April 6, 2012 (Good Friday)

  

THE PASSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
ACCORDING TO SAINT MATTHEW

                                                   A meditation offered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                 at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on Good Friday, 6 April 2012

 

I 

This year we shall be following the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as it is recorded in the Gospel according to the evangelist known as Matthew.  What little we know about Matthew can only be described as tentative conclusions that we might draw from his text.  Clearly he is not an eye-witness of the events that he describes, and he writes decades after than those events, perhaps even a half-century after.  Scholars have noted that there are parallels between his Gospel and those ascribed to Mark and Luke, but equally there is much material that is unique to his narrative.  Sometimes, indeed, he is at variance with them, as he is frequently with the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

All this should come as no surprise, since our own experience shows that different people see the same event in different ways, and also that things that they all hear they hear in different ways.  Why, we even do that ourselves, changing our account of events depending on who might be the listeners.

What we can say with a fair degree of certainty is that Matthew was writing for people who were Christians, almost certainly Jewish Christians, who, while familiar with the Hebrew of the Hebrew Scriptures, spoke Greek in their everyday lives.  They had a grasp of the Judaism of the Pharisees, although not all of them would have been Pharisees themselves.

There are parallels between the teachings of this Gospel, particularly the passage often called the Sermon on the Mount, and those found in the Epistle of James.  This would indicate that Matthew was familiar with the writings of James, and it raises the possibility that at some time he may have been a disciple of James.  Is James, then, one of Matthew’s main sources for his Gospel, and, in particular, for his narrative of the Passion?  We cannot answer this question with absolute certainty, but it is a very attractive idea, and if correct it would indicate that Matthew’s main source was a brother of Jesus, the second son of Mary.

Our meditation will be based on chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel.  These cover the period from late Tuesday evening of what we call Holy Week to some time on Holy Saturday.  We will try to be more specific as we go along.  I shall be using the text of the New English Bible as the basis of our meditation.

Verse 1 of chapter 26 indicates that Jesus had just concluded a long discourse.  According to chapter 24, verse 3, this discourse was given to the disciples in private in a quiet corner on Mount Olivet.  Like other discourses in this Gospel, this appears to be an amalgamation of things that Jesus had said on various occasions and that the evangelist has brought together in one place because of their common theme.  The overall theme of this discourse had to do with the end of the ages, as that would have been understood by Matthew’s readers and their listeners.  The discourse ends with the well-known account of the Last Judgement, the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Then Jesus reminded his disciples that the Passover is but two days away.  There are two religious events that are celebrated by Jews in the season of the full moon in late-March/early-April.  The first is the Passover, the annual celebration of the event described in Exodus 12, in which the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelite slaves while bringing death to all the first-born children of the Egyptians.  The second commemoration is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which begins immediately after Passover and remembers the flight from Egypt by the Israelites, called the Exodus.  These two events are so closely connected that there is often confusion, even in the Scriptures, as to which is meant, and one term is often used to describe both events.

Matthew’s Gospel, being directed towards Jewish readers, would seem to have Jesus referring here to the actual Passover celebration.  This began at sunset, and according to this Gospel, would have begun on a Thursday evening in that particular year.  As Jesus speaks of it occurring in two days, we may assume that he said these words on a Tuesday afternoon.

Jesus declares that the Son of Man is to be handed over for execution by crucifixion.  In the Hebrew of the Bible the phrase, “Son of Man”, is a roundabout way of saying “I”.  Hebrew-speakers avoid using the first person singular pronoun, either I or me.  They refer to themselves by a part of the body, “my heart” or the like, or by a phrase like “son of man”.  Matthew has Jesus refer to himself in this way twenty-seven times in the course of the Gospel.

From chapter 16, verse 31 onwards Jesus has repeatedly referred to his death by execution.  By the time we get to chapter 26, the disciples seem to have finally understood that he is serious about this.

Meanwhile, as we read in verses 3 to 5, there were those who were very angry with Jesus.  Two days earlier, according to Matthew, as we read in chapter 21, Jesus had come to the Temple and had thrown out the money-changers and the sellers of birds and animals that were to be used in sacrificial worship.  Then on Monday he had had a series of disputes with the Temple authorities and with representatives of the Pharisees and Herodians, and of the Sadducees.  Representatives of these factions then came together, among them senior clergy and the leading tribal advisers and counselors, and assembled in the palace of the High Priest, Caiaphas.  We should not assume that Caiaphas was present at this meeting, only that the meeting occurred in his palace.  They knew that they could not destroy Jesus in honest debate, and that they would have to once more resort to trickery.  Yet it could not be trickery in debate as that had not worked, as we may read in chapter 21, verses 18 to 27.  And it had to be done quickly, before the people coming up to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations would know what was going on.  They knew full well how popular Jesus was with the general populace of the city, and that there would be more of his followers in the crowds wending their way to the capital from Galilee.  They had to avoid any popular reaction that might resort in a riot.

Jesus had left the area of Mount Olivet and had gone to the village of Bethany, to the east of Jerusalem.  He was staying in the house of a man whom Matthew calls Simon the Leper.  Who is this person?  Matthew does not give us much help here.  We know that Jesus had a brother named Simon.  Matthew lists him as the fourth of Mary’s sons in chapter 13, verse 55.  It would be very natural for Jesus to visit his younger brother were he to be living in the area around Jerusalem.  Elsewhere we read of a leper named Lazarus, but that was in a parable of Jesus and one that only occurs in Luke 16.  The Fourth Gospel tells of a man named or nicknamed Lazarus, who lived at Bethany with his sisters Mary and Martha, and who had died and whom Jesus had caused to rise from the dead, as we read in John 11.  Are Simon the Leper and Lazarus one and the same?  They both lived in Bethany, and Jesus spent time in the homes of both of them.  Lazarus had two sisters, Mary and Martha, as we read in John 11, verse 5, where Jesus is said to have loved all three.  Was this the love of an older brother for his younger siblings?

During the course of the meal being described by Mathew, a woman entered the room where the men were eating.  As is still the custom in many parts of the world, men and women ate in separate areas.  She poured some fragrant oil from a small bottle over the head of Jesus.  Is it just co-incidence that Luke tells a story in chapter 7, verses 31 to 50, of his Gospel of Jesus having a meal in the house of a man called Simon, a Pharisee, and that a woman entered the room where the men were eating and that she poured some fragrant oil over the head of Jesus?  And in Luke’s Gospel, although he does not name the woman in chapter 7, the first woman he names in chapter 8 is called Mary?

Perhaps it is dangerous to draw conclusions from what might, after all, be just co-incidences.  Matthew put his Gospel together long after the events that he describes and at which he was not present.  He makes use of the information – or the distant memories of others – that was available to him to tell the story in the way that he feels it is necessary to tell it in order to make the point that he wishes to make.  We all do this, stressing different details as we recount our own experiences to suit the particular audience we face at a particular moment.  So we should not be surprised at apparent differences among the evangelists in the way they make use of information.  It is these differences that demonstrate the authenticity of the evangelists’ beliefs.

The reaction of some of the disciples here in verse 8 is not unlike that of the Pharisee in the similar incident in Luke 7.  The Pharisee was shocked that Jesus did not seem to be aware of who the woman was who was anointing his head with myrrh.  The disciples were indignant at what they perceived as a wasted opportunity of raising funds for the poor.  Although Matthew does not say that Jesus heard any of this, merely that he was aware of the disciples’ views, nevertheless he chided them about troubling the woman, and then pointed out what a fine, in the sense of beautiful, act she had done.  In her own very personal way, Jesus said, she had been preparing his body for burial.  Even the very poor are entitled to a decent burial among Jewish believers, and so are executed criminals.

