April 13, 2014
Matthew 21:1-11 Procession with Palms
Matthew 26:14—27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
It’s generally agreed that The Gospel of Matthew was written after Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. Just how long after isn’t certain but it was probably while that event was still traumatic for Jews, whether or not they had accepted Jesus as the Messiah. People reading Matthew for guidance in responding to that shattering event would certainly have paid great attention to the portions of it we read this week.
Modern readers who are struggling with life’s challenges to their understanding of their identities as Christians may find insight into their own problems as well.
Roman military and political leaders used processions effectively to impress the people with their power and importance. By choosing to enter Jerusalem in a public way, as he did in this reading, Jesus got people’s attention. He used their interest to make clear some of the contrasts between God’s kingdom and human ones.
Matthew quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures to help readers connect the actions he writes about with previous elements in the covenant between God and Israel. Riding a donkey instead of a warhorse called to mind King Solomon as well as the king prophesied in Zechariah. Jesus went on to quote Jeremiah as he repudiated the Jewish religious leadership in his cleansing of the Temple.
Judging by the reported reaction of the crowd — “Hosanna” (Save us) followed by messianic titles — they got it.
This passage is the third of the servant songs in Isaiah. Among the reasons for reading it this week are 1) the parallel between Jesus and the servant who willingly carries out his God-given mission, and 2) the similarity between those of the servant’s countrymen who reject his teaching and those religious authorities who reject Jesus.
This passage shows the psalmist turning to God for support when the circumstances of his life are almost more difficult than he can bear. We can easily see overlap with Jesus’ experiences during the last week of his life: the authorities working to kill him while his disciples betrayed and deserted him.
The psalmist’s lament came in the middle of a prayer that praised God and expressed trust in Him. This week’s Gospel reading shows Jesus turning to God for support in facing his own mission that was almost too difficult to bear.
In the ancient world, invoking someone’s name meant acknowledging that person as master and protector; the person was present in the name. Both the Gospel of John and many of Paul’s letters tell us that Jesus was glorified through his execution as a criminal. “Glorified” here means revealed in his true nature. The Transfiguration of Jesus revealed one aspect of his true nature; he revealed another in his willingness to put aside power and majesty in order to fulfill God’s plan for redeeming mankind.
A small selection of the noteworthy aspects to this reading:
1. The religious authorities could have listened to Jesus’ repudiation of particular actions of theirs and tried to behave more like shepherds toward their people. Indeed, some seem to have been shepherdlike — think of Nicodemus. We have no way of knowing how history would have unfolded if more of the religious leaders had listened to Jesus, but that surely would have been a good thing.
Instead, the inner circle at least saw Jesus as a threat and acted against him.
2. In 26:51-54, when one of Jesus’ followers (other sources say it was the impetuous Peter) drew his sword to try to prevent Jesus from being arrested, Jesus told him that force of arms wasn’t the answer. Jesus’ statement goes to the profound question of the nature of power.
Of less ultimate significance, but still important, is the question of the effect of violence in society. Many people have pointed out that the Jewish people suffered greatly after some of them chose violent resistance against Rome. Less noticed is that the Romans’ use of violence was also unsuccessful. They crucified insurrectionists to try to deter other would-be revolutionaries, but an uprising occurred anyway.
3. Many have pointed to the events of Holy Week as an example of the fickleness of public opinion. On Sunday, Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem by cheering throngs; on Friday, he was crucified at the behest of the crowd.
This contrast should be seen, however, not so much as a turnaround in overall public opinion, but as an apparent change brought about by assembling a handpicked crowd. The trial of Jesus took place in the dead of night — a violation of Jewish law — so that most people were not aware of what was going on until it was too late.
So, even though blame for Jesus’ death has often fallen on “the Jews,” the ordinary people in Jerusalem were relatively innocent.
On the other hand, many individuals and groups failed to do right by Jesus. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, most deserted him. (Women followers seem to have been the most faithful.) Those with the most power in the religious hierarchy didn’t uphold the requirements of the covenant between God and Israel. Pilate may or may not have thought Jesus innocent of the charges, but in the end he washed his hands of the responsibility of civil authority to see that justice was done.
Jews and Gentiles, religious and secular office holders, all played a role in crucifying Jesus. Jesus responded with forgiveness for all, implicitly in Matthew (“Go and make disciples of all nations“), explicitly in Luke (“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.“). Everyone who has ever sinned has helped crucify Jesus. And everyone who has ever sinned is offered forgiveness.
The message in the Bible, stated over and over again, is that God is faithful. Even though Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, God used Joseph to rescue those brothers and their families from famine in Canaan. When their descendants were oppressed in Egypt, God brought them back to Canaan. After a period of exile in Babylon, God brought a remnant back to rebuild Jerusalem. And, before the destruction of Jerusalem again, this time by the Romans, God reminded the people that he would always be with them.
That was the answer for the people of Matthew’s day. Their identity didn’t depend on the Temple in Jerusalem or the Promised Land; it depended on God’s love for them. That’s still the answer today.