Matthew 27:25 Coming Full Circle

St. Matthew - Titian

St. Matthew – Titian

I’ve been impressed in my readings this week with an element of the passion narrative that I hadn’t considered before. So, armed with the awareness that I tend to rush a bit into resurrection Sunday, I’m going to write on a subject other than the resurrection per se. We will get to the empty tomb, but in a roundabout way.

In order to set us up for a deeper appreciation for Jesus’s resurrection, I want to focus on our tendency to forget just how wonderful it is that He has healed us.

Certainly one of the most controversial verses in any of the Gospels is one that occurs only in Matthew 27:25:

”In reply all the people said, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (NET)

“All the people” refers to the Jewish crowd that had been incited by the leadership to demand the death of Jesus. When Pilate gave them the choice of the criminal Barabbas (a touch of irony here – Barrabas’s first name was “Jesus” – 27:16 – and whose surname means “son of the father”), they called for the release of Barabbas and demanded that Jesus be crucified (Matthew 27:22, 23).

The text has been used by some to justify anti-Semitism. My point here isn’t to defend the historicity of the Matthean text (there are no textual problems with the verse). Matthew is underscoring a narrative theme in this verse that could be easy to miss.

His subtle inclusion of “all the people” brings the narrative of Jesus’s ministry full circle. Back in Matthew 4:23, Jesus began His ministry when He,

 … went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people.” (NET)

The same word is used in both verses, and only in those verses in this Gospel. As David Garland points out in his excellent commentary on Matthew:

The “crowds” of 27:20 become “all the people” in 27:25, and Jesus’ public ministry has run full circle. He began his ministry to Israel by healing “the people” (4:23). The term “the people” drops out of the narrative until now when they end his public ministry by demanding his death. The cry “His blood on us and our children” is the dramatic moment when the people fatefully choose to reject their messiah and accept full responsibility for his condemnation and execution (see Jer 26:12–15; Sus 41–49). As the plight of Judas sets the stage for the people’s acceptance of the blood guilt, it also portends its grave consequences. From Matthew’s perspective, it provides an explanation for the destruction of Jerusalem. This wicked generation represents Israel at the point when its guilt has finally reached the full mark (see 23:32) and brings down the judgment of God.” (Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel, p. 262)

Mel Gibson found out just how incendiary the passage was when he bowed to pressure from the Vatican to edit the scene from his film, The Passion of the Christ. He didn’t cut it entirely – the words are still there in Aramaic (the dialogue for Jewish characters is in Aramaic, which would have been spoken in the region at the time), but Gibson removed the translated words from the subtitles.

The call of the people for the death of Jesus doesn’t exonerate the Roman procurator and his thugs from blood guilt any more than it condemns the Jewish people en mass to perpetual condemnation. Garland continues:

But Matthew certainly does not consider it to extend “forever” (contrast 1 Kgs 2:33; Babylonian Talmud Yoma 87a) to later generations or even to those in the Diaspora. One should not forget that Jesus has declared his blood to be the sacrificial blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of sins (26:28). The Evangelist, a Jew, let alone the one whose life he records, would be more than a little dismayed at the way this and other passages in his Gospel have been used to foster and to justify hatred of the Jews,” (Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel, p. 262, 263).

I believe Matthew is pricking the conscience of his readers to consider the fact that the One who healed the people (some were certainly still alive at the time of the composition of the Gospel) in the beginning was abandoned, vilified and crucified by the same people just a few years later. An ungrateful heart and a short memory – those are unfortunate tendencies we all share.

This part of the Gospel story is tragic [see Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism), Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) for a detailed analysis of narrative structures], and Matthew underscores that in his literary structure. This section of the narrative begins in an unideal situation (the people are suffering from a variety of maladies in Matthew 4). The arrival of Jesus forms the “comic” transition to provide a resolution to the problem, ushering in the relatively ideal world of healing and joy. A second transition – this one, tragic – transpires with Judas’s betrayal, and this part of the narrative returns to its unideal roots when it is consummated in the crucifixion of the great Healer, Jesus.

Thankfully, the Gospel is ultimately a divine comedy – culminating in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But His victory over death – even our anticipated resurrection because of His victory – should not dull the pain of our own betrayals, nor the poignancy of His loving sacrifice. Ironically, it is only by virtue of His spilled blood (due to our shared guilt), that we can be forgiven and, through faith in His sacrifice and resurrection, ultimately celebrate our own resurrection to eternal life.

Lord, give all of us grateful hearts for all the Lord Jesus has done for us. Remind us daily of His love, of His sacrifice, and His resurrection. Encourage us through your Holy Spirit to stand fast, to remain true to the One through whose wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, 6).

 

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