9 April 2017
Sunday of the Passion:
Year A (RCL)
Matthew 26:14 – 27:66
The story of Jesus’ passion (as related in the Synoptic Gospels) takes a political tragedy and turns it into a theological triumph. Burton Mack, in A Myth of Innocence, identifies Mark’s composition of the Passion Narrative as a combination of the Greek martyr myth (the philosopher dies bravely for the cause) and the Jewish epic of the suffering righteous one, or the Wisdom tale, in which the righteous sufferer is finally vindicated by God (the story of Joseph in Egypt is a good example). Others (for example Helmut Koester) have found in the Passion Narrative echoes of a street theatre presentation of the Triumph of a victorious general (or imperator, Caesar).
Like the philosopher, Jesus is tried for his cause (as Mack points out, in the case of Jesus, the ’cause’ – Christianity – does not yet exist) and condemned to death. Like the suffering righteous one, Jesus is innocent, and will be vindicated by God by his resurrection. The triumphal entry, the mocking by the soldiers, the purple (or in Matthew, scarlet) garment, would all have been elements of the Triumph of a victorious general. In the case of the general, the scene would have ended in the Senate with the imperator seated before the Senate and crowned with a laurel crown. In this case, Jesus is enthroned upon the cross.
The political irony here is deep. In Matthew’s Gospel (as in Mark’s) the centurion at the cross (a soldier in the legion of the imperator being crowned), points to Jesus and says, “Surely this man was son of God.” In Latin, that would be divi fili – son of the divine, a title for Caesar. The Roman soldier is the only character in the drama who guesses its true meaning. Jesus, enthroned on the cross, is both true emperor, and divine.
The synoptic Gospels do not portray Jesus’ death as a sacrifice (John, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to portray it such). Jesus’ death, for the synoptic, is a fulfillment of the vocation of Israel as suffering on behalf of the world, and of the Greek martyr myth, establishing a cause. But for Christians, Jesus’ death reveals something about the divine life. Paul tells us to have the same mind among ourselves as was in Jesus Christ. When we moderns hear the word “sacrifice” we tend to think of the death of an animal in place of the offerer, and also think of forgoing or giving up our own interests.
In the Old Testament, sacrifice meant a meal. The blood of the animal was returned to God to atone (or buy back) the life of the animal, in order that it could be eaten. God share in the portion sent to heaven as smoke. The meal atoned, made one, the participants. The offerer of the meal was instructed to invite all present to the meal, to offer his substance (in the form of the animal) for the benefit (and even joy) of the gathered company. The Gospel turn political theater into God’s self offering for our benefit and joy.
The profound statement being made here is that this death is what the divine self gift looks like in the arena of human sin. Rather than making a free gift of ourselves to others, we violently take as our own the life others might have offered us. Jesus’ death is our misuse and misunderstanding of the divine self gift. Jesus offers himself to his disciples under the signs of bread and wine, and because we don’t know how to give and receive, our greed, anger and fear, put Jesus on the cross. The resurrection, however, shows that God’s self gift will not be stunted by our failures. When we can offer ourselves to God and one another, and accept the gifts others offer us, we participate in the divine life. In it’s perfection, that life looks like resurrection. Under the fall, it too often looks like the cross, but that is never the last word. The centurion saw that.