Lent Course 2008: Christ on Trial

Matthew: Wisdom in Exile

See Matthew 26:57-68.

Matthew is the Gospel of the unrecognised truth where clues are scattered, beginning with the 'joke' of the genealogical table where Jesus is supposed to be a son of Joseph's flesh but is not; it is rich in parables and prophesies but people do not see the point. It is the Gospel of wisdom: "A narrative of hidden harmonies displayed, of disparities overcome by pointing to some extraordinary and unexpected analogy between the words and events of sacred history and the events of Jesus' life. It is therefore an appeal to the reader to learn how to look, how to 'scan' the ambiguous world so as to read what it is truly saying. ... the identity of Jesus is what finally gives coherence to the history of God's dealings with his people - i.e. that he is wisdom."

Where in Mark the crucial reply is "I Am", in Matthew it is "So you say" or "The words are your own". The High Priest is using words from his people's history but Jesus claims that these words only make sense in his own case, so his turning of the question says: you already have a view of the world that enables you to answer this question; but you use the knowledge as if you do not understand what you are talking about. The whole system of religious language is on trial, the meaning of words like "god" and "anointed". Jesus is really asking the High Priest if he knows what he is talking about. The story, in the mouth of Caiaphas has become so dead that it excludes wisdom itself.

Matthew makes the crowd outside Pilate's palace shout: "His blood be on us and on our children". The Evangelist's bitterness because so many Jews will not follow Jesus, overflows into this self denunciation connected, no doubt, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This denunciation led, by a different and disastrous connection, to the Christian association of all Jews with exclusive guilt for the death of Jesus which, after centuries of oppression, cruelty and slaughter, culminated in the Shoah (frequently and incorrectly termed the "Holocaust".

But the real significance of the reported saying is not that it is a condemnation of "others" but "an attack on religious power and fluency", against insiders who talk of God's wisdom. In the liturgical reading of the Gospel the guilty chorus is spoken by the whole congregation but it might better be spoken by the clergy because the outcry is from people in religious authority who do not know themselves.

We do not know how we will react when asked to bear witness to Christ and so we are in no position to judge. We cannot escape the call to be present at the trial, to stand where Jesus can see us. It is not that we should draw away from words, even when using them may make us arrogant, as long as we remember that the purpose of doctrine is to "hold us still before Jesus". When we lose focus we use doctrine for other purposes, to defend ourselves, to attack others. Bonhoeffer says that a church that uses doctrine in self defence is incapable of what we would call mission.

There is a problem for the people of today who see language as complex rather than simple, loaded with a variety of meanings rather than representing 'common sense' narrative. Take the example of gender: if we are sensitive we can paralyse the language but if we are not sensitive the language excludes. there may be no solution but it enlivens us to ask what the words are supposed to do. It is a matter of ownership; the trial was a confrontation between those who thought they owned wisdom and wisdom itself. Extending this, is the language of the Cross a simple piety or pain, or does it still speak of Jesus?

The wisdom of God is central to creation but it is the most difficult thing to recognise. Augustine says he only understood the search for wisdom when he departed from the abstract to confront real life. God's wisdom is kenotic, it means standing with the victim.

Starting Points for Discussion (The Church):

  1. Do you believe in 'conventional wisdom'?
  2. How did convention lead to the Shoah?
  3. What do you think of people who say they like the AV or BCP because of the beauty of the language?
  4. How are language and wisdom connected?
  5. How much spiritual renewal do you receive from reciting the Creed?
  6. What does Matthew's account of the trial tell us about the Church?
Williams, Rowan Christ on Trial (Zondervan, December 2000)