But before he said this he uttered some words that some have misused as regards the treatment of the poor.  Their argument is that since Jesus said that there will always be poor people that it is all right to tolerate the poverty of others.  This saying, in one form or another, is to be found in three of the Gospels, those written by Jewish evangelists.  Now all the Gospels were written for believers, Gentile of Jewish.  Might it not be that the Jewish evangelists saw something significant for the Jewish community in this saying?  We might not be able to explain its significance in the contexts of Mark and John, but in the case of the Gospel of Matthew we might well be correct in seeing these words as words of encouragement to Matthew’s own particular readership, a group in the early Church known as the Ebionites, an impoverished group of Jewish Christians who were refugees living in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  They might have seen in these words ascribed to Jesus a degree of reassurance that their impoverished community would survive.  That might not have been what Jesus actually meant, but that is how Matthew’s readership might have understood him to have meant it. 

We might also set this saying in its context, following immediately after the parable of the sheep and goats at the end chapter 25.  It was only earlier that very afternoon that Jesus had spoken of how the act of doing things for the poor was akin to doing things for him.  How soon they seem to have forgotten!

What Jesus said, as recorded in verse 13, really was prophecy, for, as he said, what this woman did is still talked about.  Have we not just been doing precisely that!

The vast majority of the disciples took Jesus’ rebuke to heart, but there was one who most certainly did not.  Why it was that Judas Iscariot was so upset that he went off to the chief priests to complain we just do not know from the text as we have it in this Gospel.  We can offer suggestions, such as that Jesus had allowed himself to be touched on the head by a woman.  In some parts of the world it is still tabu for anyone to touch the head of someone else, even in a friendly gesture.  Or it might have been that Judas was becoming increasingly frustrated with the things that Jesus was doing and saying.  Jesus was not being the sort of Messiah that Judas expected.

So Judas set out from Bethany and went off to the chief priests in Jerusalem.  No doubt they were glad to see him, given that they were looking for a way to dispose of the influence of Jesus, as we saw earlier in verses 3 to 5.  Judas was the one who initiated the dialogue, and he was so enangered that he came straight to the point.  “How much will you give me to betray him to you?”  There must have been more to the discussion than this.  Judas must have made a reference to Jesus so that when he used the word, “him”, the chief priests knew exactly to whom he was referring.  As the New English Bible has it, they weighed out thirty pieces of silver.  We shall discuss the significance of that particular figure later, when Matthew does.

Judas would appear to have been happy with this deal at this point, and he began to seek an opportunity to betray Jesus immediately.

II

So we come to the account of the Last Supper, and at once we run into a hitch.  What is it that Matthew means by “On the first day of Unleavened Bread”?  All sorts of effort have been expended in order to explain this.

In the parallel version in Mark 14: 12, the evangelist adds the clause, “when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered”.  That clearly indicates the Day before Passover, and so two days before the beginning of the Feast called Unleavened Bread.  The Fourth Gospel has Jesus being crucified at the time that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered.  So what are we to make of Matthew’s words?

One attractive suggestion is that we should read the word “On” in the sense of “Regarding” – “Regarding the first day of Unleavened Bread”.  In other words, the disciples are making their request before the celebration of the Passover.  That, at least, makes some sense, in the context of Matthew’s account.

But then the question that they ask makes for difficulties: “Where would you like us to prepare for your Passover supper?”  In the world of Judaism of Jesus’ day there were two very distinct views as to when to keep Passover, and so when would be the first day of Unleavened Bread.  One faction argued that it should be on the same day of the week each year, based on the solar calendar, and that day should be a Tuesday.  The other faction felt that it should be on the same date each year, based on the dating in the lunar calendar, Nisan 14, and that date could fall on any day of the week.  Then the disciples’ question would have been about which calendar Jesus proposed to follow.  It would seem that Jesus opted for the second choice, since the Passover that he celebrated, at least according to Matthew’s account, began on a Thursday evening.

Jesus’ answer according to Matthew might sound a little vague to our ears, and it is certainly nowhere near as precise as the version in Mark’s Gospel.  All we should say is that Matthew was not aware of the details, or for some reason chose not to include them.  Unlike Mark, Matthew does not tell us how many disciples were involved in the preparation of the meal, or where it was held, except that it was in a house in “the city”, presumably Jerusalem.  Of course, Matthew might well have known the information that he is withholding, and that he is not revealing it because the individual concerned or his family might have been put at peril if it became widely known that he had provided accommodation for Jesus.  Or it might be that the householder wished to remain unknown, given the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount about doing good deeds anonymously.

The message that the disciples were to deliver to the householder was cryptic.    Given that Jesus had not ministered openly in Jerusalem, at least according to this Gospel, before the previous Sunday, it would seem that Jesus had acquired contacts in the city in some other way.  There might have been people from the city who had attended his rallies elsewhere, hence the use of the term, “Rabbi”, the teacher or master, or it could be that the householder was a close relative of Jesus on his mother’s side – Luke indicates in his Gospel that the mother of Jesus was of the priestly family – or of his father’s side of the family who were from Bethlehem, a town close to Jerusalem.  When you examine his text, Matthew does not say in which city the man’s house was located, so that it may not have been in Jerusalem at all.  It could just as easily have been in Bethlehem, for like Jerusalem it was close to Mount Olivet.  Jews were supposed to eat the Passover meal in Jerusalem in those days if they could, and in order to accommodate the pilgrims who came up for the Festival, the borders of Jerusalem were temporarily extended, although not as far as to include Bethlehem.  Yet although the message that Matthew has Jesus send to the unnamed householder included a reference to the Passover meal, when we come to look at what is said to have been on the table at the Last Supper, we cannot say for certain that the meal Jesus shared with his disciples was indeed a Passover meal.

Then there are the words of Jesus concerning his appointed time drawing near.  Back in chapter 24: 36 he had said, “About that day and hour no one knew, not even the angels, not even the Son, only the Father.”  He had said those words, according to Matthew’s chronology, on the afternoon of the Tuesday of Holy Week.  Yet less than forty-eight hours later he is very aware that things are coming to a head.  He probably had a shrewd idea what Judas Iscariot had been up to, so he could assume that his appointment with Destiny was indeed very close.

“In the evening”, that is, Thursday evening, Jesus sat down for a meal with the twelve disciples.  That is fairly clear.

“During supper”, and this is where we need to pause and think a bit.  Was this really the Passover meal or not?  In truth, there is more to arguing that it was not the Passover but something else.  For a start, there were and are prescribed dishes to be eaten at the Passover.  Not one of these is mentioned in the narrative.  It is an open question as to whether, given what had happened on Palm Sunday, that Jesus or any of his immediate followers would have been allowed to purchase a Paschal lamb in the Temple at all.  Instead of the traditional Passover fare, we read of a bowl of some sort of food, into which everyone dipped, using a piece of bread as a scoop.

And we read of bread.  There are two words used in New Testament Greek for bread.  There is αρτος (artos), regular, ordinary bread, and there is αζυμος (azymos), unleavened bread.  The Greek title of the Festival of Unleavened Bread uses the word αζυμος, naturally, but the bread used at the Last Supper is described as αρτος, regular ordinary bread.

Do we have any clue as to what this meal might have been by considering what was in the cup that Jesus   shared with the twelve at the end of the meal?  No, we do not, because none of the evangelists tells us what was actually in the cup!

All we can say for certain about this meal, as it is described by this evangelist, is that it was an evening meal.

During the course of this meal, Jesus told the disciples that one of the twelve was about to betray him.  Now, betrayal is just about the worst thing a person can do with regard to another person.  In the world of the Middle East, even today, the worst kind of betrayal is that of someone with whom a meal has been shared.  Jesus emphasized that point when he said, “One who has dipped his hand into this bowl with me will betray me!”  Even at this late stage, Jesus, by alluding to the shared meal, was giving the betrayer an opportunity to turn back.  And he went on by using strong words of warning to deter him, words of woe, which in Jewish terms are virtually a sentence of death.

Jesus admitted that he was about to face what the Hebrew Scriptures describe as the fate of the one who fills the role in which he had been cast – presumably he was referring to Isaiah 52: 13 to 53: 12, the fourth of the Suffering Servant Songs.  But he again warned his as yet unnamed betrayer, and he did so by picking up a thought that is common enough in the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, that it is better to be still-born than to have to endure the sufferings of this life as a result of achieving what a man has sought to achieve in life.

Notice that in this speech Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, and we understand this term in the way in which we have already discussed it.

