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6 Passiontide

Exploring the text
In Matthew, as in all the Gospels, the climax of the story of Jesus can be found in the last week of his life, in the sweep from the entry into Jerusalem to the crucifixion. As Jesus moves through this last week, the themes of the five narratives and discourses in chapters 1—20 become woven together as he faces the reality of what living out being the ‘Son of God’ will mean for him. The inevitability of Jesus’ death becomes clearer and clearer as we travel through his final week, until in three scenes of chapter 26, it becomes a certainty...

The plot to kill Jesus gains momentum from three key events. The first is Jesus’ decision to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem (26.1–5), the second the anointing of Jesus’ feet by the unnamed woman (26.6 –13) and the third the visit of Judas to the chief priests (26.14 –16). Jesus’ decision to come to Jerusalem for the Passover gives his enemies the opportunity to kill him; the anointing of Jesus’ feet tips Judas into such anger that he decides to betray him; and Judas’ visit to the Jewish authorities provides the means of Jesus’ arrest. As a result, the Last Supper takes place in the context of certainty that Jesus is going to die and that this will be his last meal with his disciples.

The Last Supper

Although John’s Gospel separates the Last Supper from the Passover meal, Matthew like the other Synoptic Gospels is clear that this is Jesus’ last Passover meal with his disciples. Whether it was in fact the Passover meal is at least debatable. If the Last Supper was the Passover meal, then the festival had already begun when Jesus was arrested and tried. The restrictions of Jewish law (coupled with the leaders’ decision not to arrest Jesus during the festival; see Matthew 26.5) make it unlikely that the Jewish leaders would have arrested Jesus during Passover itself. This suggests that John’s timing is more likely, though the timing of the Synoptic Gospels has, at least in some areas, more theological import.

This is especially true in Matthew, given its Jewish context. During the time of Jesus, Passover – as is clear in the Gospels – was a pilgrimage feast. This meant that three times a year (at Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles), Jews were expected to journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast at the Temple. There is strong evidence that this did happen and that Jews from all over the diaspora did their best to travel to Jerusalem for the feast. The challenge came at the fall of the Temple. How would you celebrate the pilgrimage festivals without sacrifice? Rabbinic Judaism responded to this by instituting more fully a non-sacrificial domestic seder meal; Matthew’s community (like Mark’s and Luke’s) responded by stressing the links between the Last Supper and Passover (See Matthew 26.17–20) and the importance of Jesus’ death within this.


One of the key differences between Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death and those of the other Gospels is the importance of Judas within the narrative. This importance is achieved through Matthew’s telling of Judas’ death. Luke does give an account of Judas’ death, in Acts 1.18 –19, but it is included, it appears, largely to explain the need for a replacement disciple among the Twelve. It is also important to observe that in Acts Judas trips, falls and dies, whereas in Matthew it is his remorse at his actions that kills him. Indeed in Matthew, Judas is the foil to Peter. At the Last Supper Jesus says that both will betray him. Judas is identified as the one who will hand him over; Peter as the one who will deny him three times. Both Judas and Peter refuse to accept the designation – ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’ (Matthew 26.25), and Peter’s double refusal to believe that he will deny Jesus (Matthew 26.33 – 35) – and both go on to do exactly what Jesus said they would. The key difference between the two is that Judas succumbs to despair before Jesus has even died; whereas Peter, although despairing, continues. Indeed it is Matthew’s Gospel that evokes the question of whether Judas’ greatest sin was not so much betrayal as giving in to despair so that Jesus could not subsequently forgive him.

The crucifixion

The crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew largely follows Mark’s account, with three main themes: Jesus is mocked, Jesus is given the title of ‘King of the Jews’, and Jesus’ death is seen as a fulfilment of the Scriptures. Two key differences between Matthew’s account and that in the other Gospels are, however, worth reflecting on briefly.

The first is a change in Jesus’ reported quotation from Psalm 22.1: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The change consists not in the translation of the verse but in the words quoted. Both Mark and Matthew cite the verse in Aramaic (which suggests that this is the language in which Jesus quoted the Scriptures), but whereas Mark has ‘Eloi, Eloi’, Matthew has ‘Eli, Eli’. This has caused much discussion among scholars about whether, in Matthew, Jesus switched from Aramaic to Hebrew (since ‘Eli, Eli’ could be Hebrew in form), and if he did, what significance this might have. Many scholars today, however, would argue that both Eli and Eloi are legitimate Aramaic versions of the same word. The reason for the difference might be a very simple one: it may be there to explain why a bystander could think that Jesus was calling for Elijah when he was, in fact, quoting Scripture.

The irony of the misunderstanding is that readers of the Gospels know that one like Elijah – John the Baptist – has already recognized and acknowledged Jesus to be the Messiah, and that Elijah himself has already been present at Jesus’ transfiguration. There is no need for Jesus to call on Elijah; his death on the cross is precisely that which marks him out to be who he is.

