[March 11, 2008] In the passage we are considering today, (1) the chief priests and elders hand Jesus over to the Gentile Roman governor, (2) Judas regrets his act of betrayal and returns the blood money to the chief priests and elders who use it to buy a burial plot for Gentiles, (3) the governor questions Jesus and receives the condemnation he was seeking, but then (4) in a mock trial has the “people” take responsibility for his sentence, offering a choice between two guilty prisoners, one of whom he releases, and (5) Jesus, having established the “blame” for the verdict, he delivers up to be crucified.
The passage has some complexity, and I have discussed it and its parallels, including the historical background, in several other blogs: “The Judgment for Our Salvation” in 2008, “In the Shadow of the Cross” in 2009, and “Jesus and the Political System” in 2010. The same incidents are told differently in the Gospel according to John (the historicity of which should not be underestimated), and I discussed that passage in later part of “The High Priest and King” and in “The King and the Lamb” in 2011. Our task today will be to discern Matthew’s particular point of view in the telling of this part of the story, and to discern what may be God’s Word for us.
Concerning Matthew’s perspective, he writes as a Jew within the Jewish milieu of the 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s. Toward the end of this period, “zealous” Jews had become increasingly violent against their fellow Jews, demanding purity from Gentile defilement (riots had broken out in several cities throughout the empire and the Jews had even been “expelled” from Rome). Matthew writes within the Messianic communities—“churches”—as one of the chosen witnesses of Jesus, with a particular interest in the Gentile mission of the church, and in the Kingdom of God (“Kingdom of the heavens”) overcoming the world through the Messiah Jesus. Even though he is a believer in Jesus, he does not consider himself an outsider of the Jewish community; he writes from within it. Having presented Jesus as the coming of the Kingdom of the Heavens in His own Person, Matthew concludes his gospel with how Jesus accomplished the victory of the Kingdom of the Heavens in His own Person. He accomplished it by His death, and presents His victory in His resurrection, a victory that is present to Israel within the Messianic community, the church.
As Gentile Christians alienated from the community of Israel, we may have a hard time entering Matthew’s perspective, for the extreme rift between Israel and the church should never have taken place. Both parties are to blame for it, though Israel has suffered the most because of it, because of the ensuing Gentile “Christian” misunderstanding of its relationship to Israel (or vice versa). Nevertheless, Israel and the church continue to be inextricably related to each other, each a sign to the other in God’s providence, and the reality that Matthew assumes continues to persist, even though we are practically blind to it.
In the little time that I have, let us try to isolate Matthew’s perspective. In 16:21 “Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised.” In Matthew’s arrangement, this began a long teaching section on the church in the light of the Kingdom of the heavens. The church in this light is characterized by self-denial and taking up the cross to follow Jesus (16:24), or losing the soul for His sake (16:25). This characterization, signified by “taking up the cross” and “losing the soul,” is already explicitly the mark of the mission in 10:38-39 and implicitly is assumed from the beginning when Jesus first calls His disciples in chapter 4. Jesus Himself actively chose the way of the cross when He came to John for baptism as a fulfillment of John’s announcement that “the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.”
The Stewards of Israel Deliver Up Jesus to the Gentiles (Matthew 27:1-2)
In Matthew 20:18-19, in what is known as Jesus’ third prediction of His passion, Jesus says, “The Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes. And they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised.”
When the tenants of the vineyard, the vineyard being the people of Israel and the tenants being the chief priests and elders of the people, deliver up (the same word as betray) Jesus to the Gentiles, it will bring the judgment of God on their heads and the end of their tenancy. The Judaism of the Second Temple came to an end and the responsibility for the vineyard was given to another “nation” (the rabbis of Rabbinic Judaism). What led to the war of 66-70 CE was the same thing that led to Jesus’ death; it was the carrying out of the same mentality: its historic consequences. The result was that both the party represented by the chief priests and elders and the zealous, the party represented by Barabbas, in effect “delivered up” the vineyard to the Gentiles. The church—whether it knows it or not—is always (in reality) in solidarity with Israel, and it too is delivered up to the Gentiles. The church (for Matthew), however, has already begun to “deliver up” Jesus (via the Gospel) to the Gentiles—like a mirror image of the betrayal—so that the elect among the Gentiles may turn to the God of Israel in direct fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah. Just like Jesus, the Gospel (“delivered up” to its believers) is also persecuted and put death in the hands of the Gentiles. This has always been the history of the Gospel among the Gentiles, even at the hands of professing Christians (the institutionalized “church” wedded to political power: it has always persecuted the faithful believer). Parallel to this, the Jew as the kinsman of Jesus, is also delivered up—with Jesus (although unknown to them)—to the Gentiles (the nations) and has been—like the Messiah’s believers—persecuted (and killed) in their hands.