It is interesting to note how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ words.  One after another they asked, “Lord, do you mean me?”  We need not put too much emphasis on the word, “Lord”, for in those days it was simply a mere term of respect.  In the days when I was growing up, it might have been translated as “Sir”.  But when Judas Iscariot asked the question in his turn he used the word, “Rabbi”, or teacher. 

Perhaps it is appropriate to engage in some eisegesis here.  We could understand this as Judas saying that he well understood what Jesus had been teaching about his own death by execution, and be implying that what he, Judas, was in the process of doing was to bring about what Jesus had been teaching as a rabbi.  In other words, Judas was being the good disciple and doing something that would prove his rabbi’s teaching to be true.  As so often happens, Judas was rationalizing the nature of his actions in order to put the best light on his intentions.  Jesus went along in part with all this by saying to Judas, “It is as you have said it!”

So we come to the central feature of the Last Supper for sacramental Christians, the so-called institution of the Holy Communion.  The actions that Matthew describes Jesus as performing here with regard to the bread are exactly the same as those he described at the feeding of the five thousand in chapter 14: 19 – taking, blessing, breaking and giving.  That would suggest that there was not anything in these actions at the Last Supper that was other than normal.  What is abnormal is how Jesus referred to the bread as his body.  And let us note that the word, “is”, is not present in the Greek text, and that it would not have been present in the Aramaic or Hebrew that Jesus would have used.  In English we need a verb, but we cannot say what that verb should be, or whether it should be read in the present or the future tense.  In the Anglican tradition, we understand these words to mean that as we believe that Jesus is, as his name indicates, the Saviour, then as we consume the broken bread it becomes to us his presence within us, and, thereby, we become part of his body even as he becomes part of ours.

With the cup there can only be three actions – taking, blessing and giving – and not the four as with the bread.  Yet as we sip from the cup it is we who break the surface of its contents.  And then the teaching with regard to the contents of the cup becomes the same as that regarding the broken bread.

But there are additional words regarding the contents of the cup.  Jesus spoke of the blood of the covenant.  Notice that Matthew does not have Jesus speak of a new covenant, as in other parts of the New Testament literature.  In other words, for Matthew, this is another manifestation of the already existing covenant or covenants that God had entered into with Israel, covenants that were ratified in the course of ceremonies in which blood was sprinkled upon that which was to be blessed.

We need to be careful how we read these words.  The blood here being spoken of as shed is the blood of Jesus, and it is shed for “many”.  The question is, “Many who?”  Ancient Hebrew had no word for “all”. The way in which the ancients thought was to compare the one or the few with the many.  So we are entitled to understand the words of Jesus as saying that his blood was shed for all, but for all who are in the covenant community – and for Matthew that meant all who were in the covenant community of Israel, since he does not specify that this is a new covenant.

In the early Church, as we see in Acts of the Apostles and the writings of Paul, an argument raged as to whether a Gentile could become a Christian without first becoming a Jew, a member of the covenant community of Israel.  Matthew’s Gospel would seem to reflect agreement with this position, in one sense, but it also reflects the position that every Jew needs to be incorporated anew into the covenant community.  Jesus’ action is seen as inaugurating a renewal of the Covenant, not the introduction of a new covenant, at least in Matthew’s way of thinking.  And as we have seen repeatedly during the season of Lent this year, the Covenant is for the forgiveness and even for the prevention of sin.

And now we have the unusual saying in verse 29 about Jesus not drinking of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new or anew in “the Kingdom of my Father”.  Other New Testament authors phrase this saying in different ways.  Matthew has Jesus speak of the Kingdom of my Father rather than the Kingdom of God.  But Matthew is always very careful in how he refers to the Kingdom of God, usually using a phrase such as the Kingdom of Heaven.  I do not think that we need see anything more in his usage here than that.  He has used the term, my Father, before in similar circumstances and contexts. Probably what Matthew has Jesus indicate is that his death and expected resurrection would inaugurate or renew the Kingdom, the rule of his Father, in the affairs of Israel, and that he would be alive and would share in the fellowship in that covenanted realm.

And then they sang what Matthew calls the Passover Hymn, probably the so-called Hallelujah Psalms, numbers 111 to 118, which Jews sang on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, even though the Passover was yet to arrive, for they were proceeding to Jerusalem to observe it. 

III

Jesus and his disciples – and is it eleven or twelve (Matthew does not tell us when Judas Iscariot slipped away) – leave the house in which they had shared their final meal, and head towards the Mount of Olives.  On the way there he tells them that it was that very night when everything would come to a head, and that they would all run away.  He did not say this by way of criticism, or even particularly as a warning.  What Matthew has Jesus do is to cite the words of Zechariah 13: 7, words that reflect what was about to happen.

Matthew makes ample use of the prophecies in Zechariah in his version of the final week of Jesus’ ministry, verses which include a reference to the Mount of Olives in Zechariah 14: 4.

Jesus went on to reassure them that although the prophecy in Zechariah 13: 7 was about to be fulfilled, nevertheless that would not be the end of the matter.  The shepherd might be removed and the sheep might be scattered, but Matthew has Jesus claim that he would be raised up and that he would then go to Galilee.

Hot-headed Peter would have none of this.  He proudly boasted that, although everyone else might fall away, he never would.  Poor boastful Peter!  Jesus told him, “Oh yes, you will disown me and you will do so three times before the cock crows this night heralding the dawn.”  And still Peter boasted that he would stand by Jesus, even if it were to cost him his own life.  And the rest of the disciple, perhaps shamed by Peter’s braggadocio, said the same thing.

Then we are told by Matthew that Jesus came with his disciples to a place known as Gethsemane.  Only Matthew and Mark provide this name, but they offer no description of the place so-named.  Gethsemane means an oil press, which hardly suggests the garden we so often fondly think of.  Instead it was a work site with places where workers might sit to operate the oil presses and bottle the fresh squeezed oil. 

We still have not been told how many disciples walked to Gethsemane with Jesus, but it is best to assume that all twelve were involved, and that Judas Iscariot left the party after arriving at the oil press, perhaps while the other disciples slept.

Jesus then took three of his disciples, Peter, and the sons of Zebedee, the same three who had accompanied him to particular places at crucial times in his ministry, to another quieter spot where he might pray.  As Matthew tells the story, Jesus faced what was about to happen with anguish, dismay and a heart full of grief.  This is a very human Jesus, a man portrayed as reluctant to face up to what he knew must be, and a very different Jesus from the man portrayed by Luke.  Jesus urged his disciples to pray as well, and above everything else to stay awake.

At Passover time worshippers were allowed to doze a little during the long celebrations, but to fall asleep was a definite no-no.  If someone fell into a real deep sleep, so that he could not answer the questions that were asked as part of the ritual, then the ceremony was considered to be concluded.  This explains the emphasis of the evangelist on the depth of sleep of the disciples.  It was important to Jesus that the real significance of the Passover, and the interpretation he was putting on his role in the Feast, should not be brought to an early conclusion.  He had to be the Paschal lamb, slain to protect his own through the shedding of his blood, the Paschal lamb that had apparently not been on the table during the Last Supper.  So he made repeated visits to them to make sure that that they did not lapse into really deep sleep.  He knew that they wanted to stay awake, but they were exhausted as a result of the many activities of the previous days.  Their spirits were willing, but their flesh was betraying them.

The words of Jesus’ prayer to his Father were not quite identical every time, but they indicated that he remained prepared to do his Father’s will, no matter what that might be.  He referred to the drinking of a cup.  This is a familiar image in Semitic literature for ones destiny or fate.  In the Hebrew Scriptures it is sometime described as the cup of God’s wrath that must be consumed in order for there to be a restoration of the relationship between God and his people, and in this very Jewish of Gospels that might be the way that we should understand it here.

Three times he prayed and three times he returned to his sleeping disciples.  We must assume that the evangelist used his author’s licence to create the words of Jesus’ prayers, and even of the number of visits that Jesus made to his disciples.  Mark has an explanation of all this, but we are not meditating on Mark’s account but on that of Matthew.

