Archive for April, 2014
SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I am 99.99 per cent convinced that the Loch Ness monster does not exist. I am not an expert on that topic by any means. Still, from all that I have ever read about Lake Loch Ness and the extensive measures taken to confirm the beast’s existence, it seems highly unlikely to me that an animal of Nessie’s reputed size could evade detection in a land locked body of water for so many centuries. Nonetheless, there remains that .01 percent between my belief in Nessie’s nonexistence and absolute certainty that we call “doubt.” Doubt will always be present in most cases like this because it is nearly impossible to prove a negative. That is why so many whacky conspiracy theories continue to thrive despite their lack of supportive evidence. They survive in that narrow .01 zone of doubt. No one will ever demonstrate absolutely that there are not and never have been bodies of alien beings at Area 51 or that the real Elvis Presley is not still walking the streets of Toledo or that the genuine Kenyan birth certificate of Barak Obama is not hidden away in some dusty government filing cabinet.
I sometimes wonder whether doubt is not really a species of faith. It seems to me that you cannot doubt something you don’t believe or at least suspect might be so, however unlikely. No matter how convinced I may be that the Loch Ness monster does not exist, my conviction falls short of absolute certainty. I cannot state categorically that Nessie is not lurking somewhere down in the depths of Loch Ness where nobody ever thought to look. So I must keep my mind open-at least .01 percent. To that extent, I suppose you could say I am a believer, albeit a reluctant one.
What if I am wrong about Nessie’s nonexistence? Suppose the Loch Ness monster is finally located? Would that change my life or the way I think to any real degree? As guy who spent much of his childhood mucking around in swamps and turning over rocks on the beach in search of interesting little creatures, dreaming all the time of becoming a biologist, I am sure I would find such a discovery fascinating. I would want to read up on all the research and learn all I could about this interesting new creature. But in the grand scheme of things, my life and my outlook on the world would be unaffected. That is because I do not need the Loch Ness monster to convince me that the universe is filled with wonders, unsolved riddles and marvelous secrets waiting to be discovered. The discovery of Nessie would be just one more of many such phenomena.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is quite another matter. The Novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote a short story about a vacationing Georgia family that encounters a psychopathic killer known as the Misfit. The Misfit and his gang hold the family hostage. Then the Misfit gets into a conversation with the family’s grandmother. The Misfit tells the old woman all about his troubled childhood and she, for her part, urges him to pray and assures him that he is not yet beyond redemption. The conversation finally boils down to Jesus. “Jesus” says the Misfit. “Jesus was the only one that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
I am not convinced that doubt about the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest stumbling block to faith. I think the greater problem is that, whether it happened or not, Jesus’ resurrection seems not to have made much difference. If we don’t disbelieve the resurrection it is likely because, from the standpoint of our daily lives, it doesn’t seem to matter much one way or the other. I believe that a lot of us live our lives as practical atheists most of the time “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. Whether Jesus rose from death is of no more consequence than whether there is a monster lurking in the depths of Loch Ness. Either way, life goes on.
Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit got one thing right: He understood that it makes a difference whether Jesus did what the gospels tell us he did. Thomas understood that much also. I suspect that is why he remained with the disciples notwithstanding his doubts about their testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. As improbable as the resurrection might seem, the stakes are astronomically high. The destiny of the cosmos hangs in the balance. Eventual collapse and non-existence is the fate of the universe; or it is destined for re-creation. Jesus is either the first fruits of the new age or just another casualty of the old. If there is even a .01 percent chance that the disciples really saw what they say they saw and heard what they claim to have heard and touched what they maintain was in front of them, it is well worth investigating further. What better place to begin than where Jesus was said to have appeared the last time? That is, among his gathered disciples? In fact, that was where Thomas finally found him.
Our challenge as Christians of the 21st Century is not to convince a secular world that the resurrection might have happened. Rather, the challenge is to convince the world that it matters.
Our reading for Sunday is taken from Peter’s Pentecost sermon. In Luke-Acts, Pentecost marks the transition from the “time of Jesus” to the “time of the church.” Juel, Donald, Luke Acts: The Promise of History, (c. 1983 by John Knox Press) p. 57. While this reading might seem misplaced from the standpoint of our liturgical calendar, it fits in very nicely with the gospel lesson from John. John’s Pentecost occurs on the evening of Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the disciples and “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22.
