Questions about Matthew’s Passion

In working through Matthew’s Passion for our Lenten Devotions this year, I’ve been struck again by some of the really difficult elements of his story. In particular, at several points he seems to work pretty hard to exonerate the Romans, and particularly Pontius Pilate, of responsibility for Jesus’ death and to cast that responsibility and blame onto the Jewish religious authorities and crowds. All of the gospels do that to some degree or another, but Matthew goes to greater lengths (although John’s Gospel comes in a close second).

His is the only passion narrative, for instance, in which Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ death. And, perhaps most tragically, once Pilate has absolved himself of responsibility and told the assembled crowd of Jewish believers to “see to it yourselves,” they cry out, “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:24-25). That verse has been used through the centuries by Christians to place the guilt for Jesus’ death on the whole of the Jewish people and led Christians at various times and places to accuse Jews of deicide (killing God) and of being “Christ killers.”

Which brings to me my question: as we approach Palm/Passion Sunday on which we often read a portion, if not the whole, of the passion narrative – and this year the appointed Gospel reading is from Matthew – how should we read it? Or, should we even read it at all?

Before addressing this question, three additional points may offer some helpful context. First, the question isn’t whether Jesus had opponents who were Jewish or whether they argued with and even opposed each other. There is little debate about that. Rather, the question is the degree to which early Christian communities skewed the narrative to defend themselves against accusations that they were misinterpreting the Jewish Scriptures, on the one hand, and to make it easier to reach out to Gentile (Roman) converts, on the other. The Roman Empire executed Jesus for political treason, yet in reading Matthew’s Passion that’s at times hard to detect; rather, it seems that Rome is merely the puppet of manipulative Jewish religious authorities determined to get rid of Jesus, a depiction that has fed anti-Semitism over the ages.

Second, the majority of early Christians – including the disciples – are, of course, Jewish. Christianity starts out, in fact, as part of Judaism, a sect of Jewish believers that see in the words and deeds, death and reported resurrection of the Jewish rabbi Jesus God’s fulfillment of promises made to Israel. This seems obvious, but is helpful to remember, as much of the rhetoric in the gospels is evidence of an intra-Jewish religious argument, two sides of Judaism arguing over how to interpret key passages. At times that rhetoric, in the case of Matthew’s (and John’s) Gospel becomes much more heated, expressing the pain those communities felt in relation to their “sibling” faith communities from which they had become estranged.

Third, all of these passages were written at a time when Christianity exercised little to no influence in the ancient world. They were written, therefore, not to incite prejudice, let alone violence, against Jews, but rather to bolster the confidence and hope of the early Christians that they had interpreted their Scriptures correctly, a huge concern since some early Christians may have suffered estrangement from family and friends for their faith.

With that bit of context in mind, it’s equally important to realize that ever since the conversion of Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the official Roman religion, Christianity left the alleys of political influence and has lived instead on the avenues and boulevards of societal power. Statements made in self-defense by a vulnerable religious minority, that is, eventually were wielded as a weapon by the state religion against another religious minority, namely Judaism.

Which brings me back to my original question. Given the history of Christian use of lines from Matthew’s Gospel to justify not simply prejudice but outright abuse and violence against persons of the Jewish faith, should we read them in Church? If so, do we need to take time to explain them or put them into context? Do we, instead, read an edited version, perhaps skipping at least the place where Pilate casts blame for Jesus’ death on the Jewish crowd and they accept that responsibility, calling it not only onto themselves but onto their descendants? Or do we simply read it one more time, trusting that no one is listening that carefully or, at least, that such issues are no longer a concern in a more progressive world?

There are real questions. Frankly, I struggle with this every year at Palm Sunday and especially when we encounter Matthew’s gospel. Thank you very much in advance, therefore, for your insight and counsel.


Post image: “St. Matthew and the Angel,” Vincenzo Campi, (1588).