The third time that Jesus came to them he roused them from sleep.  Even though the traditional Passover feast still had several hours to run its course, for Jesus and his disciples it had been terminated by their deep sleep.  Something else would take place.  A new hour was about to chime and usher in something very different in the affairs of God and humankind.

Jesus told the disciples to rouse themselves and to go forward, to move on, since the traitor is approaching.

The others might have slept, but not Judas Iscariot.  He had taken advantage of the deep sleep of the eight left at the oil press to slip away and to alert the Jewish authorities as to where they might find Jesus. 

There was nothing orderly about the mob that the chief priests and elders sent along with Judas.  Matthew makes it sound as though they were a bunch of hoodlums, thrown together at a moment’s notice by an official of the Jewish leadership, a person that Matthew calls the High Priest’s Servant.  This was a group of men who were hardly the respectable folk who would have been observing Passover in the privacy of their family homes.  They carried what is translated as swords and cudgels, although we should probably read it as blades or knives rather than swords.

Judas had given this riff-raff mob a sign by which Jesus could be identified, the sign of a kiss.  In many societies around the World even today, it is not unusual for men to greet men with a kiss.  What is unusual is for people of different genders to kiss, except for brothers and sisters.  So what Judas did was not in the least out of the normal.  It was the customary use of a kiss as a sign of friendship between two men who know each other, but this time it was not a token of friendship but of betrayal.  Judas stepped forward and greeted Jesus, using the same term, Rabbi, that he had used earlier at the Last Supper, and for the same reason.  And then Judas kissed Jesus.  Jesus did not object.  He did not rebuke Judas.  He simply told him to do what he had to do.  In other words, Jesus did indeed understand Judas’ motivation, misguided though it might have been.  The members of the mob then took Jesus, making him secure.

Then Matthew includes another little incident that is engraved in our traditions.  He does not tell us which disciple it was who had a knife with him, but we must assume that it was one of the fishermen.  Whoever it was, he grabbed his knife and lashed out at the one authority figure with the mob, the Servant of the High Priest.  Matthew does not give us the name of this person, but presumably his readers knew who that person was.  This was someone entrusted with the responsibility of seeing to it that the will of the High Priest was carried out, particularly in situations that involved a degree of violence.  Whoever attacked the Servant of the High Priest lashed out at his head and sliced off part of the lobe of his ear.  In this Gospel, Jesus does not heal the man’s wound.

Jesus ordered his disciple to put his knife away.  If you meet violence with violence you can only come to a violent end.  That thought was as true in the time of Jesus as it is today, except that today the weapon of choice is a gun, a more cowardly weapon than a knife because it can be used at a distance far away from the victim.  At least the unnamed disciple of Jesus had met what he perceived as evil face-to-face at close quarters, as we all do, even though we do not usually react as he did.  Although there is no direct parallel in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures with the words that Jesus uses here, there is a saying in other Hebrew religious literature: All you who take the sword will fall by the sword that you have taken.  Whether this saying originated before the time of Jesus or of the evangelist we do not know, but it is a very Jewish thought.

Matthew then has Jesus make reference to the aid that he could have received from his Heavenly Father should he have chosen to ask for it.  Is there significance in the number of legions of angels, twelve?  Matthew writing for a Jewish congregation might just be hinting at the twelve tribes of Israel.  But we cannot really say.  In the Semitic world, as in Britain until fairly recently, twelve was what might be called a “round number”.

But Jesus was not going to seek that aid, for the Scripture had to be fulfilled, and again the reference would seem to be to Zechariah 13: 7.

Jesus continued to address the mob, chiding them for coming out from the Temple at night, Passover night in the light of the full moon, when had always taught day-by-day in the light of the full sun, and in the Temple.  What sort of work was it that the Chief Priests and Elders of the Nation had urged their followers to carry out?  But the word spoken through the Prophets had to be fulfilled and to be fulfilled in him.

And then, poignantly, Matthew tells us that those boastful disciples all ran away!  In this Gospel, Jesus does not ask for them to be left alone.  Here they left him alone, all of them.  Well, nearly all of them.

IV

The story now switches to a new venue, to the house of Caiaphas the High Priest.  Those who would be involved in interrogating Jesus were already assembled, no doubt summoned while those who were sent to arrest Jesus had gone off to their duty.  No one would have had to come from any great distance.  The members of the priestly family all had quarters in and around the Temple precincts, and the Elders would have lived within the walled city.  Jesus is brought before them with the unnamed Servant of the High Priest probably leading the way.

Someone else had also come along.  Despite Matthew declaring in verse 56 that all the disciples ran away, two verses later we discover that that is not an accurate statement.  Simon Peter had followed along and had been able to get into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, where he sat down inconspicuously with the household servants and other staff.

There has been discussion as to who it was that supplied the evangelists with the account of the trial of Jesus.  Of course it might have been various people.  Some have suggested that it was Simon Peter, but he was outside in the courtyard rather than inside in the house of the High Priest.  Other suggestions have been Joseph of Aramathea or Nicodemus, both of whom were members of the Jewish Council, but did not agree with the verdict against Jesus or with the sentence that he received.  Another suggestion has been the so-called Beloved Disciple, whoever that may have been, and certainly he could have been the source of information for the fourth evangelist.  And another potential source could well have been the Servant of the High Priest who had supervised the arrest of Jesus and brought him to the scene of the trial.  There is a named Servant of the High Priest in Acts of the Apostles who is said to have approved the execution of Stephen and had supervised it.  Might not that official have acted in a similar capacity in the case against Jesus?  Certainly he was later to go on to claim that he had seen Jesus and also to admit that with regard to Jesus he was the greatest sinner of all.  Of all the possible people who might have been the source of information about the trial of Jesus perhaps the strongest candidate would be Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul the Apostle.

The hearing was before the Chief Priests and the whole Council.  They were looking for some issue from which to make an allegation that Jesus had done something for which the death penalty was mandatory.  But even though some people bore false witness, no such allegation could be made.  In order for a conviction to be obtained in Jewish law at least two witnesses have to be in total agreement as to what happened and what was said.  Eventually two such witnesses were found, but the words that they claimed that Jesus had said are not included by Matthew in his Gospel.  True, they are to be found in the account in the Gospel ascribed to Mark, but Matthew never has Jesus say those words that the two witnesses accused him of saying in Mark’s narrative.  In Matthew 24: 2, Jesus merely speaks of the destruction of the Temple without indicating how it would be destroyed or by whom.

As Jesus had been in Jerusalem for less than a week of ministry and had been under constant surveillance, it is safe to assume that the High Priest, through his Servant, had a fairly shrewd idea of what Jesus had and had not said in public.  Caiaphas was fully aware that the case against Jesus was going nowhere, and so he intervened.  He directly challenged Jesus to rebut the charges against him, but Jesus was aware that he had the right to remain silent and that silence might be the best defence against falsehood.  So the High Priest adopted a different approach.

With nothing in the evidence presented so far on which to hang his question, Caiaphas still found a way of forcing a confession out of Jesus.  If Jesus was indeed the person that it was alleged he claimed to be, he must acknowledge the truth.  By keeping silent he would be doing something tantamount to denying the truth.  Yet if Jesus did tell the truth as he understood it, he would be committing blasphemy under the Mosaic Code of Law, the sentence for which was death.  So Caiaphas asked Jesus to swear by the Living God whether he was the Messiah, the Son of God. 

Matthew has never had Jesus make that claim for himself.  Of the five times on which the term, Son of God, has appeared in the Gospel before this, twice it had been on the lips of the Satan, once it was used by the Gadarene demoniac, and twice on the lips of disciples overawed by something that Jesus had done or that had happened to him.  And even here, while not denying that he was who Caiaphas had said he was, Jesus did not make the claim directly.  Jesus said, “It is as you say!”  And then he went on to make a statement about himself using the term he had most frequently used about himself, “Son of Man”, and this is the twenty-seventh time that Matthew has Jesus use it.

