Monday, September 24, 2012

The Giver is Given Up: Jesus' Death in Matthew (Background for a sermon series)

What follows is part of a paper I wrote in seminary; I am posting here for the sake of those who are hearing my sermon series this fall and who might want to dig deeper into some of the themes raised. This post will trail off abruptly at the end, but I intend to return to it and post the rest another time.

Popular renditions of the gospel circulating in the West today tend either to depict Jesus as part of a Christian conspiracy against a noble humanity (e.g. The DaVinci Code, The LastTemptation of Christ) or as the one who suffers physical torments so that we do not have to (e.g. The Passion of the Christ). Matthew would be startled by such depictions: He presents the death of Christ as a human conspiracy against Jesus and his suffering as a result of his willing submission to this rejection.

As such, Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ suffering is closer to that of Algot, the hunchbacked church assistant, in Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 film Winter Light. At one point Algot shuffles over to Tomas, a priest in the throes of futility and isolation, and whispers:
The passion of Christ, his suffering . . . wouldn't you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? . . . This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn't have been all that bad. It may sound presumptuous of me - but in my humble way, I've suffered as much physical pain as Jesus. . . . I feel that he was tormented far worse on an other level. . . . Christ had known his disciples for three years. They'd lived together day in and day out - but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, to the last man. And he was left alone. That must have been painful. Realizing that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on - that must be excruciatingly painful. But the worse was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross - and hung there in torment - he cried out - “God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. . . . Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.
With this the priest turns a corner, realizing that Jesus has endured the abandonment that he feels and has brought God’s presence there. It has all the import of Matthew’s “God with us” (1:23). 

While he shares many of the same concerns of the other gospel-writers, Matthew is particularly keen on depicting Jesus as the (largely unwelcome) fulfilment of Jewish Messianic prophecy. Though Jesus has been sent by God to reign over Israel and to extend that reign over the whole earth, he is rejected, betrayed, and forsaken along the way. In his incarnation the Son of God is handed over to the worst that humanity can offer, only to be raised once the extent of his self-giving love and submission to the Father have taken him through suffering and death. This is the way God is with humanity.

God With Us, Given Up for Dead

Matthew and his readers are not oblivious to the hurt and enmity of the human race and the promise of a Messiah. Into Jesus’ genealogy Matthew alone adds extra details regarding those persons and incidents (such as Judah’s brothers, Tamar, Ruth, Uriah’s wife, and the Babylonian exile) which bring suffering, sin, and betrayal immediately to the minds of knowledgeable readers (Matt 1:2-17, cf. Luke 3:23-28). To this he also adds unique insight into Joseph’s fears regarding societal shame, Herod’s conniving deception of the magi and ensuing slaughter of innocent children, and the narrow exile of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt (1:18-2:12, cf. Luke 2:1-20). This is the devastating and difficult world into which Jesus comes—and yet he is “God with us”; the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 (1:23). 

As the beatitudes are spoken and the drama escalates it becomes most clear from Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ life that before there is to be comfort, inheritance of the earth, and the kingdom of heaven there is to be considerable mourning, meekness, and  persecution (5:3-12, cf. Luke 6:20-23). Suffering and death amount to a stunning fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, but by the end of Matthew it comes as no surprise. All throughout the first 25 chapters the allusions to fulfilled prophecy and forebodings of Jesus’ suffering and death dovetail and mount into a clear collision at the cross. 

By the time readers come to Matthew 27:40, where the taunters tell Jesus to come down from cross if he is “the Son of God,” whatever the notions of Jesus’ mockers, deniers, and betrayers at the time, Matthew’s readers have realized that staying on the cross is exactly what the Son of God does. Matthew does not need a lengthy exposition of Isaiah 53 to spell this out. While he is the most disposed of the evangelists to cite events in Jesus’ life as the fulfilment of prophecy, oddly enough he falls nearly silent in this regard when it comes to the event of Jesus’ death.

After the resurrection it would be the juxtaposition of ancient prophecy with the passion of Jesus that would force people to come to grips with the true nature of their Messiah. Before the resurrection people were subjecting Jesus’ passion predictions and life-posture to their own Messianic expectations rather than recognizing the theological definition clarifying right before their eyes. Continuity with Israel’s history and prophecy existed, but it is Jesus who was drawing the connections and revealing their startling conclusions.

