Matthew’s Passion

The readings for Sunday, April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Cycle A,
are Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; and Matthew 26:14—27:66.

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew is the longest in the four Gospels. Matthew composed his Gospel in the mid-eighties of the first Christian century. It is clear that he follows the outline of the Passion in the Gospel of Mark, composed about fifteen years earlier than Matthew. The emphasis this year is on Matthew’s version. By putting the two Gospels side by side we can see how Matthew deleted passages from Mark, expanded others, and introduced new material. Thus we can to some extent determine Matthew’s interests, motivation, and teachings.

Our Passion Narrative begins with notice of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the treasurer of the apostolic group. Was he corrupted by handling the money? In the story Judas takes the initiative. He goes to the chief priests with an offer to betray him. Mark gives no motive, but notes that the chief priests were happy about the plan and offered him money. Matthew can improve on Mark. In Matthew, Judas asks, “What can I get out of this?” They offer him money. So money seems to be the motivation for Judas’ betrayal.

Preparation for the Passover Supper comes next. Matthew shortens Mark’s version but there are no essential differences. Jesus and the disciples are at table. Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him to the priestly authorities. A major difference from Mark occurs. Judas says to Jesus, “Is it I, Rabbi?” Jesus replies, “You said it!”  Matthew follows Mark’s text closely in the institution of the Eucharist, with some minor changes. In the walk to Gethsemane and in Gethsemane Matthew copies Mark almost verbatim.

At his arrest in Mark, Jesus does not respond to Judas’ kiss of betrayal, “Hail, Rabbi!” In Matthew’s version, Jesus responds, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Strangely, the Lord himself, in Matthew’s version, commands his own betrayal. In both Mark and Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples draws a sword and cuts off the ear of a slave of the high priest. No response in Mark. In Matthew, Jesus responds at length, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” Then Jesus assures his followers that he could ask his Father for twelve legions of angels to deliver him, but the Scriptures have to be fulfilled.

Matthew omits Mark’s story of the young streaker following Jesus. He is clothed only in a linen sheet. The officers seize him. He slips out of the sheet and runs away naked. Mark is well known for his pitiless,  negative portrayal of Jesus’disciples. This episode was intended by Mark to demonstrate that the disciples who had left everything to follow Jesus, now abandon him leaving even their clothes behind. Matthew characteristically omits the insult.

Matthew alone narrates Judas’ repentance, his attempt to return the money to the chief priests, his throwing the silver back into the temple, and hanging himself. It should be pointed out that Luke, in his Acts of Apostles, describes a very different end for Judas. Matthew is influenced in this story by the Old Testament. King David’s prime minister betrayed him by joining the rebellion of Absalom against David. When David regained power, the prime minister hanged himself.

Only in Matthew does Pilate’s wife send him a message to have “nothing to do with this just man, for I have suffered much in a dream today because of him.” Only in Matthew does Pilate wash his hands of the whole business, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves.” Then comes that response of “all the people,” as they shout, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Note that Matthew blames all the Jews, a great injustice which has endured for most of Christian history. For most of the history of the Catholic Church all Jews of all times were blamed for the death of Jesus. This misinterpretation  certainly contributed to the Hitlerian  Shoah, the Holocaust. Not until Vatican II was this gross misinterpretation of Matthew abandoned. There is a far better way to understand the words of “all the people.” Though Matthew probably meant it as a curse, the Holy Spirit was not bound to Matthew’s prejudice. Thus the cry of “all the people” can be understood as a call to God to let the blood of Jesus be upon them and all their descendants for their salvation.