Matthew 26:1-5: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things…” Jesus time of teaching is coming to an end. The Passover is just around the corner and Jesus tells the disciples that he will be crucified. There is an inevitability to Jesus’ death, but no reason is given. Matthew has prepared us by sharing a variety of stories about Jesus conflict with authorities, religious and political. That he has offended leaders is made clear in verses 3-5, where a conspiracy is developing involving chief priests, elders and the high priest, Caiaphas. They were concerned about the timing however, given Jesus popularity.
Matthew 26:6-13: All four gospels tell a version of this story, but Mark and Matthew place it in the context of the events leading up to the crucifixion. An unnamed woman pours a jar of expensive ointment on Jesus while he is sitting at table. Her actions anger the disciples who know how costly the ointment was. Couldn’t the ointment have been sold and the money used to help the poor? Jesus, instead, commends the woman’s good service, remarking that they will have other opportunities to help the poor. Why commend this woman, especially in such lavish terms (“wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”)? Crossan and Borg in The Last Week write that this woman is really the first “believer,” the first “Christian.” She gets it. She understands that going to Jerusalem means death for Jesus and she responds with extravagant generosity. Our own response to Jesus, and our response to others may include occasions for such extravagant generosity, a generosity that goes beyond a more narrow calculation of the monetary worth of an action. How many of us criticize extravagant gifts given to a cause, knowing that if we had such resources we would dole them out more wisely? Maybe on message in this story is that we should appreciate generosity when we encounter it.
Matthew 26:14-16: One woman uses he resources to pour expensive perfume on Jesus. She is not terribly interested in narrow calculations. Another disciple figures out that there is money to be made by betraying Jesus. He settles on a price – thirty pieces of silver. The conjunction of the story of the woman and Judas is intentional, presenting us a contrast and inviting us to respond to Jesus with extravagant generosity.
Matthew 26:17-30: In these verses we have the telling of the story of the Last Supper. Here it is a Passover meal with the disciples. During the meal, Jesus announces that one will betray him and Matthew makes clear that Jesus knows this is Judas. No doubt the telling of this story is shaped by the worship practice of the early church – and the words have been passed from generation to generation as Christians the world over remember this meal. For some, these words about “body” and “blood” are uncomfortable, archaic. While the placement of these events in close proximity to the physical death of Jesus suggests an uncomfortable literal reading, we need to remember that Jesus is speaking symbolically. He does not offer a bite from his arm or cut open a vein. This final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples has multiple resonances of meaning. It connects backwards into the public activity of Jesus and forward into his death and the post-Easter life of Christianity. (The Last Week, 113). Crossan and Borg identify for such resonances of meaning: a continuation of the meal practice of Jesus (where people were fed and where many traditionally excluded were included); a echo of the feeding of the five thousand (where what is present is used, multiplied in wonderful ways and shared); a Passover meal (in which the Israelites remembered that once they were slaves in Egypt and God set them free – this meal is about freedom as well, freedom to live in a way different from the empire, freedom from sin through forgiveness); a foreshadowing that Jesus death will have significance for their lives (how we talk about the significance of the death of Jesus is important and Christians have discussed it significance in a number of ways – the bottom line is that it is significant). In my own pastoral practice I try and recognize the variety of meanings in the rich symbolism of communion/the Lord’s supper/the Eucharist. Sometimes that means using different words than those offered in the tradition to celebrate the meal in worship and sometimes it means letting the traditional words be there for all of us to grapple with. Where do you find deep meaning in this important practice of the Christian faith?
Matthew 26:31-35: Not only will Judas betray Jesus, but Jesus tells the disciples that they will all desert him, even Peter “the Rock.” This story must have been a poignant one in the early church for the temptation to hide one’s identify as a Christian would have been strong, and I imagine that some who were part of the church had, in fact, denied their faith at some point in time. The story would have been encouraging to such folks – look, even the disciples, even Peter, deserted at one time.
Matthew 26:36-46: Jesus takes three disciples with him and goes to pray. The disciples cannot stay awake – the heroes of Matthew’s Jesus community are all very human. Jesus prays a deep prayer, hoping that things might be different, but open to whatever will happen as he continues to be faithful to the God he addresses as abba. Some words from Crossan and Borg about Jesus’ prayer offer an important insight. It is never God’s will that the righteous suffer. It was not God’s will that Jesus died, any more than it was the will of God that any of the martyrs before and after Jesus were killed. Yet we may imagine then handing themselves over in the way that Jesus did, from Peter and Paul to Thecla and Perpetua to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the nuns in El Salvador. The prayer reflects not a fatalistic resignation to the will of God, but a trusting in God in the midst of the most dire of circumstances (The Last Week, 123).
Matthew 26:47-56: A crowd comes with Judas, a crowd armed with swords and clubs. Jesus is betrayed by Judas, whom Jesus still calls “friend” by a kiss. A follower of Jesus draws a sword and begins to resist violently, but Jesus disavows this action. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” Jesus says. From The People’s New Testament Commentary: The way of nonviolence, nonresistance, and nonretaliation, love of enemies is to be pursued to the end…. Violence is self-destructive and futile, resulting only in a vicious spiral of violence. Matthew has Jesus make unspecified references to Scriptures being fulfilled, but offers no citations.
Matthew 26:57-68: Jesus is brought to the high priest, Caiaphas. He is questioned and by his answers accused of blasphemy. He quotes Daniel 7 – a text that presents a vision of a different kind of kingdom of God than people had experienced. In the story, Jesus associates his person and work with this dream of God for a new world. This threatens both the imperial authorities and their collaborators among the Jewish elite. Because his accused of blasphemy he is mocked, struck and spat upon. Apparently, God’s new world is not always received warmly.
Matthew 26:69-75: This story of Peter’s denial is heart-rending. One who had been so close to Jesus, heard him teach, saw what happened to others, saw his own life change, denies ever knowing him, denies it in the strongest terms. In the end, he weeps bitterly. Again, in the context of Matthew’s Jesus community (or Christian community) this story must have been of some comfort to those who had done something similar. Being a disciple may be difficult sometimes and we can only hope for the courage to hang in there if and when the going gets tough.