The words that Jesus used refer back to Daniel 7: 13, in which Daniel describes one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of Heaven and approaching the Ancient of Days in order to receive sovereignty, glory and kingly power.  Jesus claimed that Caiaphas would perceive the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God.  Clearly to Caiaphas this would mean that he would see Jesus, the Son of Man (in the sense of “me”) being invested with full power.  The Hebrew word behind the Greek word that Matthew uses literally means Power, with a capital P.  Jesus and Caiaphas would both have known what the words of Jesus meant within the context of Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures, but there was another more secular understanding, which Caiaphas and his Servant would use in the context of Roman practice.  The Messiah was understood in some Jewish circles as the leader of a rebellion against foreign governing authorities.  This is not spelled out here, but it would be the basis of the charge when Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate.

Caiaphas had asked a clever question.  If Jesus denied what Caiaphas had said he would be admitting that he was a fraud and his creditability with the masses would have been immediately lost.  If Jesus did not deny what Caiaphas had said, then he would be committing the capital offence of blasphemy.  Either way Caiaphas would win – or so he thought.

So Caiaphas declared that Jesus was a blasphemer and the entire Council acknowledged that they had heard the words of blasphemy.  There was a ritual that the High Priest had to perform on such occasions, described as the rending of his garments.  That done, Caiaphas called for the verdict and the appropriate sentence, and the members of the Council present obliged him to the full.

Jesus was then exposed to some physical abuse and mockery, to which he seemed to have made no response or to have shown any reaction.

Well, so much for the trial that went on inside the house of the High Priest, but meanwhile another trial was taking place outside in the courtyard.  This one did not involve high-powered figures trained in the Law, but simple housemaids.  And there was no prisoner being guarded by strong-armed men, but just a peasant fisherman sitting in the crowd trying to be inconspicuous.

The first housemaid made a simple enough statement.  “You were there too with Jesus the Galilean.”  Matthew does not tell us how she knew this, and while it might be fun to conjecture, it does not help us to understand what is going on.  She called Jesus, the Galilean, a term that was used in the first century to describe many rebel leaders who came from Galilee.  She might not have meant it in that sense, but simply that Jesus came from Galilee, and spoke with a Galilean accent.  Peter denied what the housemaid said claiming he did not understand what she meant.  In his defence we might say that he had never heard Jesus referred to in this way and that he wished to distance himself from any thought that he might be a rebel.  Sensing danger, Peter got up and went out to the gateway of the courtyard.  Here a second housemaid described him as a fellow who had been with Jesus of Nazareth.  This time there could be no misunderstanding.  Peter denied, this time with an oath, that he even knew “the man”.  The housemaids go off, presumably to perform their early morning pre-dawn duties.  But Peter was not off the hook for a bystander accosted him remarking on Peter’s Galilean accent, something that would not usually be heard in the house of the High Priest or its courtyard.  This time Peter let out a stream of curses and swore an oath that he did not know “the man”. 

At that very moment a cock crew.  It need not have been very loud and indeed may have been far away.  There is a daily procession of cockcrows across the Eurasian landmass from the Pacific to the Atlantic as the first cockerel in its community notices the first light of dawn.  But that quiet cockcrow away to the east was sufficient to remind Peter, almost like a voice speaking to his conscience, of what Jesus had said about Peter denying him.  He hurried away, and having confronted who he really was, he cried bitterly.

So Jesus and Peter both admitted the truth about themselves, but they were two very different truths.

And there was a third person from that group who had shared in the Last Supper who faced a trial that night, or early the next morning. 

Once day broke and it was legal to impose a sentence the chief priests and elders met in formal session to determine how Jesus might be put to death.  They did not want to be responsible for doing it themselves, although under Mosaic Law Jesus was indeed guilty of the crime of blasphemy.  But from their point of view it would be better for the Roman authorities to be seen to be responsible, and they had sufficient evidence under Roman law to impel the Government to impose the death sentence.  So they now placed Jesus in chains and had him taken in shackles before Pontius Pilate, whom Matthew describes as the Governor.

It was then that the third man at that Last Supper realized what his actions had brought about.  It might not be easy to establish what had been the exact motivations that had prompted Judas Iscariot to do what he did.  We have seen on two occasions that he had addressed Jesus as Rabbi.  If Judas was sincere in this – and we cannot show that he was not – then he regarded Jesus as his teacher and mentor, and that he understood that Jesus as the Messiah would have to undergo certain very unpleasant actions before coming into his Kingdom.  What Judas had done was to take steps that would ensure that those experiences of the Suffering Servant would come to pass so that the Kingdom of the Messiah would be established.  What Judas had failed to understand or take into account was that Caiaphas and the rest of the Jewish leadership had no desire to have that Kingdom brought in.  Moreover, Judas had put a different interpretation on the words of the prophets and of Jesus than had Jesus.  Not only had he miscalculated what Caiaphas would do, he had also miscalculated what he thought Jesus would do.

Appalled by the outcome of his actions, probably made, at least in the first instance, with the best of intentions – as sinners ourselves we must be generous in estimating the intentions of Judas – Judas saw how wrong he was, and indeed all of us are, when it comes to doing the will of God.  Both Peter and Judas got it wrong, but in different ways.  Both of them allowed their own understanding of the Scriptures to get in the way of what God actually requires.  And in all honesty, most of us fall into the same trap.  Rather than ascertaining what it is that God actually requires of us, we go ahead and do things for him and say things on his behalf, and then we turn around and tell God, “Look what I have done for you!”  And often, and perhaps more often than not, we have done or we have said something other than the will and the Word of God.

Peter had gone off by himself in tearful remorse.  Judas took a much more drastic step.  He too was seized with remorse, but rather than slink away to grieve and perhaps think things over, as Peter had done, Judas, in a manner true to himself took drastic action.  He went back to the chief priests and elders with the money they had given him and returned it to them acknowledging that he had sinned by accepting the money and betraying his rabbi.  His rabbi was innocent of anything demanding death, even though Caiaphas and the Jews and Pontius Pilate and the Romans could twist the works and words of Jesus to make it appear that he was worthy of death under two very different law codes.  But the chief priests and elders had got what they wanted and so they dismissed Judas with the taunt, “What’s that to us?  Go about your own business.”

Matthew tells us that Judas threw the money on the ground before his taunters, and then in despair went and hanged himself.  There are very few suicides recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Those of Saul and Achitophel came about as each of them realized that they had erred in their dealings with David, the anointed King of Israel.  Here Judas committed suicide after realizing that he too had erred in his dealings with the Son of David, the Messiah, the anointed one of the Lord God of Israel.

It is only in these verses at the beginning of chapter 27 that Matthew mentions the significance of the amount of money involved, thirty pieces of silver.  None of the other evangelists mention the amount, only Matthew, and by now we should not be surprised that this amount is mentioned by the prophet Zechariah, in chapter 11: 12 and 13.  Later in this account Matthew misplaces the quotation to the prophet Jeremiah, but at no time does Jeremiah ever write or speak of thirty pieces of silver.  Jeremiah did buy a field at one time, as indeed the Lord directed him, but the Potter’s Field is mentioned in Zechariah, not in Jeremiah.

In chapter 27, verse 6, Matthew has the chief priests, but not the elders, gather up the money.  They had a very short debate as to what they should do with it since it was tainted and could not therefore be put back in the general Temple funds, to translate the Greek word here which is a transliteration of a Hebrew word.  So they took it and purchased a site known as the Potter’s Field to be used as a cemetery for non-Jews, using unclean money to purchase a burial place for unclean persons.  Matthew explains that this was why the site came to be known as Blood Acre, and also how this action by the chief priests reflected the words of the prophet, as we have just seen.  By one of those linguistic quirks, obvious in one language but not in another, the difference in Hebrew between Potter and Treasury House, is but one letter, yatser and ‘otzer, which might account for the mistake here in Matthew. 

V 

Having dealt with what happened to Peter and to Judas Iscariot, Matthew’s account returns to the events concerning Jesus, here in chapter 27: 11.

When we last saw Jesus he was being led off in chains to the Governor’s residence, a short distance away, up the hill, from the house of the High Priest.  Now he is standing before the Governor, just after daybreak.  Pilate had been briefed by someone in the High Priest’s retinue, perhaps his Servant, as the official is called, and Pilate has grasped the import of the charge against Jesus, at least in Roman terms. 