In the lesson from Acts Peter, emboldened by the Holy Spirit, addresses a diverse group of Jewish pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. His text is Joel 2:28-32. Little is known about the prophet Joel. It is believed that he prophesied to the people of Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history between 539 B.C.E.-331 B.C.E. This group, you will recall, returned from exile in Babylon following the conquest of that empire by the Persians under Cyrus the Great. The exiles had high hopes of rebuilding Jerusalem, constructing a new temple and restoring the land. Contrary to their expectations, however, restoration was difficult, frustrating and slow. Many of the people became discouraged and abandoned the project altogether.
During his ministry the prophet Joel witnessed a devastating plague of locusts which he understood to be a judgment of God designed to call his people to repentance and faith. Such locust swarms, that are still experienced in the Middle East today, can consume an entire field of crops in a matter of hours. Their numbers are so great and their hoards so dense that they can eclipse the sun and moon much like a dark cloud. According to the prophet Joel, this plague was a portent and a sign of the “Day of the Lord” when the light of sun and moon would be dimmed in earnest.
The Apostle Peter quotes this text, but for him the “Day of the Lord” is not a future event. It has already taken place as shown by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples enabling them to speak the gospel in languages of all nations. The apocalyptic sign of the end, the darkening of the heavens, occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus when “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed…” Luke 23:44-45. Peter therefore declares to the crowd gathered before him that the Day of the Lord has arrived and the new age has come. I should add that many scholars, perhaps the majority, hold that Peter’s use of this text from Joel is to highlight the anticipated “second coming of Christ” rather than the crucifixion. E.g., Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M., The Acts of the Apostles (c. 1964 by the Order of St. Benedict, pub. The Liturgical Press) p. 29.) I respectfully take the minority view.
It should be borne in mind that this audience probably knows Jesus or knows about him. What the people know is summarized by Peter in verses 22-23. Jesus was a worker of signs and wonders done in their midst. He was delivered up to “lawless men,” that is, the gentile rulers of Rome and crucified. That much is common knowledge. What the people do not know is that all of this took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (vs. 23) and that “God raised [Jesus] up.” Vs. 24. What the people assume to have been the cruel death of a tragically misguided prophet, perhaps a prophet with messianic delusions, was in reality the working out of God’s mission of salvation for all people.
Peter continues his sermon by citing to a section of our Psalm for today, Psalm 16:8-11. In this psalm, traditionally attributed to David, the psalmist declares that God will not allow him to see the “Pit” or be abandoned to “Sheol.” Vs. 10. Peter argues that David cannot be speaking of himself because he has, in fact, died and the place of his burial is well known. Consequently, David must have been speaking about one of his descendants as God promised David that his line would endure forever. Thus far, Peter is interpreting the psalm in much the same way as it was widely understood in the 1st Century by many strands of Jewish tradition. The belief that God would raise up a descendent of David to restore Israel was a deeply held hope. But now Peter delivers the knockout punch: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.” Vs. 32. The crucified and rejected Jesus is the promised descendant of David raised up for Israel’s salvation.
Care must be taken in speaking of the “foreknowledge and plan” of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. If this language is forced into the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” we come out with a perverse understanding of God the Father whose treatment of his Son can only be described as child abuse. Jesus’ suffering and death was not “necessary” to appease the thirst of an angry God for vengeance. The crucifixion was not required to enable God to forgive. God does not need the death of Jesus to forgive sins. Jesus’ suffering and death was necessary or inevitable because living a life that is truly human and obedient to the will of God in a sinful and inhumane world can have but one consequence. That consequence of rejection, suffering and death God was prepared to embrace in the person of his Son in order to embrace us with human arms and love us with a human heart. The cross is the price of God’s covenant faithfulness to all of creation-a price God was willing to pay.
Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.). Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 172. Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.
That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Ibid. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Ibid. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.
The psalmist opens his/her prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.
