Note: Sometimes it is a challenge to know what to do with New Testament language that seems to challenge an empire that has long since passed into the dust bin of history. Barbara Rossing, a New Testament scholar and the author of The Rapture Exposed spoke at a recent Associated Church Press convention. In her presentation she made the case that the Book of Revelation was intended to show the bankruptcy of the Roman Empire and to encourage an alternative way of life. But how does that speak to us today? Rossing reportedly told the convention that readers need to avoid the temptation to look at the United States as "the empire." "That's way too simplistic. The empire is in all of us." (United Methodist Reporter, July 6, 2007) A good point to ponder as we read through the New Testament.
Matthew 27:1-2: The Jerusalem elite hand Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. If they really want to see Jesus executed, this seems a necessary step as only Rome exercised the power to execute. This is not a very happy picture of the way religious and political leaders can sometimes come together to take care of “problem people.”
Matthew 27:3-10: One wonders what Judas might have been thinking when he betrayed Jesus, but apparently he did not think the religious authorities would collaborate with the political authorities to see Jesus put to death. Judas regrets what he has done, to the point of ending his own life. In the context of the story in Matthew, both Peter and Judas have betrayed Jesus at some level (so, in fact, have the other disciples by their desertion). Judas ends whatever opportunity he may have had to change his life around by ending it. Peter and other disciples will take a different course.
Matthew 27:11-26: Jesus goes “on trial,” but there seems little opportunity for anything like a fair trial. Jesus refuses to participate in any charade that would give the impression that he is being judged fairly. “King of the Jews” was a title claimed by some who revolted against Rome. Pilate’s question may arise out of a political concern – is this man fomenting violent revolution? That the “revolution Jesus represents is non-violent is emphasized by the story of Barabbas. Barabbas (which means “son of the father”) seems to be some kind of violent revolutionary. In the midst of all this, Pilate’s wife reports to her husband a troubling dream. Something tells her Jesus that Jesus is a “righteous” person. Dreams were often considered a way God communicated with persons. It is as if God were trying to get through to Pilate, but he refuses to pay attention. At the very least, he refuses to act on the idea that Jesus could be a righteous person. His “hand washing” seems an act of cowardice, an evasion. In reality, it is only by his authority that Jesus can be put to death. Matthew also seems to be willing to heighten animosity toward others in the Jewish community, reflecting his own context of struggling with Jews who do not follow Jesus. This chapter has contributed a great deal to Christian anti-Semitism over the years, but to have it function in this way is a misreading. The crowd here does not stand in for all Jews in the first century, let alone all Jews for all time.
Matthew 27:27-31: “Having been handed over to Pilate’s soldiers, Jesus, like so many political prisoners before and after him, is tortured and humiliated” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 144). Jesus is cynically mocked. Where might we cynically mock goodness in the world when it comes from unexpected places?
Matthew 27:32-44: After the mocking and torture, crucifixion – execution. The power of the empire is once again shown in their ability to commandeer an innocent bystander into helping with an execution. Jesus clothing is taken and bargained for. A mocking sign is hung over his head. That this is the death of a political rebel is shown by the fact that he is crucified with others who have broken the law – probably political revolutionaries who also opposed Rome, but violently. Others join in mocking Jesus – passersby, the Jerusalem elite, the criminals with whom he is crucified. Verse 43 is very ironic given that Matthew knows how the story will end. “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now.” God will indeed justify Jesus’ trust, but not in the time frame of those who think they hold the power.
Matthew 27:45-56: From The New Interpreters Study Bible: “Cosmic signs including a new temple, earthquakes, and raised bodies, signal the in-breaking of God’s empire in Jesus’ death, as in his life.” In other words, Matthew uses mythic and symbolic language to say that even in death, Jesus is somehow helping God’s dream for the world come into being – even as Jesus is crying out wondering where God may be Matthew asserts that God is present. Sometimes that is true for our lives as well. We cry out for God, feeling God’s absence yet trusting that God is present in some way we may not fathom for awhile. The symbols Matthew appeals to are both Jewish and Roman. The Roman symbol is found in the words of the centurions – “truly this man was God’s Son.” Son of God was a title for the emperor. In all this Matthew is asserting that God’s dream for the world continues to unfold even though Jesus is dying. In a few moments, I want to speak about the significance of the death of Jesus.