Pilate asked Jesus flat out, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  It would be fascinating to know how the business between Pontius Pilate and Jesus was conducted.  Presumably it would have been in Greek, the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean lands at that time.  But Pilate’s native tongue was Latin and Jesus’ was Aramaic, although both would have known Greek to some extent.  About the only person present who would have been fluent in both Greek and Aramaic, and maybe would have had a smattering of Latin, was the Servant of the High Priest, if he was indeed who we have seen he might have been.

What did Jesus reply?  New Testament Greek was written without punctuation originally, so we might want to ask if Jesus answered Pilate’s question with a question of his own, “Are those your words?”  “King of the Jews” was a rough and ready translation or interpretation in Greek of the Hebrew term, Messiah.  If Jesus was being asked whether he saw himself as the political King of the Jews as understood in Roman law, that is one thing.  If he was being asked if he was the Messiah of Hebrew Scriptures, and as he interpreted those Scriptures, then that was an entirely different thing.  Jesus had the right to know what was the meaning of the charge against him.  But Pilate did not tell him.

Instead Pilate allowed a representative of the chief priests and elders to list the charges that they were being brought against Jesus.  It is unlikely that any of the chief priests would have been physically present.  They had liturgical responsibilities at the Temple and could not in any case run the risk of rendering themselves unclean by virtue of contact with someone or something ritually unclean at this high holy season.  The elders might well have been absent for similar reasons.  What was required was for a prosecutor to present the charges perhaps in written form, in Greek.  Pilate was not referring to the people who were bringing the charges against Jesus, but to the charge sheet.

As Jesus had not been informed by Pilate as to the real significance of the charges he exercised his right to remain silent.  We cannot gauge Pilate’s mood since Matthew does not describe it.  Whatever it was, Pilate continued his examination of Jesus by asking him whether he heard all the evidence against him.  Given his position and the language in which the evidence was presented to him, it is likely that Pilate understood that Jesus was being accused of treason against Roman authority.  He might have also understood that Jesus was being accused of being an aspirant to the throne occupied by the Herodian family.  Those were very serious charges, yet Jesus maintained his silence.  Matthew tells us that the Governor was greatly astonished at this attitude on the part of Jesus.

Matthew then records an unusual action on the part of the Governor.  So little is known about how Rome governed its provinces, especially those more remote from the centre, that there is no record outside the New Testament of a custom similar to the one referred to here.  So we have to accept the evangelist’s word for it that it was indeed the Governor’s custom to release one prisoner chosen by the people at the festival season.  Different cultures have different customs.  For example, in Thailand the sentences of all convicts are reduced by a third on the anniversary of the King’s birth and of his accession to the throne, which means a sentence of thirty-three years is served after only six.  So there might well have been such a custom as Matthew describes, and it just might have been a custom of Pontius Pilate’s since it is referred to simply as the Governor’s custom. 

That particular year there was a man in custody, although not necessarily yet tried and convicted, named Jesus Barabbas.  Matthew describes him as being a person of some notoriety, although Matthew does not tell us why he was notorious.  The name Barabbas might be translated as “Son of the Father”, which adds an unusual twist to the story that would not have been lost on Matthew’s Jewish readers.  Which Jesus was the real Son of the Father – and of which Father? 

Pilate asked the question as to which Jesus he should release.  But of whom did he ask it?  Matthew simply has “When they were assembled.”  Who were the “they”?  Who, apart from the mob that had arrested Jesus, the household servants of Caiaphas, and the chief priests and elders even knew that Jesus had been arrested?  This “they” then were a group of people who had been organized, if that is not too strong a word, to be opposed to Jesus, and it does not take too much imagination to discern who was behind the organization.

Pilate might have been many things, but he was no man’s fool.  He was, after all, a governor personally appointed by the Roman Emperor.  He knew very well what the chief priests and elders were up to, and especially what their representative was trying to do.  As Matthew writes, Pilate was very much aware of the malice in the hearts and minds of those who had brought Jesus before him.  So he asked the crowd, the mob, who it was they wanted him to release.

Before they could answer, while Pilate was still sitting in the court, a servant brought him a message from his wife.  Only Matthew has this incident, and we must assume that he included it for a purpose.  He probably created the message that was sent for dramatic reasons.  What he has the wife of Pontius Pilate say to her husband was that he should have nothing to do with that innocent man, and that she had been much troubled about him in her dreams.  Here the New English Bible misses an important detail.  The Greek word should not be translated here as “innocent”, but as in the traditional versions as “righteous”.  The Righteous One was a title used by some Jewish sects as another title for the Messiah, and what Matthew may well be saying here is that even a pagan woman could recognize Jesus for who he really was.

She could not have heard of the arrest of Jesus until after she was awake, so what is this talk of her troubled dreams on his account?  If it is more than a matter of words that Matthew has compiled as a message from her, we must assume that she had heard about what had happened in the Temple on the previous Sunday and what people were saying about Jesus.  She and her husband were not usually in Jerusalem.  His official residence was at Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast.  So it was unlikely that she had ever met Jesus or had heard much about him until she came with her husband to Jerusalem for this Passover season. Why she would dream of someone she had probably never met or even seen is a nice point.  Matthew probably has this incident in his Gospel to emphasize that even unknowing pagans could recognize the Messiahship of Jesus, and not a Messiahship based on the earthly kingdom of Israel, but a divine one, as recognized by the sect that would use the term “The Righteous One”, the one who, by his words and works, makes others righteous, or one who makes others innocent, to use the New English Bible’s term/

While Pilate was distracted by this message from his wife, representatives of the chief priests and elders had been organizing the mob.  They had instructed them to ask for Barabbas and then to demand that Jesus be put to death.  And like any organized group of protestors they chanted their responses when Pilate asked them what they wanted.  Had it been a modern-day rally they would have pre-printed placards, but their vociferousness ensured that Pilate realized that he had to accede to their requests, or risk the possibility of something worse were this mob to be thwarted and take to the streets in anger.

Still he had his moment of personal satisfaction.  He made the mob demand the release of Barabbas.  He made the mob demand the death of Jesus.  And then he taunted them by asking them to say what it was that Jesus had done that was so harmful as to deserve crucifixion.  They could not answer that question, because they had not been told what to say, so they merely shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”  Pilate could see that there was nothing to be gained by pursuing the argument further and how frustrated the mob was becoming, so with a final taunting gesture he asked for a bowl of water and washed his hands of the whole affair in public view.  “My hands are clean of this man’s blood; see to that yourselves.”

The mob responded with words that have become classic.  “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”  There have been hundreds, if not thousands, who down through the centuries have used these words, written by a Jewish evangelist, as justification for their anti-Semitism.  People of Jewish descent have been penalized, abused, persecuted and murdered by the practitioners of anti-Semitism because even the Church has, at times, seen in these words an excuse for pogroms against Jewish communities, families and individuals.  But when we look at the context of these words and their setting in the Gospel narrative, we see that they were not uttered by the whole of the people of Israel, they were not uttered by the entire population of Jerusalem and the pilgrims assembled for the Passover and Unleavened Bread festivities.  They were the words of a mob, in a small place, away from the crowds, men who had been spurred on by a Servant of the High Priest and his minions.  It is to the shame of the Church and those who claim to be Christian that anyone ever saw anything in these words as anything other than what they were, words uttered by a small group at the instigation of some people, or even one person, who could not abide what they saw Jesus doing and heard him saying.

As a result of their demands, Pilate released Barabbas and handed Jesus over to the executioner’s squad, after having him flogged, although Matthew does not say how many lashings Jesus received.  And then Jesus was subjected to the taunting of the Roman soldiers, who mocked him in ways that the soldiers of conquering armies have behaved from time immemorial down to even our own age, as we have seen on our television screens in recent years.  Such behaviour is brutal, vicious and depraved, and it is only possible because those behaving in such a manner know that they can probably get away with it.

