Saturday, March 19, 2005

on the passion of jesus christ according to matthew

at catholic masses throughout the world, the passion of jesus christ according to matthew will be proclaimed this sunday. as in the other passion narratives of the new testament, references to the flogging, spitting, scourging, and beating that jesus experienced are mentioned. but unlike the passion of jesus according to mel gibson, where the torture that jesus endured is quite prolonged and emphasized, the focus in the biblical narratives of the passion is on the moral, psychological, and emotional agony and suffering that jesus endured. in many ways, this type of agony is more painful than the physical, making the evangelists' accounts more dramatic perhaps and powerful. so, mindful of this fact, a few elements in matthew's narrative are noteworthy.

first, in the matthean narrative, the betrayal of jesus by one of his followers, judas iscariot, is brought to prominence. for instance, in addition to receiving payment from the chief priests for his betrayal, judas calls jesus "rabbi" twice, even though jesus had forbidden his followers to use this title (matthew 23:7-8). that judas uses this title in addressing jesus gives his betrayal an added sting.

secondly, a typically matthean theme is how the old covenant is fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of jesus. so, when one of the followers of jesus cuts off the ear of a soldiers, jesus reprimands him and says, "But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?"

this points to the fact that in matthew, jesus knew what was going to happen to him--that he was perfectly in control of the situation and his arrest. and he goes to his death willingly and deliberately. he had foreknowledge of the death in store for him.

peter's denial of jesus, as in judas' betrayal, is also held up in matthew's story. and it is stressed in a particularly dramatic way. at jesus' trial--at the same time when peter thrice denied knowing jesus--jesus was being interrogated by the high priest himself who pointedly told jesus: "I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Christ, the Son of God." ironically this is the same title that peter himself used when he confessed: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (matthew 16:16). matthew then in a very skillful and crafted way weaves in peter's earlier confession with his subsequent denial and with the high priest's interrogation, making peter's denial even more powerful.

also, references to "innocent blood" are also found in matthew. judas uses this phrase as he flung the thirty pieces of silver in front of the chief priests. the priests themselves referred to the ransom paid to judas as the "price of blood." and the plot of land they bought with the ransom money is called the "Field of Blood." this makes the imagery of jesus' death more stark and vivid.

moreover, the passion narrative refers to a dream by pilate's wife, revealing jesus to be an innocent man. what is interesting is that matthew in his infancy narrative refers to dreams as well: specifically, the dream of the wise men not to return to herod after visiting the infant jesus and the dream of joseph to take his family to egypt. matthew nicely goes back therefore to the theme of dreams in the passion--a theme found at the beginning of the gospel.

lastly what happened at the moment of jesus' death was also emphasized, and the significance of those events is full of meaning. the veil of the sanctuary at the temple was torn from top to bottom, the earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of those who were long dead were raised. this is classic biblical language pointing to the reality that the "end times" have arrived--that the history of salvation begins its fulfillment and that the vindication of God--his plan and purpose for humankind--is reaching its fruition. as the renowned biblical scholar the late rev. raymond brown puts it: "Human relationship to God have been changed, and the cosmos has been transformed."

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