Matthew 27:57-61: A new figure is introduced, Joseph of Arimathea. He lays Jesus in his own tomb (according to Matthew – the other gospels do not make this claim). Joseph is described both as rich and as a follower of Jesus. He is a faithful follower, not abandoning Jesus at this difficult time. Two Marys, who had followed Jesus from Galilee sat opposite the tomb.
Matthew 27:62-66: This story is unique to Matthew’s gospel. In portrays the religious leaders as concerned about a resurrection and asking Pilate for an imperial guard to keep the tomb secure. The most important tomb is the one in which these leaders keep their own hearts – safely tucked away from the transforming power of God as it was embodied in Jesus.
Note on the Significance of the Death of Jesus: All of the gospels report that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities. “There is no more certain fact in history that the execution of Jesus by the Roman occupational forces in Jerusalem at a Passover festival ca. 30 CE” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). It seems almost as sure that certain of the Jewish leaders at the time collaborated in his execution. There had been an uneasy peace established between Rome and Jerusalem, and some had a stake in maintaining that peace. If Jesus was seen as a threat to that, and he certainly seems to have been, then that threat needed to be taken care of. Historically, then, this is why Jesus died. But the Christian church and Christian faith has been almost unanimous in saying that the death of Jesus had a deeper meaning, a theological and religious significance. We will encounter this again and again as we read through the New Testament. Matthew does not develop any elaborate theology about the death of Jesus (though there are some earlier indications that Matthew understood “forgiveness” as important part of the work of Jesus even in his death – 1:21, 26:28), but asserts its significance by using mythic and symbolic language to describe what went on as Jesus died. But what is this theological/religious significance?
“For all his followers, Jesus’ death was a terrible, unexpected surprise that shattered their hopes” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). But the death of Jesus was not the end of the story. They later experienced Jesus as alive and vindicated by God (more about this after Matthew 28). Their later experience forced them to reevaluate and reinterpret Jesus death. Somehow even his death must be significant. Even here God must have been at work in some way. A variety of interpretations of the significance of Jesus death are offered in the New Testament and in the history of Christian theology (theologically these are referred to as “atonement theories”). “The meaning of Jesus’ death was understood in a variety of ways: as an expression of Jesus’/God’s love, as the means of God’s forgiveness, as an atoning sacrifice, as an act of sealing or eschatologically renewing God’s covenant with his people, as redemptive liberation from slavery or ransom from captivity, and in numerous other concepts and images that express the saving act of God in the death of Jesus” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). There are those in the Christian community of faith who argue that there is only one appropriate way to understand the theological/religious significance of the death of Jesus. It is probably fair to say that substitutionary atonement is the only way that many or even most contemporary Christians understand faith in the sacrificial and salvific death of Jesus…. It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 101). They wonder if there are better metaphors for understanding God and thus for understanding the significance of the death of Jesus. Jesus may be said to have sacrificed his life “for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God” (The Last Week, 154), but this is a different kind of sacrifice than one required by God so that God might forgive. Walter Wink, in a brilliant book on “the son of man” traditions in the Bible and particularly in the New Testament (The Human Being) writes perceptively about the significance of the death of Jesus and about the theories of his death in the history of Christian theology. Of most views of the significance of Jesus’ death, Wink writes, “All these views share the presupposition that God had Jesus killed in order to redeem the world. None of them makes realistic sense of the fact that Jesus was executed by the religious and political establishment.” (105) Wink then rehearses many of the traditional theories and ends up with the following: There is truth in most of these atonement theories…. The point is that no religious experience can be made normative for all people. God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness. Each response if divinely tailored to meet our situations…. The virtue of multiple images of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life, without a single model being elevated as exclusively correct. Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. (110-111)
All of this is to say that the bottom line New Testament affirmation is that the death of Jesus, a brutal execution at the hands of legitimate authorities, has significance for our lives and our relationship to God. Just what that significance is is open to a rich variety of interpretations, and that is perhaps as it should be. Rather than argue that there is only one true way to understand the meaning of Jesus' death for our lives we would do well to listen to others as they share their understandings. Such conversations have the potential to contribute a great deal to our own formation as disciples of Jesus – who trusted God even when he felt God’s absence.