The mockery inflicted upon Jesus was typical of what others have suffered.  They draped him in a red army blanket, plaited a crown made out of thorns and put it on his head, and put a cane or a reed in his hand, and then jeeringly they fell on their knees and sarcastically hailed him as King of the Jews.  Then they beat him around the head and spat on him.  Then having had their fun, they dressed him in his own robe again.

And as Matthew tersely puts it, they led him away to be crucified. 

VI

Jesus was led away.  Matthew simply described the people who led him away as “they”, and since the previous plural noun was the soldiers at the Governor’s headquarters they must be the ones to whom he is referring  What Matthew does not tell us is who might have gone along with them.  Later we read of chief priests and elders being at the site of the execution, but there is no evidence that they accompanied the party of soldiers who took Jesus there.  What we are left with is a detachment of soldiers leading a condemned man to his execution.  We are not told the route that they followed, but to get the party as quickly as possible to its destination it would seem to be unlikely that they went through the narrow streets of the city, but rather took a route outside the city walls.  Indeed Matthew uses the expression, “on their way out”, which suggests that they went outside the city to get to Golgotha.

Pilgrims piously walk the Via Dolorosa these days, as their forebears have for centuries, in their piety forgetting or overlooking the fact that Jerusalem was totally destroyed in A.D. 70.  A newer city later arose over the site and it was here that Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, determined to her own satisfaction the route that the execution party took, and no one is going to argue with the mother of someone as powerful as the Emperor Constantine the Great.  But she plotted out the route of the Via Dolorosa in the fourth century.

Jesus had apparently experienced such a severe beating that he could not carry the beam of his own cross.  The detachment of soldiers press-ganged a passing pilgrim from Cyrene in Libya, named Simon, to assist in this task.  Libya was a Roman colony and its citizens were of Mediterranean stock, short, dark-haired Caucasians. So it is unlikely that Simon was a black man, even though he was an African, but an African in the sense that term was used in the Roman Empire, a person who came from the lands along the southern shores of the Mediterranean.  The only contacts in those days with what came to be known as Black Africa were made up the River Nile through Nubia, what we call Sudan, or across the narrow strait between what we call Yemen and Eritrea and into Ethiopia.

The execution site was a place called Golgotha in the local language.  Matthew explains that this means “Place of a Skull”.   We cannot say whether this was because the site had the shape of a skull, or was a place where skulls were buried.  The name, Calvary, is only found in Luke’s account, and it is an English version of the Latin word that was used to translate the Aramaic or Hebrew name for the site.

When the party arrived there Jesus is said to have been offered a drink of sour wine mixed with a sedative.   Although Matthew did not cite Psalm 69 as such, it seems likely that his Jewish Christian followers, well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, would have seen an allusion to verses from that Psalm.

            You know the insults that I receive, and my shame and dishonor;
                                My foes are all known to you.
                Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair.
                I looked for pity, but there was none;
                                And for comforters, but I found none.
                They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar.
 

Jesus declined to drink the sour wine, the vinegar, once he had tasted it.

Then they fastened Jesus to the cross, and we notice that in this Gospel there is no reference to nails.  Then, as was their right, the soldiers divided the clothing of Jesus among themselves, casting lots to see who would take what.  Matthew does not draw reference to it, but in Psalm 22: 18 we may read the words: “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”  That done, the soldiers did the only thing left for them to do; they kept watch until their victim succumbed to death.  Matthew does not tell us at what hour Jesus was fastened to the cross. 

On a tablet above his head the charge against him was inscribed, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”.  It was normal practice to specify the charge against the person being executed, if only to deter others from attempting to commit the same offence.

Two other men were being executed that day.  Matthew describes them simply as bandits.  Jesus was placed on the centre of the three crosses.  Earlier in his Gospel, in chapter 20: 20-23, Matthew had recorded how the mother of the sons of Zebedee had asked that her sons might sit one on the right hand of Jesus and the other on the left, and how Jesus had denied that request since it was not in his power to do so.  But we should probably also see here an allusion to the last verse of the fourth of the Suffering Servant Songs.  Isaiah 53: 12 reads: 

                I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
                Because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered among the transgressors;
                Yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors. 

Next Matthew describes how Jesus was mocked by what he describes as passers-by.  He does not tell us who these might be, but the only people who were likely to have made their way to Golgotha on that High Holy Day for Jews were the same men who had been hired to arrest Jesus and yell for his execution when Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate.  They taunted him with words about pulling down the Temple and rebuilding it in three days, words that two of the false witnesses at the hearing before the Council had claimed Jesus had said.  And they tempted him in much the same way as Satan had at the very beginning of the ministry.  “If you are the Son of God …”  

The taunting was taken up by representatives of the Chief Priests and Elders and Matthew adds another element into the officialdom of Israel, the lawyers.  So we have the classic grouping of the Priests, the Scribes and the Pharisees.  Their taunting was far more widespread.  They were prepared to allow that Jesus had indeed been able to save others, as his name, Jesus, Saviour, reflected.  But back in chapter 12, Matthew had had them declare that it was by Beelzebub that Jesus had been able to do this, and now, as he hung on his cross, it was apparent that he was indeed an agent of Beelzebub, literally the Lord of the Flies, the Prince of Evil.  He was numbered among the transgressors, in accordance with Isaiah 53: 12, as they chose to interpret it, and he was an offence to God, as Deuteronomy 21: 22 and 23 has it. 

When a man is convicted of a capital offence and is put to death, you shall hang him on a gibbet; but his body shall not remain on the gibbet overnight; you shall bury it on the same day, for a hanged man is offensive in the sight of God. 

How could such a man see himself as King of Israel!  But had Jesus ever called himself by that title?  And then they too spoke to him in words similar to those used by Satan in the wilderness: let him come down from the cross, and we will believe him.  If Jesus were to do something dramatic like that, then they declared that they would believe him.  But how, to their mind, could anyone come down from a cross in his own strength?  And would God save such a sinner?  Of course not.  If God really should want him, let God rescue him, since he claimed to be the Son of God.  And as we know, Jesus had never laid claim to that title either. 

And even the bandits taunted him!

There is so much in this passage that reflects what is to be found in many places throughout the Psalter, but let us just select one such passage.  It is from Psalm 57.

            Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful,
for I have taken refuge in you;
in the shadow of your wings will I take refuge
until the time of trouble has gone by. 
I will call upon God Most High,
the God who maintains my cause. 
He will send from Heaven to save me;
he will confound those who trample me;
 God will send forth his love and faithfulness.

Matthew does not cite the passages from the Psalter in detail, but his Jewish Christian audience would have grasped at what he was hinting.

Next Matthew records a strange meteorological or astronomical event, the darkening of the sun for three hours.  Eclipses do not last that length of time, so it could not be that to which he referred.  Much more likely would be dark, storm-like clouds blowing in and darkening the whole land, causing the temperature to drop several degrees, thus affording a degree of mercy from the intense heat of a Palestinian day in late March and early April.  Matthew records that this period of darkness lasted from noon until 3.00 p.m.  There are those who see in this period of darkness a parallel to Exodus 10: 22, when Moses, at the command of God, stretched out his hand over the land of Egypt and darkness descended on the whole land.  However in the Exodus account the darkness lasted three days, not just three hours. 

Up until that point, according to Matthew, Jesus had said not a single word aloud.  But as the darkness was lifting he cried out some words in Hebrew, אלי אלי למה עזבתני.  ’Eli, ’Eli, lamah ‘zabatani.  My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?  These words have for so long been called, “The Cry of Despair”, and viewed out of their context in the Hebrew Scriptures, that that might seem an appropriate description.  But when we realize from where they come, a totally different interpretation is warranted.  These are the words that begin Psalm 22, a Psalm to which Matthew has already made several allusions, if not direct references.  It was an important passage of the Hebrew Scriptures for his disciples, and when we read it in its entirety, we see that, far from being a Psalm of Despair, it is a Psalm of Confidence and Expectant Hope.  Let us just quote one verse from the latter part of the Psalm, verse 25, describing how the Lord regarded the petitioner. 

                He did not scorn,
He did not spurn the plea of the lowly;
He did not hide His face from him;
when he cried out to Him, He listened.