There has been much discussion among commentators about whether Jesus’ cry from the cross is to be taken as a cry of desolation or a statement of hope. The issue is that Psalm 22 (which, Matthew implies, Jesus continues to cite; see 27.37) ends with statements of trust in God like ‘All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord’ (22.27). In Matthew’s Gospel, however, there is a good argument for seeing his cry from the cross as expressing the growing abandonment that Jesus has experienced from chapter 13 onwards. He has been rejected by his home town (13.53 –58); then by the disciples (26.56); then by the crowds (27.15 –26). It seems an obvious progression for Jesus to cry out against his final apparent abandonment by God. On the cross Jesus feels deeply alone, and the words of Psalm 22.1 express this more fully than any other words could.

The second key difference between Matthew’s crucifixion account and the others are the signs and wonders that happen at Jesus’ death. Although the veil in the Temple is torn in two elsewhere, Matthew emphasizes this by recording the way in which the earth itself was torn in two and the dead raised. The significance of this is that Matthew is making clear that, with Jesus’ death, the world itself changed. The long-awaited intervention of God can now be seen to have begun (even if it hasn’t finished). There are strong parallels between Matthew’s account of the resurrection of the dead and Ezekiel 37.11–14, which speaks of the resurrection of the dry bones. In Ezekiel 37 the resurrection of the dry bones was a marker that the exile had come to an end; here Matthew uses similar imagery to argue that Jesus’ death has now achieved that for which Israel has waited for so long. The exile is now at an end and God’s people can be restored.

Imagining the text
Matthew’s Gospel often presents its material in triads – a threefold structure which some scholars have called a ‘compositional habit’ of the writer. This three-fold approach was common in ancient sources, and it may go back to the oral roots from which the written material was developed. It even seems possible that Jesus taught and spoke in threes. Matthew’s narrative of the Passion is taken largely from Mark’s Gospel, and in it we can see this same three-fold structure which gives great emphasis to the theological themes that the writer wants to stress in the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, execution and burial. This poem uses a three-fold approach to meditate on the immensely powerful and theologically dense narrative of Jesus’ final days.

Patterns in words . . .
In the garden,
three prayers of terror: ‘Let this cup pass’;
three prayers of trust: ‘Your will be done’;
three prayers unsaid: his followers asleep.

In the darkness,
three fearful treacheries: the kiss, the sword, the flight;
three pious priestly rants: the truth unheard;
three vehement denials: ‘I do not know the man’.

In the morning,
three unjust conspiracies: Pilate, priests and people;
three handy props for mockery: the robe, the reed, the thorns;
three furious steps to murder: first isolate your victim, next
scorn, then the kill.

In the daylight,
three filthy criminals: a cross for each;
three painful hours of agony: the nails, the nakedness, the
three tests of his obedience: to save himself, come down,
defend his dignity.

In the end time,
three witnesses of death: the wakened saints, centurion, the
women standing;
three powers to stifle life: the stone, the seal, the guards;
three faithful friends to wonder: rich Joseph, clearing up the
mess; and Magdalene,
with the other Mary, both watching . . .

Reflecting on the text
It is often easy to overlook the challenge that Jesus presents to us. The way he directs his prophecy to his listeners is by holding up a mirror to them, a mirror in which they can see the difference between the lives they are living and the promise of the kingdom of God. We might experience this both as judgement and as teaching.

Both prophecy and teaching were public events, delivered in the Temple, in front of the crowds, in full hearing of all. The scene to which we now turn our attention is of a very different kind. We see an intimate gathering of a dozen or so men and, probably, some women, who had mostly been together for at least a couple of years. They had shared much: adventure, adulation, hostility, danger. They had enthused each other, competed with each other, debated with each other, quarrelled with each other. They knew each other pretty well.

Early Christian art depicts Jesus wearing a philosopher’s pallium and the disciples as enquiring students. Many of our hymns and prayers speak of him as king, Master, Lord, captain, and of his ancient and modern disciples as subjects, servants, soldiers. But if we believe what he did and what he said at that last supper he shared with Peter and the others, he is not a Master or Lord like any other, but himself a servant, and they are not servants (any more) but friends. Some of you may as children have been read to from a rather sentimental Ladybird children’s book, Jesus the Friend: but the point being made here is not that he is our friend, but that we are, or may be, his friends. And, if his friends, then friends of God.

Friendship is one of the great human experiences. Christians, it has to be said, have however sometimes been suspicious of human friendships, seeing in them a potential obstacle in the relation of the self to God. Augustine, who seems to have had a more than usual gift for friendship, nevertheless reproached himself for the tears he wept at the death of a friend. These tears seemed to him to betray a lack of faith in God. Others have been more appreciative: the medieval writer Aelred of Rievaulx rewrote a line of St John’s Gospel to read: ‘he that abides in friendship abides in God, and God in him’.

