Apr 5, 2020: Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (A)

Procession with Palms – Matthew 21:1-11

When Jesus and the disciples drew near Jerusalem
and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives,
Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them,
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately you will find an ass tethered,
and a colt with her.
Untie them and bring them here to me.
And if anyone should say anything to you, reply,
‘The master has need of them.’
Then he will send them at once.”
This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet
might be fulfilled:
“Say to daughter Zion,
‘Behold, your king comes to you,
meek and riding on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them.
They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them,
and he sat upon them.
The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,
while others cut branches from the trees
and strewed them on the road.
The crowds preceding him and those following
kept crying out and saying:
“Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest.”
And when he entered Jerusalem
the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”
And the crowds replied,
“This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

This is Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had visited Jerusalem various times before, but had previously not wanted to be recognized as the Messiah and so avoided the enthusiasm of the crowd. Now he accepts their acclaim and even implies that it is justified, by entering the city in the style of a peace-loving king. Jesus’ public ministry is about to come to a close: he has completed his mission; he has preached and worked miracles; he has revealed himself as God the Father wished he should; and now in this triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he shows that he is the Messiah.

When they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives,

Bethphage was a village east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives was a place long associated with the appearance of the Messiah (Zechariah 14:4).

Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me.

This is a striking variation from the accounts of Mark and John where only a donkey is mentioned.

And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.”

Kings had the right to press privately owned animals into their service whenever the situation seemed to warrant such action.

Note that Jesus is in complete control here.  He knows in advance what is available, what can be done, and what should be said.  He has foreknowledge and authority.

This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: “Say to daughter Zion,

Isaiah 62:11 in the Septuagint form is quoted.

‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'”

The remainder of this quotation is from Zechariah 9:9 in the Septuagint form, except he omits a phrase in Zechariah which alludes to the victory of the king. The text of Zechariah includes the king among the “lowly.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them.

The scene seems to be a deliberate reinterpretation of the prophecy. This was the only type of Messianic claim Jesus would publicly profess: the claim to be the Messiah who was one of the lowly. He comes on a donkey because he is a man of peace; a warrior-king would have ridden a charger (i.e., a war horse).

The mention of the ass and the colt in Zechariah is nothing but poetic parallelism, the use of two words to indicate a single animal; but Matthew has taken the verse with rigorous literalism; therefore he not only has the disciples take two animals but actually has Jesus riding both of them.

“Colt” could refer to the young of any number of animals, including the young of an ass. If the colt was as yet unbroken and therefore somehow ritually clean, mention of two animals could be a reference to the custom of bringing a parent animal along when introducing a colt to service.

However, the Church fathers have read a deeper meaning into this episode. They see the ass as a symbol of Judaism, long subject to the yoke of the Law, and the foal, on which no one has ridden, as symbolizing the Gentiles. Jesus leads both Jews and Gentiles into the Church, the new Jerusalem.

The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,

An act of deference to a king (2 Kings 9:13).

while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road.

Like the cloaks, the branches were also intended to soften the road. No palm trees grow in Jerusalem and the synoptic gospels don’t mention palm branches. The only mention of palm branches is in John’s gospel.

The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David;

A Messianic title.

blessed is he who comes

Another Messianic title (see Malachi 3:1).

in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.”

One who comes as the ambassador comes “in the name” of whom he represents comes with the full authority of that person. In this case, they recognize that Jesus comes with the full authority of God. The phrase “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” comes from Psalm 118:26 and is a jubilant and appreciative greeting to someone entrusted with a mission from God.

And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”

The entire city was electrified by the occasion.

And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The designation of Jesus as a prophet may refer to his ministry, or it could be an allusion to “the prophet,” one of the messianic figures of Israel’s tradition (John 1:21).

1st Reading – Isaiah 50:4-7

The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

Our first reading is from the third suffering servant song of the prophet Isaiah. This section of Isaiah was written when the Israelites were exiles in Babylon, to give them hope and help them find meaning in their suffering.

The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue,

The servant is someone with well-trained tongue, that is, a disciple. Isaiah may have been referring to himself, or the Israelite people as a whole.

That I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.

Although the text does not indicate who these weary might be or the character of the words themselves, the people are in some way downtrodden and the words seem to be words of comfort.

Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;

The servant must first be a disciple, prayerfully receiving God’s word, before he can presume to teach others.  The word is alive and fresh each day, for God opens the speaker’s ears “morning after morning.”

And I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.

Prophets were often ignored and even maltreated because of their call for others to fidelity and conversion.  Like those before him, the servant willingly accepts what appear to be the consequences of his prophetic ministry to the weary.

The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced;

Even though the prophet has been abused, he is not disgraced. The Hebrew word for “disgraced” has the same root as “buffet” in the preceding verse and provides strong contrast.

There are no grounds for the speaker to make these claims other than utter confidence in God, certainty of the authenticity of his call, and a conviction of the truth of his message. He knows he is doing God’s will.

I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

A phrase which is frequent in prophetic preaching to denote steadfastness, which is all the more effective here in describing a face covered with spittle.  The speaker is declaring confidence in God’s sustaining presence.

