations imposed on the Scriptures by the circumstances in which they were written. They must be brought to see that some attitudes found in the Scriptures, however explicable in the times in which they originated, may be wrong attitudes if repeated today.”[5]
And to make it clear what the preacher’s responsibility is, he says:

“To include the passages that have an anti-Jewish import and not to comment on them is irresponsible proclamation that will detract from a mature understanding of our Lord’s death.”[6]

It is a difficult responsibility, but one that our times demand.

For comments on the use of Psalm 22, please refer to the Background above.

Just as in the birth, so in the Passion both heaven and earth testify to the momentous event in Matthew. In the birth it was a star, and in the Passion an earthquake, the tearing of the veil in the Temple, and the opening of tombs. Here Matthew mirrors apocalyptic from Joel, Ezekiel and others. But it is also a loathed aspect of social life, the Roman soldier, a gentile, who attests to Jesus true nature and status. Other gentiles will become useful to Matthew as witnesses to the significance of this event, the soldiers who are placed at the tomb. They and the women wait.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is reading the Passion Narrative important to you?
2.     What are its outstanding features?
3.    What is Jesus tone and sentiment during the passion?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]  Lewis, Karoline, “Against Passion Sunday.” The Christian Century, April 2011,
[2]  Wehner, Peter, “After Great Pain, Where is God?”, The New York Times, 25 March 2017,
[3]  Albright, W. (1971) The Anchor Bible Matthew – Introduction, Translation, and Notes Doubleday & Company, Garden City, page252
[4]   Zscheile, D. (2014) The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age, Church Publishing, New York, Kindle locations 323-324.
[5]   Brown, R. (2012) Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year, Liturgical Press, Kindle location 2744-6.
[6]   Ibid., Kindle location 2748.


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