As we have seen, the Apostle Peter cites this text (assuming Davidic authorship) to demonstrate Jesus’ messiahship. By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus was spared from “Sheol” and the “Pit”. Vs. 10. It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” Peter does not use the text in this manner either. His emphasis is not resurrection as such, but on Jesus’ resurrection as vindication of his faithful life and proof that God’s purpose has been worked out through that life. The notion of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith. Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
These brief verses are taken from the salutation given to the churches of northern Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) by the author of I Peter. These churches lived at the frontier of the Roman Empire where national security required greater internal government scrutiny. Societies such as the church that met regularly in private homes aroused suspicion. The refusal of Jesus’ disciples to take part in civil ceremonies acclaiming the deity of the Roman emperor seemed to confirm the government’s fear that the church might be a seditious movement dangerous to Roman society. As a result, members of the church experienced persecution ranging from social ostracism to outright violence.
This salutation sets the tone for the rest of the letter. Peter reminds these believers that they have been “born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” vs. 3. This hope is an inheritance that cannot be taken away; thus, believers can rejoice even though their faithfulness to Jesus occasions suffering in the short run. Such rejoicing, as Stanley Hauerwas observes, is unintelligible apart from this community’s firm belief in Jesus’ resurrection. See Post for April 20th. That resurrection represents not merely the destiny of the church, but of all creation. Consequently, belief in the resurrection means shaping one’s life to fit the contours of the new creation soon to be born rather than to those of the old creation that is dying. Birth does not occur without pain and the shedding of blood. Martyrdom is the church’s ultimate testimony to the reality of God’s kingdom. The persecution of the saints constitutes the death throes of the old order just as surely as it does the birth pangs of the new.
It seems to me that John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection differs from those of Matthew, Mark and Luke in this respect: Whereas for the first three gospels Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion are interpreted through the shock of his resurrection; for John, Jesus’ laying down his life interprets his resurrection appearances. Or as one commentator puts it:
“…when we consider the nature of St. John’s gospel, in which the Lord during his ministry has revealed Himself as the resurrection and the life, and the cross, as interpreted by St. John, marks not only the last stage of His ‘descent’ but also His glorification, it should not surprise us that the evangelist is not concerned in ch. 20 to dwell upon the Lord’s resurrection as forming primarily a reversal of the passion. He expects his readers to have learned by this time the secret which he has gradually unfolded to them in the first nineteen chapters of his gospel, the secret, namely, that the Lord at the moment and in the fact of his laying down of His life has revealed the glory of the Father, and therefore His own oneness with the Father, to the fullest possible degree. If one moment of His revelation of the Father in the days of His flesh is to be distinguished from another, then at the moment of His death, more than at any other, He has glorified the Father, and His return to the Father has at least begun (cf. 6:62).” Lightfoot, R., St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary, (c. 1956 Clarendon Press, pub. Oxford University Press) pp. 329-330.
In narrating the resurrection appearances, John takes care to emphasize the physicality of the resurrected Christ. Jesus must tell Mary to cease clinging to him before he can go on his way. John 20:17. He appears to the disciples with the wounds of the cross on his body. Vss. John 20:20. He even invites Thomas to place his hands in those wounds. John 20:27. John makes clear that the incarnation is irrevocable. The flesh of Jesus was not merely a clever disguise. God became human and God remains human. “No one has ever seen God,” says John. But “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. God is known and knowable only through one’s abiding in the fully human Jesus. Nothing makes that point quite as emphatically as Thomas’ confession: “My Lord and My God.” Vs. 28.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? In my own tradition (Lutheran), this verse has always been associated with the “office of the keys,” the peculiar power of the church “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” The Gospel According to John, XIII-XX1, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Thomas comes in for a good deal of criticism for doubting Jesus’ resurrection, though to be fair, he was not asking for anything more in the way of proof than the disciples had already experienced. It is worth noting that, however doubtful Thomas may have been, he remained in the company of his fellow disciples. That is to say, he remained in the church. That is the best possible advice I can give to people who have difficulty believing. Faith cannot be argued into anyone, nor can it be manufactured. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that must be given. Still, we know where the Holy Spirit hangs out. The Spirit accompanies the preaching of the Word; the Spirit is poured out upon the bread and wine at the altar; the Spirit is present where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. If you want to believe, that is where you need to be. Of course, if you don’t want to believe, I can’t help you with that.
RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“While [the women] were going [from the tomb to tell the rest of the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection], behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’” Matthew 28:11-14.