The suffering servant songs were not originally seen as messianic songs because no one expected the messiah to suffer. The messiah was expected to prevail over the Israelites’ political enemies. However, after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, the early church found in the words of the suffering servant songs a way to probe the mystery of a suffering messiah. When we hear these words in the context of today’s liturgy, we hear them as referring to Jesus.

2nd Reading – Philippians 2:6-11

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This passage has been called “The Christ Hymn” because of its distinctive qualities. It has a rhythmic character and a use of parallelism which have led to the view that Paul is quoting a hymn composed independently of his letter to the Philippians (possibly originally in Aramaic).

The hymn, which was an early profession of faith, has a basic twofold structure: verses 6-8 describe Christ’s humiliation; verses 9-11, his exaltation.

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Christ, who existed from before the creation of the world, did not cling to the divine dignity that was rightfully his. He did not use his exalted status for his own ends.

Many see an allusion to the Genesis story here: though in the form of God (Genesis 1:26-27), Jesus did not reach out for equality with God the way Adam and Eve did (see Genesis 3:5-6).

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness;

Not only did he relinquish his Godlike state, he “emptied himself.” He did not empty himself of divinity, but of the status of glory to which he had a right and which would be restored at his exaltation.

Note the contrasting references to the “form” of Jesus.  He was in the form of God, but took the form of a slave.

and found human in appearance, he humbled himself,

In taking the slave-like human condition, he also took on the vulnerability and powerlessness of that station in life.

becoming obedient to death,

For a slave, obedience is the determining factor, and the extent of Christ’s obedience is striking. Compliance with God’s will in a world that is alienated from God requires that one be open to the possibility of death.

even death on a cross.

Here Paul emphasizes the ignominious nature of Jesus’ death, a death that was torturous and shameful. It was a common punishment for slaves, the nadir of human abasement.  The horror and humiliation of his death demonstrate the completeness with which he emptied himself of his divinity.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

The self-denying act of Christ is matched by the active response of God. His exaltation is as glorious as his humiliation was debasing.

Note that while Christ was the subject of his self-emptying, his superexaltation is attributed directly to God.  His extreme humiliation is matched by his extreme glorification.

and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

Recall that in the Jewish culture, one’s name contains the essence of the individual. God has raised Jesus’ name, his essence, above every other.

Explicit mention of the new name is held back the end of the hymn.

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

This hymn transfers to Christ the homage given to God alone (Isaiah 45:23).

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

According to ancient thought, these are the three levels of the universe.  All of creation is brought under Christ’s lordship.

and every tongue confess

Another reference to Isaiah 45:23.

that Jesus Christ is Lord, 

Finally, the new name of Christ: Kyrios (Lord), which came to be substituted for YHWH in Christian copies of the Septuagint Old Testament.

to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus’ new position on the heavenly throne constitutes no rivalry to the Father, to Yahweh himself; rather, Jesus’ voluntary abasement and the homage paid to him by creation in his exalted status bring honor to the Father.

Today’s readings are meant to teach us that the cross is a central mystery of our faith. Suffering is part of every person’s life, just as it was part of Jesus’ life. However, Jesus’ suffering led to resurrection.

Through his suffering, Jesus redeemed the human race from sin. If we join Jesus in his suffering, we will also join him in his victory over death.

Gospel – Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity
to hand him over.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
the disciples approached Jesus and said,
“Where do you want us to prepare
for you to eat the Passover?”
He said,
“Go into the city to a certain man and tell him,
‘The teacher says, my appointed time draws near;
in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.”
The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered,
and prepared the Passover.

When it was evening,
he reclined at table with the Twelve.
And while they were eating, he said,
“Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
Deeply distressed at this,
they began to say to him one after another,
“Surely it is not I, Lord?”
He said in reply,
“He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me
is the one who will betray me.
The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him,
but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.
It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply,
“Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”
He answered, “You have said so.”

While they were eating,
Jesus took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and giving it to his disciples said,
“Take and eat; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying,
“Drink from it, all of you,
for this is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed on behalf of many
for the forgiveness of sins.
I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine
until the day when I drink it with you new
in the kingdom of my Father.”
Then, after singing a hymn,
they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them,
“This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken,
for it is written:
I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;
but after I have been raised up,
I shall go before you to Galilee.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Though all may have their faith in you shaken,
mine will never be.”
Jesus said to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
this very night before the cock crows,
you will deny me three times.”
Peter said to him,
“Even though I should have to die with you,
I will not deny you.”
And all the disciples spoke likewise.

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane,
and he said to his disciples,
“Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee,
and began to feel sorrow and distress.
Then he said to them,
“My soul is sorrowful even to death.
Remain here and keep watch with me.”
He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying,
“My Father, if it is possible,
let this cup pass from me;
yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep.
He said to Peter,
“So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?
Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test.
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again,
“My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass
without my drinking it, your will be done!”
Then he returned once more and found them asleep,
for they could not keep their eyes open.
He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time,
saying the same thing again.
Then he returned to his disciples and said to them,
“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?
Behold, the hour is at hand
when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners.
Get up, let us go.
Look, my betrayer is at hand.”