In an invisible way, but obvious to God, the people of Israel as the Messiah’s kinsmen (whose Messiah He is) and the church as the Messiah’s believers (whom the Messiah of Israel calls from among Jews and Gentiles) are indelibly linked both historically and teleologically and in terms of election.
The Blood Money (27:3-10)
Matthew then takes us aside and tells us that Judas regretted his act of betrayal (the word “regret” does not mean “repent”)—we are not told why—and attempts to returns the blood money to the chief priests and elders, who then use it to buy a burial plot for Gentiles.
In spite of popularizations of images of Judas—the later accounts in the patristic period that got everyone’s attention a few years ago were fictional—we do not know why Judas betrayed Jesus nor do we know why he regretted his decision. “Iscariot” (probably meaning “assassin”) may connect him to political insurgents (who were among the “zealous”), in which case he makes an interesting parallel and contrast to Barabbas. Jesus opposed the zealous; so when Judas became a disciple he may have given up such a path (as did the disciple Simon); but at some point he may have succumbed to the temptation to return to his old way of thinking. Like Saul of Tarsus, he may have ironically found himself working for the chief priests and elders, the very people whom he opposed. (Saul as a Pharisee would have opposed the Sadducees, yet he found himself working for the Sadducean high priest in his zeal against the believers in Jesus). We can only guess what caused Judas’ regret. Somehow he realized his “sin” in that Jesus was “innocent blood.” The word “innocent” is only used here and in verse 24 when Pilate says to the people, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” In 23:34-35 Jesus speaks of the judgment of God coming on the scribes and Pharisees because they will shed the “righteous blood” of (Messianic) prophets, wise men and scribes, thus allying themselves with those who shed all the righteous blood that was shed on the earth from Abel to Zachariah. Perhaps Judas realized that he had naively fallen as a pawn into the hands of the very powers he opposed; that whatever he thought he was doing, in returning to his former zeal, he really was just being played by the Gentile power itself and the chief priests and elders who were its puppets.
The chief priests refuse to do anything to relieve Judas’ remorse. “You see to that yourself!” Judas flings back the money they gave him in 26:14-16 in a vain attempt to shed his guilt, and then went and hanged himself. The allusion is probably to Ahithophel, who betrayed King David for Absalom and then hanged himself when he lost favor with Absalom (2 Samuel 17:23; see Augustine Stock, The Method and Message of Matthew, page 417, published by The Liturgical Press in 1994). When he hung himself he fulfilled the Scripture which the chief priests and elders refused to observe, which says that the false accuser must suffer the same fate as the one whom he or she falsely accused (this point was also observed by Father Stock). The chief priests and elders with Caiaphas had sought from the beginning false testimony to use against Jesus, and they recognized that the money was unclean, for with it they bought a “burial place for strangers,” probably for Gentiles visiting Jerusalem.
Matthew cites Zechariah 11:13, concerning the wages Israel is willing to pay its Shepherd, with echoes of Jeremiah 18:2-3 and 32:7-9. Jeremiah 18 speaks of God as a potter at work on his wheel, signifying the accomplishment of God’s sovereign will for Israel; and in 32 Jeremiah speaks of buying a field during the siege of Jerusalem, signifying hope in a time of judgment. If we combine this last with the thought of a burial place for Gentiles, we are looking forward to the inclusion of Gentiles in the church during the time of judgment as a sign to Israel along the lines of Romans 11. The Messiah comes during a time of judgment and by the sacrifice of Himself even reveals the judgment of God from heaven; but He also calls a people to Himself, not only out of Israel but also out from among the Gentiles. These Gentile believers turn to the God of Israel, as in the prophecy of Isaiah; spiritually they come to Zion, the Jerusalem which is above (their mother), as Isaiah foretold. (In saying so, I am not questioning a literally fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the age to come.)