But, whatever we might think of friendships with – well, our friends, it’s not obvious that ‘friendship’ is a natural feature of our relation to God. Surely, the difference between God and human beings is too great for us to be friends. God is God and we are but as dust. How could there be friendship between two such unequal beings? Even to think of such a thing seems to betray that old familiar hubris of our wanting to be as gods, our wanting to claim a little bit of what is God’s for ourselves. Perhaps that’s why so few church buildings allow you to feel that going into God’s house is like going to the house of a friend. This is not a home away from home. This is where you are taught to know your place!

Perhaps the worry is that, in the closeness of friendship, we will lose that sense of the majesty of God, the distance and ineffability of the Godhead that elicits our most sublime feelings of worship and adoration. Yet friendship does not mean that the friend is in every case simply another self, someone who likes the same clothes, enjoys the same music, has the same politics, practises the same religion as I do, although there are friendships like that. Many friends, like many marriages, are odd couples, as ill matched as chalk and cheese – and yet sometimes these are the best and strongest friendships.

Friends aren’t, or don’t have to be, the same in every respect. Friendship allows for difference, and sometimes, often, it’s the very difference that makes the friendship so pleasurable. And of no one else is it as true as it is of our friends, that we rejoice in their joys, that we are glad for their successes, that we want them to have all the admiration and all the glory due them for their achievements. Their success is our success, even when what they have achieved is something we could never do and perhaps would never even want to do. ‘I’m glad for you,’ we say, and, when we mean it, that’s as close as we get in human relationships to what worship is all about: giving what is God’s to God: rejoicing in God and praising God for God’s sake.

But perhaps there is also a worry that unless we insist on God’s power over us and our duty of obedience to him, we’ll never be sufficiently motivated really to change our lives for the better, really to start living like those who seek to give God what is God’s. Being as we are, we humans need to have the whip cracked now and again. We need a God to respect, not a God to be chummy with. Yet this anxiety seems misplaced. After all, human experience shows that we are, on the whole, more likely to do more and to do it better for our friends than for our leaders, managers or teachers – perhaps even more than for our country. And the reason is obvious to anyone who has any experience of friendship. Because though friendships sometimes have to be worked at, and though friendship may sometimes seem too good to be believed, our friends’ needs are as real to us as our own: as John Henry Newman said, ‘Our first life is in ourselves, our second is in our friends’: our friends are our other lives.

To know God in Christ as our friend is not to empty this relationship of challenge: it is rather to understand it in such a way that we become ever more motivated to do all, to give all, to suffer all when that’s what is asked of us. And as the story of this last supper also reminds us, there is no betrayal so great, no pain of being betrayed so great, as when we are betrayed by a friend.

Lastly, to live with God as a friend is to live with God humbly. And perhaps this is really why the first and many subsequent disciples have been hesitant to see their Christian lives as friendship with God. James and John wanted to sit at Christ’s right and at his left in his kingdom, to be his vice-regents. Paul hints that Peter fancied his role as the first of the apostles. Apostles, it seems, like the idea of sitting on thrones and judging Israel. Such pretensions have no place in friendship. Friendship with God means talking with him about the humble, everyday things you talk about with your friends: your life, your loves, your family, your clothes, your job, the weather. Far from encouraging us to think of ourselves ‘as gods’, thinking of ourselves as friends of God is the surest way to keep our Christian feet on the ground of humble, everyday reality.

Remembering the betrayal and last supper as we reflect on the text, we move from the public arena of the Temple to the intimacy of a private dinner, and from the public offices of prophecy and teaching to the intimacy of a circle of friends. And just as prophecy and teaching each holds up a mirror in which we are challenged to see ourselves, our hopes and our desires for what they really are, so too the company of friends, the circle of our other selves, focuses the image in that same mirror more sharply, because more intimately, and gives us to see – perhaps more clearly than we might like – what we really value, what, and who, really moves us. To claim God as our friend is not impiously to make ourselves ‘as gods’: it is to let God be as he wants to be, and to do for us what he wants to do for us, to be there for us in the way he wants to be, that seeing ourselves as we are in the mirror of his friendship we might wish to become more as he is, among us as servant – and as friend.

Action, conversation, questions, prayer
Who are your friends, and is there challenge as well as security in your relationships? Is your congregation and community good at nurturing and making friendships?

Conversation and questions
* Pray to identify with Jesus in his suffering.
* What do you see in these last days of the life of Jesus?
* How was the mission of Jesus completed?
* To contemplate the story of Jesus is itself an act of thanksgiving.

Lord, you break apart
Our communities,
Our securities,
Our images of you.
We thank for your abiding friendship,
Your fractured food in this Feast,
Where the human and divine meet,
Through Jesus, the heart of God.

Taken from Journeying with Matthew Yr A by Woodward, Gooder and Pryce

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