“Unfortunately, no longer does anyone need to be bought off to deny the resurrection. For us, that is, for anyone schooled in modernity, the resurrection is quite simply unbelievable. The resurrection is the miracle of miracles, and miracles are unbelievable. Of course, the resurrection is the miracle of miracles, but not because it defies belief. The resurrection is the miracle of miracles because it is the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. But little will be gained in trying to convince anyone that the resurrection might have happened. To do so threatens to isolate the resurrection from the life and crucifixion of Jesus in a manner that distorts the witness that Matthew has trained us to be. The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make no sense if in fact Jesus has not been raised from the dead.” Stanley Hawerwas in his commentary on Matthew, (Brazos Press) p. 249.
Hawerwas puts his finger on something important: Disbelief in Jesus’ resurrection is a much bigger problem for the church than it is for the public at large. Belief in the resurrection is inspired by the witness of a community whose existence and way of living cannot be explained in any other way. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is entirely unworkable as a general ethic. It is simply not possible for individuals living in contemporary society to apply it in any meaningful way. The Sermon only becomes intelligible where it is lived by a community convinced that Jesus has been raised from death, that a new age has arrived and that life must be conformed to the contours of that new age rather than to the principalities and powers governing the prior age.
The problem, however, is that the life of the church is often entirely intelligible without Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, we mainliners go to great lengths demonstrating that we are relevant, that we make sense and that we share the same enlightened values that all decent human beings promote. My church has published dozens of “social statements” over the years on one issue or another. Most of them are well reasoned, carefully thought out and reach conclusions that I can agree with more or less. But for the most part, they would be no less reasoned, thoughtful and agreeable (to me at least) if you were to leave Jesus out of them altogether. In short, we seem to be finding our way just fine without the resurrection of Jesus. That is a huge problem for the church in seeking to fulfill the great commission to baptize and teach. How do you convince all nations that Jesus matters to them when Jesus doesn’t matter to you? What, then, does it mean to be a people who are unintelligible without Jesus’ resurrection?
First let me say that being a people unintelligible apart from the resurrection doesn’t mean that we are unintelligible altogether. It isn’t enough just to be strange. Our strangeness must grow out of our conviction that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have made a fundamental difference for the entire universe. If even death is reversible, it seems to me that we ought not to waste another nanosecond worrying about and discussing the future of the church in our society. The word “sustainable” ought never again to come up in our discussions of mission and ministry. Since when has sustainability ever been part of the discipleship package? And let’s stop fretting about our loss of financial support. What more do we need in the way of material wealth to be the church than a Bible, a loaf of bread and a little wine?
No vote should ever again be taken to resolve any issue, whether in a congregation or at a synod assembly. Instead, we should devote ourselves to prayer until the Spirit makes the mind of Christ clear to the whole Body of Christ. If that takes years to happen, so be it. God has all eternity to work with us. Unrealistic? Tell the Mennonites. They have been employing this patient method of decision making for generations.
Furthermore, if the church is truly the Body of the resurrected Christ, then each congregation is committed to the health and wellbeing of each of its members. The church as a whole is obligated to each congregation as it seeks to fulfil this commitment. There is no excuse for any member of any Christian congregation to be without sufficient food, health care or housing. That is not how parts of a healthy body behave toward one another. Lest anyone suggest that this is impossible or impractical, networks of Christian communities have actually been providing such care for one another for decades. See, e.g., Shane Claiborne on CNN (Healthcare).
I make no claim that any of this is practical, cost effective or sustainable. Quite the contrary. You would out of your mind to do things this way-unless, of course, you happen to believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead. In that case, living as members of his resurrected Body is the only rational response.
This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord. The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Vss. 34-35. Peter had to give up long held interpretations of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be. As I have said many times before, this story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47
While the context of this passage is important, the Easter emphasis is on Peter’s witness to Jesus. Note well how Peter makes clear that his witness goes not merely to Jesus’ resurrection, but also to Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit, his works of healing and casting out demons and his execution-the natural outcome of his faithful life. Without this narrative, the resurrection is empty of any real meaning for us. Unlike us, the ancient world had no doubt that God (or the gods) could resurrect a dead person. The gods might bestow such a favor on anyone to whom they took a shine. But in the realm of Greco-Roman literature, such persons tended to be heroes. The notion that Israel’s God (or any other deity) would raise up a crucified criminal was absurd. Under all objective standards, Jesus had been a colossal failure. He was misunderstood, betrayed and deserted by his closest disciples. He was rejected by his people and put to death in the most shameful way possible. But God’s judgment on Jesus’ life is entirely different than our own. God raised Jesus from death to say, “Yes, this is what my heart desires of human beings. This is my very self and is also everything I ever wanted humans to be. This is the measure by which I judge; this is the depth of my love for all so judged.”