An Outline of the Rest (27:11-26)
Pilate was satisfied with Jesus’ guilt (27:11), though he understood Jesus’ kingship to rival Herod’s, not Caesar’, or the dominion of the “world” as a whole. Yet he does not want to take the blame for it. He wants the chief priests and elders to take the rap, but they did a poor job coming up with a valid charge against Jesus. He wanted Jesus on display in the gallows at the beginning of the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread to send a message to the crowds of people gathered in and around the City for the festival (many of whom were from troublesome Galilee), but he wanted to show that the people’s leaders were behind him.
When the chief priests and elders accused Jesus, Jesus refused to cooperate with them (27:12-14). He remained silent, refusing to be bullied into giving them evidence. Pilate was so surprised by Jesus that he asked Jesus whether He had heard what they were saying against Him.
Jesus was arrested late at night, and so the pilgrims who admired Jesus and who paraded Him into the City on Sunday were probably still in bed, having celebrated the Seder the night before, and were unaware that Jesus had even been arrested. The crowds gathered before Pilate had been summoned by the chief priests and elders and therefore were their supporters. So Pilate turned to them and offered them a choice between Barabbas and Jesus (27:15-26). Their choice of Barabbas and demand to have Jesus crucified, enabled Pilate to dump the blame on them. In a Jewish ritual of handwashing—the whole thing was ostentatious and had no legal significance whatsoever—he absolved himself of blame. When he said to them, “You see to it yourselves,” he repeated the same words that the chief priests and elders had said to Judas. When they cried, “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” they foretold the fate of the chief priests and the Sadducees, and many of the people of Jerusalem, during the siege of Jerusalem in 66-70 CE.
Barabbas, a proto-zealot, is an interesting figure here. I mentioned earlier that he and Judas make a pair, one condemns himself in remorse, the other set free. Barabbas also makes a pair with Jesus, symbolizing the two goats on the Day of Atonement, one made a burnt offering for atonement, the other released unto Azazel (Leviticus 16), signifying the mercy given to Israel (and probably all humankind), mercy in that they may have time to repent. Those who believe in Jesus, the burnt offering, are redeemed and know the forgiveness of their sins, and will be saved in the Day of Judgment. The others, well, they may justify their judgment by bringing home “seven other spirits more evil than itself,” so that their last state becomes worse than their first (12:45).
The lesson of this passage to the church is what it shows us about the Gentile world and our relationship to it. We deliver up the Gospel to the world, embodying the Gospel (bearing His name and taking the way of the cross) in ourselves as the church, but as we do so, the world will oppose us. We may even be betrayed by our own people (the chief priests and elders as those who are supposed to be responsible for the Lord’s interests, and Judas as one of us) and delivered up to the powers of the world which will put us to death.
The “cult of martyrdom” was an unhealthy development in the church and ended up encouraging violence instead of nonviolence—which is something to ponder (it is a pattern we constantly find in the gestalt of the world). However, short of that there is a losing of the soul that is asked of us, and a being loosed from the powers of the world, that does not provoke violence or encourage intolerance. The world is a power that is antithetical to the Gospel, and therefore antithetical to the personalism of anyone who adheres to the Gospel. The Christian cannot make peace with the world (though a Christian ought to live in peace with her or his neighbors in the world). We do not belong to the world, nor does it want us. At the same time, we have no real significance to the world, not on its terms, nor do we value that. Yet, as the world was an enemy of Christ, it is an enemy of us, and we should not be fooled by its seductions. Indeed, we should never be comfortable with its seductions, for in reality, if we truly embody the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, the world knows we are a threat to its dominion, the only real threat that it faces.