Jesus said these words loud enough for the bystanders to hear what he was saying.  Some thought that he was calling out to Elijah, which should be pronounced El-ee-yah.  Was Jesus calling out to Elijah, someone who according to II Kings 2 had never died but had ascended into the Heavens?  One of these bystanders put a sponge-like substance on the end of a cane and dipped it into some sour wine and lifted it to the lips of Jesus, but Matthew does not say whether Jesus even tasted it.  Others, more cruelly, just wanted to see if Elijah would do anything about the situation. 

In verse 50, Matthew has Jesus give a loud cry as though he was letting go of life, deliberately releasing the Spirit to the Father.  It is tempting to think that he was releasing the Spirit into the wider world to continue his mission and his work, but that may be straining the text too much.  Whatever he did, the way in which Matthew describes it, the death of Jesus was an active event on his part.  In a real sense Death did not conquer Jesus, but rather he chose to cease to live in corporeal form.  If we were to translate Matthew literally we might say that Jesus gave up the Ghost! 

Verses 51 to 53 are particularly difficult for us, brought up in the Western world of scientific knowledge rather than the Oriental world of mystical faith.  But the Western world of scientific knowledge did not exist for Matthew and his readers, and to understand what Matthew is seeking to teach his readers perhaps we should go back to Daniel 7, a passage that we have seen that Matthew has already alluded to, in which the Son of Man comes to the throne of the Ancient of Days in the company of the Saints of the Most High.  Then the rending of the Temple curtain that enclosed the Holy of Holies becomes the Revelation of the Most High God to all who seek him and who are prepared to accept the invitation of the Son of Man to accompany him into the presence of the One who was before time and will be beyond all time.  It is a highly dramatic and apocalyptic piece of writing, and we need to approach these verses with great respect, and to see in them more than just an earthly, earthy meaning. 

Perhaps it is significant that Matthew uses the expression, Holy City, on only two occasions.  The first is at the beginning of the ministry when, in chapter 4, the evangelist describes the Satan as taking Jesus into the Holy City.  We tend to forget that originally Satan was the prosecuting counsel in the Court of Heaven, and so had access to the Holy City where God dwells in Biblical terms.  But Satan was defeated and so now the Holy City is opened up for all who would go there with the Son of Man, and Matthew, in a very dramatic manner, describes how many who had died took advantage of this new freedom to enter the Holy City.  Notice that Matthew does not use the word, Jerusalem, here. 

As the darkness gives way to new light, and as the seismic rumblings of the earthquake abate, so the centurion and his squad of soldiers realize that something very significant must have happened and in awe, and in their pagan beliefs, they acknowledged that Jesus must have been Son of God.  

VII 

Our story is nearly done, but for it to be concluded Matthew introduces some new characters into his account, people who have had no role in the account of the events of the previous twenty-four hours.  They were a group of women, three in all.  Matthew lists them as Mary of Magdala, Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.  Matthew says that they had followed Jesus from Nazareth and had waited upon him.  Who are these women? 

There was no place called Magdala, but the word is related to the Hebrew word, migdal, meaning a tower.  Mary is the English version of the Hebrew name Miriam, the name of the sister of Moses, a woman who is described as a prophet.  It might be that there were many women with this name in New Testament times, but outside the New Testament there is no real evidence of this.  Given the propinquity of New Testament writers to resort to pseudonyms or nicknames, perhaps we should understand these women to have been regarded as prophets in the early Church, women who bore the message of Jesus on their lips and who bore the message of Jesus in their hearts, and one of whom had borne him in her womb, and had brought forth the Word of God in very distinct and concrete form.

If that supposition is correct, then two of these women were regarded as prophets, and one of thetwo as a leading prophet towering over her peers.  Elsewhere I have argued that she is the older of Jesus’ two sisters, the Mary of Martha and Mary, and the woman who acted as the lady of the house in the family home at Bethany owned by Simon Lazarus. 

Mary the mother of James and Joseph is more than likely also the mother of Jesus and Simon and Judas, that is, she is the mother of Jesus.  What is more natural than the widowed mother should be looked after by her daughter – as Paul argues should be done in his first letter to Timothy? 

The third woman is not given a name, but she has figured before in this Gospel as one who, as we have seen earlier, had ready access to Jesus, which might prompt us to think that she was in some way related to him.  Here she is described as the mother of the sons of Zebedee.  In Mark, this third woman is named Salome, a common enough name in the days of the late first century B.C. and early first century A.D.  In the Fourth Gospel she is named Mary, making her the so-called Third Mary, and she is called a sister of the mother of Jesus.  Again, what is more natural than that a widow should attend the last hours of her first-born child, in company with her older daughter and her own sister?  

We have so little written material from the days of the early Church that the best we can do is conjecture about many things, such as the relationships that existed between and among the various characters. 

Then we have this man, Joseph of Aramathea.  Who might he have been?  Mary, the mother of Jesus had a son named Joseph.  Is this who this Joseph is?  Given that it was the responsibility of a son to bury his father, and if a man had no son, then it was the responsibility of a younger brother, it seems likely that this Joseph and Jesus were brothers.  There is no reason why he should not have been a man of means, given that his father, another Joseph, was in the building business.  Elsewhere we learn that he was a member of the Jewish Council, but dissented from what happened at the trial of Jesus and its outcome.  Here we have a man who knew exactly what was going on, where to find his mother, his sister and his aunt and alert them as to what had happened, and willing to take on the responsibility of a younger brother to bury an older brother.  As a member of the Jewish Council he would have been known by Pontius Pilate, and would probably have had ready access to him, so that he could approach him concerning the burial of Jesus.  Whether Pilate knew about these relationships does not matter.  He would only have been too glad to have someone dispose of the corpse. 

Matthew does not say where Joseph obtained the white linen sheet.  He may have bought it, but that seems unlikely on a Festival Day.  What is more likely is that he had such a cloth available to hand just in case a member of his family or household died.  Burial, according to Jewish custom, had to take place before sundown on the day of death, and usually there would be no time to go and buy a cloth for a burial.  And it was customary to anoint the body with oil and spices.  This was not done for Jesus, according to this Gospel, but then we recall the action of the unnamed woman at the dinner in the house in Bethany, about which we read in the first of these meditations.    

We are told that the burial was in Joseph’s own tomb, cut out of rocks.  Matthew does not same where this tomb might have been.  Pious Christian tradition, again dating back to Saint Helena in the fourth century, has placed the tomb at the site that is called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  That could be the place, but it need not be.  Simon Lazarus had been buried on his own estate at Bethany, so it might be that his brother, Joseph, had had a grave cut out of the rock on his estate at Aramathea, a site not too far from Jerusalem and that could have been reached before sunset that Friday evening.  Joseph oversaw the burial, and rolled the stone into place at the opening of the tomb.  His mother and his sister, as close family members, watched the ceremony, although as women they would not have taken part in it. 

The next day – and note how carefully Matthew words these remarks – the morning after the Friday, or, as Matthew actually writes, the Day of Preparation, an important religious day, the chief priests and the Pharisees (but not the elders) approached Pilate.  Once more we must suspect that the High Priest’s Servant was very much involved in all this, and if we have identified him aright, we know that he was a Pharisee.  They addressed Pilate in a very polite manner as “Your Excellency”.  And then they go on to tell Pilate how “this imposter”, as they called Jesus, had once claimed that he would be raised from the dead after three days.  So they requested that a guard be set and that the tomb be made secure.  What they wanted to avoid was someone or some of the disciples coming to the grave and desecrating it by removing the body, claiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  They went on to explain how disastrous it would be if such a rumour were to be circulated. 

Pilate said that they might have their guard, but they would have to secure the grave for themselves.  It would seem he did not want to intrude into such potentially dangerous matters having anything to do with a Jewish grave.  So the guard was set, presumably without consulting Joseph, and the grave was sealed by the staff of the Chief Priests and Pharisees.  And we can speculate as to who did the sealing.

So our story ends for today.  Now we must wait like the mother and sister of Jesus, patiently, and faithfully.