“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good.” Vs. 1 Saint Augustine remarks, “I see not what can be more solemn than this brevity, since goodness is so peculiarly the quality of God…” On the Psalms, Augustine of Hippo, The Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. VIII, (c. 1979 WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 557. “Goodness,” however, is not an abstract principle. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. God’s goodness is both defined and illustrated through the salvation narrative of the Pentateuch. The Exodus stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It is the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to illuminate saving acts of God occurring in Israel’s present context and to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Thus, whether this psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the Ark of the Covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, it echoes God’s glorious victory over Egypt at the Red Sea and Israel’s liberation from bondage.
The “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” in verse 16 might refer to encampments on the battlefield and therefore indicate the celebration of a military victory. Alternatively, the tents might refer to pilgrim encampments about Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W. Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86. Again, given Israel’s practice of adapting her ancient liturgical traditions to new circumstances, these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Because the psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another while some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist, many Old Testament scholars believe this hymn to be a compilation of several different works. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 85. Professor Bernhard Anderson sees this as a “royal psalm,” a liturgy in which the king of Judah approaches the temple gates and seeks admission that he may give thanks. In so doing, he serves as a priestly figure representing the whole congregation of Israel. Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 113.
The passage most commonly cited in the New Testament is at vss. 22-23. Jesus quotes these words at the conclusion of his parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17. They are also cited at Acts 4:11 and I Peter 2:7. The “chief corner stone” is probably the chief stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.
Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his own. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.
Chapter 3 brings us to the center of the concentric circles of thought. Our reading for Sunday summarizes Paul’s argument in the prior two chapters. The Church is called upon to live as a colony of God’s kingdom, a piece of God’s resurrection future in the present world. In order to do that, it must keep its mind focused on “the things that are above.” This is not a spatial/directional instruction. Christ is “above” not in the sense that he is somewhere “beyond the blue,” but in the sense that he is supreme over both the principalities and powers of this world and also head of the church which is his Body. It is to Christ, not to Caesar or to any other earthly ruler that the church looks for redemption. It is the peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana in which disciples of Jesus are called to live obediently and faithfully as they await the revelation of that peace to the rest of the world.
This lesson makes clear to the church that Jesus’ resurrection makes a difference. A new world order has begun, whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. The church need not build the kingdom of God. It is already here. The church only needs to witness to the new reality by living faithfully under its sway.
To appreciate the full impact of Matthew’s resurrection witness, we need to go back to the account of Jesus’ burial. The chief priests, you will recall, had petitioned Pilate to seal the tomb of Jesus and set a guard over it for three days in order to prevent his disciples from stealing the body and claiming that he had risen. Matthew 27:62-66. But as it turns out, the disciples are the least of their worries. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James proceed to the tomb on the dawn of the third day and witness an earthquake as a descending angel of the Lord moves the stone away from the tomb. Vss. 1-2. It is critical to note that by this time, the tomb is already empty. The seal has been broken from within. The angel’s mission is neither to immobilize the guard nor to let Jesus out of the tomb. He comes only to demonstrate to the women that the tomb is empty. Jesus has already been raised. The impotence of the mighty Roman Empire could hardly be clearer. It’s false “peace” imposed by the violence practiced against Jesus has been shattered. The seal on its reign of terror has been broken. In its failed effort to seal Jesus’ tomb, Rome has sealed its own fate. Pilate’s wife was right to be troubled over the death of this “righteous man.” Matthew 27:19. Be afraid, Pilate. Be very afraid. The nightmare is only beginning.
It should be clear from the preceding paragraph that I do not buy into the commonly accepted belief that Matthew is merely trying to dispel a rumor of fraud and fabrication surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. I do not believe that Matthew or the other gospel writers were the least bit concerned about such trifling matters. I think they were a good deal smarter than that. Matthew’s literary purpose here is to juxtapose the imperial might represented by Rome, might that Jesus’ enemies exploited in their efforts to destroy him, over against the purpose of God worked out through Jesus’ mission that his gospel takes pains demonstrating at every turn through citations to the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as Herod’s futile violence against the children of Bethlehem only confirmed the prophetic witness to Jesus, so the violence of Israel’s religious authorities, Pilate and the hostile crowd unwittingly moved God’s final saving act to completion. All authority on heaven and earth now belongs to Jesus, not Rome. Vs. 18.
