The Sunday next before Easter


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Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind…
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 27:1-54

Nobody in the 16th Century would have considered Matthew’s Passion anti Semitic or, rather, it would have constituted a major foundation stone of their anti Semitism. (Did the unmatched power and pathos of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion make the Shoah that bit more possible?) All the Evangelists, faced with the bifurcation of Christianity from Judaism and the need to mollify the Romans, not unnaturally blamed the Jews but only Matthew squarely blames the people as opposed to their leaders; but all four use the highly suspect Barabbas device (cf Geza Vermes, The Passion). Matthew’s account of the Judas episode, on the other hand, is much more elaborate than the other Gospels (although it makes a somewhat incongruous appearance in Acts (1:15-20) which somewhat mitigates populist guilt. A further complexity, even overlooked by 16th Century adherents of Sola Scriptura, is that the death of Jesus was prophetically foretold as an act of the Father in which the Jews, if they had any part at all, only played a mechanistic role. Perhaps the Medieval exegesis was slipshod but more likely it was economically self interested and it should act as a warning at a time of religious tension between Christians and Muslims. After all, just as we claim a fuller inheritance than the Jews, there are Muslims who say their religion would not have been necessary had it not been for Christianity’s fall from its high ideals. We will fall even further from them if we use religious controversy as a weapon of economic or social oppression.

The language of blame is particularly unhelpful (if it can ever be said to be helpful) in considering both Matthew’s attitude to the Jews and, sequentially, our attitude to our anti Semitic forebears. What we are required to do is to understand Matthew’s meaning and the subsequent meanings attributed to him. Matthew is always concerned to show the kingship of Jesus and to contrast this with earthly powers. In the Passion narrative he has the opportunity to contrast Jesus with all kinds of characters: with the obdurate religious authorities, the treacherous Judas, the obfuscating and ultimately cowardly Pilate, and even the thieves in Matthew (unlike Luke) act as foils for King Jesus. Like us, Medieval and Reformation interpreters could only see the historical figures as shadows but they were ever conscious of the Jews, particularly when the ruling classes were deeply in debt to their bankers. What they did to the Jews, successive Christian generations did to black people. We may feel less culpable but it is salutary to add up the millions who have been killed in genocidal mayhem since the end of the Second World War while we have sat on our hands.

Nothing could be in greater contrast with the crude but high claims of Matthew than the subtlety and gentleness of Paul’s supremely theologically imaginative association of Jesus with the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12Isaiah 52:13-53:12[/passage]. Jesus, who could properly count himself equal with God, suffered himself to be made in our likeness, to be our servant of no reputation. He was obedient, even to death on the Cross and was therefore exalted. In an age when Godhead, both in Judaism and paganism, was associated with power, this was an amazing claim. Paul is asking people to kneel before a man who has died a criminal’s death. The enormity of Paul’s claim is even greater if, following contemporary liturgical practice in many Christian traditions, today’s Gospel follows the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Its absence (and even the refusal to use the term “Palm Sunday”) is the direct result of a Reformation reaction against ritual which might have been understandable at the time but which now looks gratuitously perverse (given his primary status, the complete absence of Matthew 26 in what we now call Holy Week is puzzling). Matthew’s contrast of the kingly entrance of Jesus and his ignominious death is, admittedly, another strand of anti Semitic sentiment but it is also a lesson in our own fickleness to which, noting the Collect, we can only react with the kind of humility which might protect us from our arrogance towards other religions, races and cultures.

Which leads us, inevitably, to the difficult issue of how we are to square the uniqueness of our Christian experience, grounded in the Passion and death of Jesus, with his extraordinary humility. Should our response to other religions be formalistic tolerance, an easy condescension or outright hostility? All are evident in our Christian tradition and each has its own dangers but it is particularly difficult to see how Christians can justify hostility as an element of Christian worship. Better to give thanks for what we enjoy and endeavour to share it than to attack others for not equally enjoying it. And here lies the great fault in Judas. It is not that he was not devoted to Jesus; far from it, in many ways he was the archetypal fanatic, too devoted, too anxious for early success, impatient of apostolic dithering and religious disaster. What started as commitment concluded in disdain and then disaster. Judas thought he understood Jesus better than Jesus understood himself and in spite of history’s fascination with his story, not least in our own time, its message has failed to dampen a fiery strand of Christian aggression which makes a nonsense of Paul’s hymn to humility written, let us remember, when Christianity was facing a much greater challenge than it faces today. We are still in grave danger of using Matthew for our own selfish and bitter ends.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Are the twinned practices of processing with palms and being anointed with Ash Medieval superstitions best abandoned?
  2. How different would the Passion accounts be without Barabbas?
  3. What is the difference between Shoah and Holocaust?
  4. What does the Epistle have to say about our attitude to non Christians?
  5. Consider the influence of Isaiah and Jeremiah on the Passion narratives.

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