Like all the Gospels, St Matthew has a particular take on the Passion of Christ which comes through very powerfully when you read it.
All the way through Matthew reveals Jesus as the fulfilment of the known Scriptures [what we call the Old Testament] and so it is here in Matthew we see Jesus as the suffering servant of Isaiah, bearing the weight of our human sin. We also see Jesus as the new Moses leading his people out of Egypt in the new Passover. Egypt for the Jews was a place of deep oppression and impoverishment, a place where they were banned from truly worshipping God, a place of slavery. God through Moses battled the Egyptian Pharaoh in order for the people to be set free to worship their God, that is God Almighty. So the whole passion narrative is set in the context of Passover, where Jesus in a new move over- comes the slavery and oppression of sin in order to enable God’s people to fully know him and worship him with their lives.
All the way through the passion narrative, Jesus is surrounded by a swirling sea of broken-sinful humanity. Apart from Jesus, there is not one person who comes out smelling sweetly. Even the disciples run away and desert him and his most favoured disciple Peter even denies him. It is not until after Jesus died that we begin to hear about and find some good people- the women who witnessed his death and burial and Joseph of Arimathea who buried him in his newly hewn from a rock tomb.
So, we have the disciples- who cannot stay awake- don’t they care? Are they simply unaware of the truth of what Jesus has been saying and what is about to happen. Have they no sense of Jesus’ burden. Truth be told they just don’t seem to be connected and when they finally do connect when he is arrested, the only potential response they have is one of violence. Which Jesus stops. At that point, they all disappear, and are clearly overwhelmed with fear. At least Peter tries to hang around and find out what is happening but even he denies Jesus three times.
We have Judas the betrayer, motivated by what- well greed is there, but maybe he is disappointed and disillusioned that Jesus wasn’t the warrior Messiah he was looking for. One theory is that he really didn’t want Jesus to die, but was trying to force his hand to act. It’s interesting that the other disciples call Jesus Lord, but Judas, calls him rabbi teacher. We all carry views about who Jesus should be, but we need to attend to the Gospel and recognise that he is the suffering servant who let go of his divine power in order to be fully connected to our humanity-in both life and death so as to bring us through the sea of death into the life of God. Judas, wanted a glory warrior Messiah, and was never able to recognise the Lordship of Christ despite being in the inner circle and experiencing the fullness of Jesus’ ministry. Judas never came back to repent of his action-he never chose to say sorry. He was a beloved friend of Jesus- it is striking that in the moment of betrayal, Jesus called him friend.
Next, we have the Jewish leaders: Caiaphas and the elders around him. There are two things which motivate their position. The first is they are simply afraid of Rome and if Jesus is the Messiah, they know that Rome will come mightily upon Jerusalem and crush all whom they see as in opposition to them. They also enjoy a certain kind of power and position over and above the people. This is about oppression and control much of the time. They believe their approach to Scripture ensures they are the voice of God to the people, and Jesus is a direct threat to that. He in no way fills their expectation of a Messiah. A Messiah who not only challenges Rome, but also challenges them.
It is hard to make a case of innocence for these folk- they were searching for false testimony against Jesus and couldn’t find any; You don’t need false testimony for the truth. It was Jesus himself with a statement referring to himself as the Son of Man which gave them what they needed. Jesus’ witness was the truth, but they did not believe it.
The Jewish leaders were not prepared to take responsibility for their decision that Jesus must die, so they take him to Pilate, accusing him of sedition- threatening the legal powers that be ie: Rome.
We see Pilate the governor, who should be using his power for justice but instead is manipulated by the Jewish leaders and in the end, acts out of fear. He worries about losing control and having a riot on his hands, he worries about his job and how what he does is seen by those around him. He gives the order for Jesus’ crucifixion, but takes no responsibility for it. And what do the crowd do. They are manipulated to support the leaders position and do not think for themselves or seek God at all. The crowd calls for Barabbas to be released rather than Jesus.
Then there’s the soldiers who have power and use it to abuse Jesus in the most malicious way- hitting him, spitting on him, pushing a crown of thorns into his head and all the while ironically bowing down before him saying ‘hail king of the Jews’ and in the end they crucify him.
A king who is a suffering servant absorbing the ugliness of human behaviour and endeavour.
In Matthew’s gospel, we don’t have a report of the repentant criminal, the two next to him on the cross participated in the deridement of Jesus, as did the whole crowd watching him including the Jewish leadership.
So we have an ugly mass of sinful humanity working in a weird alliance bring about the death of Jesus.
In the middle of all of this there was Jesus, totally alone in his suffering, even God [who in reality was closer to the world than ever] seemed to be absent ‘my God my God, why have you forsaken me’. Jesus’ life was crushed by human sin- he was literally the lamb led to the slaughter bearing the weight of our sin.
What we witness in his death, even before the resurrection occurs is something quite remarkable. As he dies we see creation itself crumbling and over a brief 3 hours there is anti -creation- the light goes out, the earth is broken, the curtain of the temple is torn in two. Then after Jesus’ final cry- there is silence- the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross are awed by what has happened- ‘truly he is God’s Son’. Then gradually we begin to see signs of the beginnings of the new creation- people are raised from the dead, the good emerges from the shadows. Joseph of Arimathea, the woman. Something deep in the universe has been changed forever.
The curtain in the temple demarking the boundary between God and his people has been torn. God is with his people in the fullest way possible through Jesus’ death and now if we want, we have unlimited access and unlimited forgiveness from our Saviour.
He bore our sin on the cross, so now we are liberated from its power if we place our trust in him.
Where are you in this story? Are you a betrayer? Are you one to mock and deride that which you don’t understand? Are you one to want to wipe out those who challenge you or make you see life in a way which is not comfortable with you? Do you criticize and walk away when God isn’t what you think? Are you afraid to stand out from the crowd upholding the truth you believe, so you go along with deriding and mocking those who are different, or are simply silent in the face of such behaviour?
None of us are perfect and we all bend to sin from time to time, but Jesus still calls us his friend and greets us, and when we come back to him acknowledging that we were wrong, he forgives us and embraces us and helps us to find the way God wants us to live. We as his people are bound to him by the cross and we find our new life when we die with him to ourselves & the world. So we are carried out of slavery into the new life to live in God’s way as his people. Amen.