Matthew’s resurrection account follows Mark insofar as the angel instructs the two women to tell the disciples that he will meet them in Galilee. Vs. 10. Cf. Mark 16:7. By contrast, both Luke and John place Jesus’ initial resurrection appearances to the disciples in Jerusalem. Luke 24:33-43; John 20:1-29. It is pointless to try and reconstruct the actual sequence of events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection, just as I believe it is futile to search for the so called “historical Jesus” lurking about behind the gospel texts. God has not given us “history” in the New Testament witness. The Spirit inspired the Apostles to preach the good news about Jesus and inspired subsequent generations to put that preaching and testimony into narrative form. That is disquieting to the 19th Century prejudices of historical/critical scholars who still believe in that antiquated notion of “objective history.” But for a world that has outgrown the Enlightenment, the apostolic witness speaks a word about Jesus that has the ring of truth.
That the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the disciples should take place on a mountain has clear significance. Vs. 16. It stretches back to the Mountain of Transfiguration and perhaps also to the locus of the Sermon on the Mount. There are, of course, also echoes of the appearance of the Lord on Mt. Sinai narrated throughout the Pentateuch. In the face of such a theophany, worship is the only appropriate response. Vs. 17. Nonetheless, “some doubted.” Matthew recognizes that faith is a complicated reality. It cannot be “wowed” into existence by a demonstration of “shock and awe.” Not even the appearance of the resurrected Christ can “prove” the resurrection beyond dispute. So, too, faith does not require such appearances. The testimony of the apostolic witness is sufficient and it is that with which the Gospel of Matthew concludes. The disciples are sent out with the assurance that the resurrected Christ will accompany their testimony. Nothing more is required.
Let me conclude as I began with a citation to Stanley Hauerwas: “The resurrection, of course, is not a ‘knockdown sign’ that establishes that Jesus is the Son of God. The soldiers were scared to death by the angel, but that did not incline them to believe in Jesus or the resurrection. They remain under the power of the chief priests and elders and seem more than willing to do their bidding. The truth that is Jesus is a truth that requires discipleship, for it is only by being transformed by what he has taught and by what he has done that we can come to know the way the world is. The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed-but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him. That is what it means to live apocalyptically.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 247.
SUNDAY OF THE PASSION/PALM SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
How can the crowds that cheered Jesus and acclaimed him their Messiah on Palm Sunday be crying out for his death by the end of the week? That is the Holy Week question that has always haunted me. Biblical scholars resorting to historical critical methods have sought in various ways to explain this difficulty away. One such explanation is that there were two crowds, each made up of altogether different groups. The crowd agitating for Jesus death was a discrete and much smaller group brought together by the temple authorities to influence Pilate. The general public, “the people,” were always on the side of Jesus. That might all be plausible, but we don’t send people to prison on the basis of plausible evidence and we shouldn’t re-write the scriptures on such flimsy speculation either. However sensible and appealing this speculative version of events might be, it is not how the gospels tell the story. Faithfulness requires that we struggle with the imponderables rather than attempting to explain them away.
In Matthew’s gospel, the “crowds” (Greek “oxoloi”) are a distinct character along with the disciples, the Pharisees, the Chief Priests and Pilate. They are present at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew 4:25. They are astonished at his teaching, recognizing in him the voice of authority. Matthew 7:28-29. The crowds follow Jesus throughout his Galilean ministry. Matthew 8:1; Matthew 8:18; Matthew 9:33; Matthew 12:23; Matthew 13:2; Matthew 14:13; Matthew 15:10; Matthew 17:14; Matthew 19:1-2; and Matthew 20:29. The crowds are present as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday cheering him as the “Son of David” and spreading their clothing in his path. Matthew 21:6-11. Throughout his teaching in the temple of Jerusalem, the crowds form a kind of “human shield” about Jesus preventing the authorities from arresting him. Matthew 22:45-46. They continue to be astonished at his teaching. Matthew 22:33. Jesus’ last address to the crowds in the gospel of Matthew is a vitriolic denunciation of the oppressive religious leadership and a challenge for his disciples to live out their faith in service and humility.