Readers of Matthew are enabled to gather from the actions and enigmatic predictions of Jesus himself that the Messiah is a more meek and persecuted character than may ever have been imagined. Of the gospel-writers Matthew is most intent on accentuating this profound irony, as seen in his presentation of the desertion of Jesus by his followers, the conspiracy against him, and the God-forsakenness he experiences as he is handed over to death.

With Us Without Us: A Messiah Abandoned

From start to finish Matthew seems determined to highlight the extent to which God is with us, even when we are not with him. He gives intimate insight into the agony that Jesus endured for others and the abandonment that he was given in return. In comparison with the other synoptic gospels, the subtleties of word-selection provide the first indications of this emphasis. From the unparalleled introduction of Jesus as Emmanuel/God-with-us in 1:23 what one notices about Matthew is the prevalence of “with” language which accentuates Jesus’ solidarity with people and their increasing lack thereof in return.

In typical Matthean irony, only five verses later readers see that all of Jerusalem is “with Herod” in being “troubled” at the news of Jesus’ arrival (2:3). Later, in the agony of Gethsemane where Luke has the disciples only a “stone’s throw” away from Jesus, Mark and Matthew have him intensely alone. Here Matthew provides “with” language three more times than does Mark, is more clear about Jesus’ desire for support, and offers the least excuses for the disciples falling asleep (26:36-46, cf. Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). In both gospels Jesus asks the disciples to “watch” with him, but the irony is thick when Matthew alone seizes the  opportunity a chapter later to mention that it is soldiers now “keeping watch” over Jesus at the cross (27:36, 54). 

The prevalence of “with” language in Matthew is not easily chalked up to a preference for the word. When he and Luke tell about the disciple’s thrones in the new kingdom, Matthew does not join Luke in having Jesus credit them for continuing “with me in my trials” (Luke 22:28). For Matthew it remains clear that, though they are indeed his followers, the reason they will sit on thrones in the kingdom is ultimately not because of their persistence with Jesus, but because of the mercy of the Son of man (19:28). These are just some of the examples of how Matthew’s word-selection subtly and repeatedly escalates the profoundly ironic drama of the people’s rejection of Jesus and his relentless faithfulness to them in return.

A Cacophony of Conspirators

Turning our attention from Jesus’ friends to his enemies we hear Matthew’s indications of Jesus’ unrequited faithfulness grow into loud rumbles of conspiracy. This gospel highlights the conspiracies against Jesus more intently than any other—continuing to do so even after Jesus’ death (27:62-64). Besides the mention of more notorious players such as Judas, Pilate, and the Roman guards, Matthew names Jesus’ conspirators 62 times to Luke’s 40 and Mark’s 38. This tally may seem an insignificant anomaly until one considers how much each reference serves to heighten the twenty-eight chapter drama of Jesus’ rejection and execution. Within these 62 references there are a plethora of sub-groups named from within the Jewish leadership—their interchangeability indicating that ultimately the people they lead are being implicated as well.

By the end, Pilate and his soldiers are also deeply embroiled in the controversy. In pointing this out, Matthew is more intent than Mark on tying Pilate to his office, hinting that he (like the rich young man in 19:16-24) is so caught up he is in the human systems of power that he has difficulty untangling himself. This even though Pilate has immediate access to the truth, and knows it all too well. In 27:19 Matthew gives unique insight into Pilate’s wife’s dream, and depicts him on the “judgment seat”, indicating his own responsibility for the decision to be made. Ultimately, readers are aware that Pilate is not really deciding Jesus’ fate (for it is God who has allowed this to happen), but his own. 

In each of the synoptic gospels the governor asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews and Jesus allows him the ironic privilege of having testified to the truth himself, replying simply: “You have said so” (συ λεγεισ, 27:11, cf. Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3). Matthew uniquely notes the theological ramifications of this reply and is careful to mention two additional times when Jesus answers in such a way and thus allows the testimony of his identity to resound from the tongues of the conspirators themselves. In each case a delicate balance is shown between Jesus’ control over the situation and the conspirator’s own knowledgeable participation. 

Jesus’ foes are indicted not for their ignorance, but for their opposition. That they find it impossible to believe will not be changed by Jesus answering with rhetorical force or logical explanation. Such an answer would not only be out of character for this non-violent, freedom-granting respecter of persons but would actually entail caving to the devil’s temptations to win people by coercion. The Messiah has come in lowly form and will only win the world by going to his death at their hands. They will either believe in this Messiah of meekness and self-sacrifice or they will not. They may assume Jesus is evading their questions, but by his very meekness he is offering his answer.

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