Reflection on the Passion by Kathryn Matthews
The passion story isn't just a long one, so rich, so full of both trouble and beauty that we hardly know where to begin. It's also very old, going all the way back to Paul and developing during that first century as the Gospel writers filled out the narrative with both theology and details (perhaps the theology is "in the details").
From the very beginning of his Gospel, Matthew has sounded the theme of fulfillment, and he isn't finished yet (see John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). As he nears the end of his story, Matthew continues to recall traditions that are being fulfilled, but he's also remembering the blood that was spilled at its very beginning, when the powers-that-be (Herod and the Empire that supported him) killed innocent babies because they feared just one little newborn child.
A Gospel with blood spattered on it
Frederick Niedner provided an exquisite reflection on this long text in the March 11, 2008 issue of the Christian Century: "Matthew's Gospel has blood spattered all over it....the Immanuel child who escaped Herod falls victim to a new cadre of frightened leaders."
Frightened leaders use fear to control the people, drawing "just enough blood," Niedner says, "to keep everyone afraid." Like so many people before and after him, Jesus dies at the hands of power: "This time, however, the bloodshed changes everything."
The place and the time
The place is Jerusalem, and the time is Passover, when the Jewish people, Jesus' own people, would remember and celebrate God's deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt. The irony, Melinda Quivik writes, is that "the popular and dangerous rabbi who preaches freedom will be killed when the people come together to Jerusalem to celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt."
And so Jesus is brought before power, standing in front of Caiaphas the high priest and Pilate the governor (representing the Empire). But that rabbi who spoke at great length to his disciples and the crowds (check out Chapter 25: all of it, the words of Jesus) now has very little to say before the high and the mighty.
Quivik says that this quiet Jesus "who has had so many words through so many stories suddenly seems to act according to the notion that one picture really is worth a thousand words" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Obsession and over-reaction
We might find the obsession of the "local" religious authorities easier to understand than the over-reaction of the mighty Roman Empire to one small-town preacher in a far-flung province. But Jesus represents something more powerful than a thousand legions, and that is hope.
Richard Swanson writes, "Empire is not seeking simply to crucify one man, whether gentle or troublesome. Rome is seeking to demonstrate that, though it may take a lifetime, it will catch and kill anyone who stirs Jewish hope. In Matthew's story, Rome finishes Herod's hunt…" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). When we say that Jesus "died" for us, we miss the full impact of saying that he didn't just die; he was executed.
We can see God's love for us
Marcus Borg points out the uniqueness of Christianity, "whose founder was executed by established authority." And why was he executed? Borg responds with several interpretations, each one insightful: he sees Jesus' death "as a consequence of what he was doing, but not his purpose....Jesus courageously kept doing what he was doing even though he knew it could have fatal consequences."
The "no" of the authorities is answered by God's "yes," Borg claims, and the domination system (even bigger than just one Roman governor or one religious institution) "disclosed its moral bankruptcy and ultimate defeat."
Dying to one way of being
Digging even deeper, Borg sees Jesus' death and resurrection as the path for Christians: "dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being." And we can all see in the death of Jesus, the beloved Son, "the depth of God's love for us."
Finally, the sacrificial understanding, Borg says, has been misinterpreted by Christians as it's been used most often to interpret the death of Jesus. The earliest Christians would have understood that in laying down his own life Jesus denied "the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God....God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God." The death of Jesus, then, is "a metaphor of radical grace" (see The Heart of Christianity for this excellent reflection).
Read the scriptures and this entire reflection here.