When next the crowds appear, it is with the officers of the Chief Priests who come to arrest Jesus. Matthew 26:47. Jesus confronts both the officers and the crowds concerning their perceived need to employ violence against him. They have been listening to him teach them in the temple for days, but took no action. Why here? Why now? Matthew 26:55. The crowds are absent throughout Jesus’ trial before the religious authorities, but reappear again after Jesus’ hearing with Pilate. Pilate, hoping that Jesus will prove more popular than the notorious Barabbas, offers him to the crowds as a candidate for amnesty. Matthew 27:15-18. But the Chief Priests have been busy lobbying for Barabbas who ultimately becomes “the people’s choice.” Matthew 27:21. The crowds will have Jesus crucified and his blood upon them and their descendants. Matthew 27:24-25.
We must be mindful about the danger of anti-Semitism here. We cannot use the term “crowds” interchangeably with “Jews.” Though the crowds in Matthew’s gospel were obviously made up of Jews, so also were the twelve disciples, to say nothing of Jesus himself. The crowds are no different from any other character in the gospel. They are amazed and overawed by Jesus. They are puzzled and confused by Jesus. Ultimately, they are disappointed with Jesus and, like his disciples, abandon him to his death. The crowds, as I said, constitute a unique character and actor in the gospel. Their hopes, their expectations, their faith and fickleness have much to teach us.
We know from our own experience that crowds have short memories. They sweep new leaders into power hoping for a better life. But if these new leaders cannot deliver bread and butter results in a timely fashion, the horrors of the old regime are fast forgotten and the crowds are back out in the street, perhaps even calling for the return of their former leaders. Crowds are not very good at thinking things through, particularly when they are angry. An angry mob believes somebody is to blame for its discontent and that somebody has to pay. Mob anger needs a scapegoat, and just about any target will do, whether it be Jews, immigrants, racial minorities or sexual minorities. Crowds are capable of unspeakable crimes that their individual members probably would not commit on their own. Lynching, looting, rioting and gang violence all occur when crowds are whipped up into a frenzy of anger and given a target for that anger.
There was plenty of anger and a lot of fear around in 1st Century Palestine. Jesus’ enemies knew how to exploit it and they did. We don’t have the benefit of knowing exactly what the Chief Priests said to turn the crowds against Jesus. But I am guessing they used the same time honored tactics that demagogues always use. “Jesus is undermining public morals and ‘family values.’ Jesus is spreading false doctrine and undermining our traditional faith. Jesus is corrupting the young and impressionable. Jesus is associated with a known domestic terrorist (Simon the Zealot). Jesus keeps company with people of questionable morals (“sinful” woman). Jesus is an affront to God’s moral order and that is why we have bloody clashes with Rome; that is why towers fall on people and why we have blindness and sickness among us. God is punishing us for tolerating the likes of Jesus and his degenerate teachings!”
There is nothing mysterious in the crowd’s change of mood between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. It’s what crowds do. Paul reminds us in our second lesson for Sunday that followers of Jesus are not a crowd. We are members of a Body guided by the “mind of Christ.” One of the “ways of sin that draw us from God” denounced in our baptismal vows is the pull of the crowd. We dare not let the voices of nationalistic fervor; the righteous indignation of public opinion or the mob instinct for scapegoating shout down the voice of Jesus. So the next time you hear public outcries against anyone, whether s/he be a defendant in a high profile criminal case; an illegal immigrant; or a member of a racial, sexual or religious minority; remember that we worship a messiah who was the victim of mob violence. Remember that the more we are shaped by the rage of the crowd, the more we are drawn away from the transforming power of Jesus.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Matthew’s.
Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.
That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.
In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfils all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
There is far more material in Matthew’s passion narrative than I can hope to consider in this post. Furthermore, I am not sure scrutinizing the text is at all helpful here. I do not believe I have ever attempted to preach on the passion itself. After hearing it read, silence seems to be the only natural and appropriate response. Instead of reading commentaries, I believe the best preparation for the Sunday of the Passion is to set aside a few hours and listen to J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. That said, a few things about Matthew’s passion narrative are noteworthy. Of particular interest are those episodes unique to Matthew’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Matthew alone tells us that Judas, after realizing that his betrayal of Jesus will end in Jesus’ crucifixion, regrets his treachery. Matthew alone tells us that Judas returned his ill-gotten silver and subsequently committed suicide. Matthew 27:3-10. Mark and John tell us nothing of Judas after his act of betrayal. Luke refers to Judas’ death only in an obscure passage from Acts. Acts 1:18-19. Wherever Matthew obtained this information, it fits nicely into the “fulfillment of prophesy” theme running through his gospel. Matthew has referred to Judas on several occasions as a “paradidous” or “one who hands over” or “betrayer” according to the RSV. See Matthew 10:4; Matthew 26:25; Matthew 26:46 and Matthew 26:48. Now Judas takes that name upon his own lips and so labels himself. “I have sinned in ‘betraying’ innocent blood.” Matthew 27:4.
The chief priests initially refuse to accept the money but obviously cannot return it to Judas once he is dead. Because the funds constitute “blood money,” they are unfit for the temple’s general treasury. Scholars debate the scriptural origin of this supposed prohibition. Some believe it to have been a rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:18 forbidding payment of a vow by any Israelite from the wages of a prostitute. This seems a stretch to me. Judas was not seeking to pay any religious obligation when he returned the thirty pieces of silver, nor were the priests who received it. Moreover, the wages of a prostitute do not involve the shedding of blood. Finally, there is no actual rabbinic interpretation of this text that comes close to a specific prohibition against the receipt of blood monies. Others have focused on I Chronicles 22:8-9 in which the Lord forbids David from constructing the temple in Jerusalem because he has “shed much blood and…waged great wars.” While a rabbinic gloss on this text extending the prohibition against David’s construction of the temple to the deposit of blood money into the treasury is logical, it likewise lacks support in any known rabbinic literature.
Whatever may be the case with respect to laws governing deposits into the temple treasury, Matthew employs this episode to demonstrate once again that what happens to Jesus fulfills the scriptures. His citation to Jeremiah appears to be a conflation of three texts: Zechariah 11:12-13; Jeremiah 18:1-3; Jeremiah 32:6-13. Perhaps the more significant of these is the third. Jeremiah relates how God instructed him to purchase a field from his uncle at the height of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army. This was obviously a foolish short term investment, given that all the land would soon be under the control of Babylon and the people deported. But the prophet is not thinking short term. He looks to the day when the land will again be re-inhabited by his people and at peace. This seemingly senseless business transaction reflects the prophet’s faith in God’s promise to bring Israel back from exile and restore to her the land of promise. In reverse literary symmetry, the chief priests conduct what seems to them an imminently practical transaction that turns out to be the prophetic fulfillment of Jesus’ messianic destiny.
The other episode unique to Matthew’s passion narrative occurs in Matthew 27:51-52. Immediately following Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom. Vs. 51. In this much, Matthew is consistent with Mark (Mark 15:38) and Luke (Luke 23:45). But Matthew goes on to describe a great earthquake that opened up the tombs housing many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep, but were raised and entered Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew 27:51-53. Eduard Schweizer believes that a textual corruption or inept editing is responsible for the testimony that the resurrected saints were not seen in Jerusalem until after Jesus’ resurrection. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 516. He maintains that the narrative makes sense only if we understand the appearance of the saints to have taken place on the day of Jesus’ death.
I will admit that the text as it stands makes for an awkward sequence of events in the passion story. Moreover, if the appearance of the saints did take place after Jesus’ resurrection, it would fit more naturally into the resurrection account in Matthew 28. Still and all, I am not thoroughly convinced. Jewish belief in the resurrection (among those who did so believe) understood that resurrection to be a general one. All the dead would be raised and judged together. See Daniel 12:1-3. There was no understanding, so far as I know, of individuals being resurrected (as opposed to simply being raised like Lazarus in last week’s gospel). Consequently, Jesus’ resurrection could only be understood in Jewish thought as the first fruits of the general resurrection. That is clearly how Saint Paul understands the resurrection. (See I Corinthians 15). The appearance of the departed saints (“righteous ones” or “Zadiq” in Hebrew) at the time of Jesus’ rising therefore substantiates Jesus’ resurrection as the resurrection.
If you are hell bent on preaching the passion, these are two sections you might consider focusing on. Still, my advice remains: Don’t do it. The passion preaches itself. Let the story be told. Let the mysteries, the imponderables and the questions hang in the air. The Son of God has uttered his last words. What can we possibly add?