While he was still speaking,
Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived,
accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs,
who had come from the chief priests and the elders
of the people.
His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying,
“The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him.”
Immediately he went over to Jesus and said,
“Hail, Rabbi!” and he kissed him.
Jesus answered him,
“Friend, do what you have come for.”
Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.
And behold, one of those who accompanied Jesus
put his hand to his sword, drew it,
and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear.
Then Jesus said to him,
“Put your sword back into its sheath,
for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father
and he will not provide me at this moment
with more than twelve legions of angels?
But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled
which say that it must come to pass in this way?”
At that hour Jesus said to the crowds,
“Have you come out as against a robber,
with swords and clubs to seize me?
Day after day I sat teaching in the temple area,
yet you did not arrest me.
But all this has come to pass
that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.”
Then all the disciples left him and fled.

Those who had arrested Jesus led him away
to Caiaphas the high priest,
where the scribes and the elders were assembled.
Peter was following him at a distance
as far as the high priest’s courtyard,
and going inside he sat down with the servants
to see the outcome.
The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin
kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus
in order to put him to death,
but they found none,
though many false witnesses came forward.
Finally two came forward who stated,
“This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God
and within three days rebuild it.’”
The high priest rose and addressed him,
“Have you no answer?
What are these men testifying against you?”
But Jesus was silent.
Then the high priest said to him,
“I order you to tell us under oath before the living God
whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“You have said so.
But I tell you:
From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power’
and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’”
Then the high priest tore his robes and said,
“He has blasphemed!
What further need have we of witnesses?
You have now heard the blasphemy;
what is your opinion?”
They said in reply,
“He deserves to die!”
Then they spat in his face and struck him,
while some slapped him, saying,
“Prophesy for us, Christ: who is it that struck you?”
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard.
One of the maids came over to him and said,
“You too were with Jesus the Galilean.”
But he denied it in front of everyone, saying,
“I do not know what you are talking about!”
As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him
and said to those who were there,
“This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.”
Again he denied it with an oath,
“I do not know the man!”
A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter,
“Surely you too are one of them;
even your speech gives you away.”
At that he began to curse and to swear,
“I do not know the man.”
And immediately a cock crowed.
Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken:
“Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.”
He went out and began to weep bitterly.

When it was morning,
all the chief priests and the elders of the people
took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.
They bound him, led him away,
and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.

Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned,
deeply regretted what he had done.
He returned the thirty pieces of silver
to the chief priests and elders, saying,
“I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”
They said,
“What is that to us?
Look to it yourself.”
Flinging the money into the temple,
he departed and went off and hanged himself.
The chief priests gathered up the money, but said,
“It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury,
for it is the price of blood.”
After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field
as a burial place for foreigners.
That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah
the prophet,
And they took the thirty pieces of silver,
the value of a man with a price on his head,
a price set by some of the Israelites,
and they paid it out for the potter’s field
just as the Lord had commanded me.

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and he questioned him,
“Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus said, “You say so.”
And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders,
he made no answer.
Then Pilate said to him,
“Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?”
But he did not answer him one word,
so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now on the occasion of the feast
the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd
one prisoner whom they wished.
And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.
So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them,
“Which one do you want me to release to you,
Barabbas, or Jesus called Christ?”
For he knew that it was out of envy
that they had handed him over.
While he was still seated on the bench,
his wife sent him a message,
“Have nothing to do with that righteous man.
I suffered much in a dream today because of him.”
The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds
to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus.
The governor said to them in reply,
“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?”
They answered, Barabbas!”
Pilate said to them,
“Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?”
They all said,
“Let him be crucified!”
But he said,
“Why? What evil has he done?”
They only shouted the louder,
“Let him be crucified!”
When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all,
but that a riot was breaking out instead,
he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd,
saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.
Look to it yourselves.”
And the whole people said in reply,
“His blood be upon us and upon our children.”
Then he released Barabbas to them,
but after he had Jesus scourged,
he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium
and gathered the whole cohort around him.
They stripped off his clothes
and threw a scarlet military cloak about him.
Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head,
and a reed in his right hand.
And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying,
“Hail, King of the Jews!”
They spat upon him and took the reed
and kept striking him on the head.
And when they had mocked him,
they stripped him of the cloak,
dressed him in his own clothes,
and led him off to crucify him.

As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon;
this man they pressed into service
to carry his cross.

And when they came to a place called Golgotha
­—which means Place of the Skull —,
they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall.
But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink.
After they had crucified him,
they divided his garments by casting lots;
then they sat down and kept watch over him there.
And they placed over his head the written charge against him:
This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.
Two revolutionaries were crucified with him,
one on his right and the other on his left.
Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying,
“You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,
save yourself, if you are the Son of God,
and come down from the cross!”
Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said,
“He saved others; he cannot save himself.
So he is the king of Israel!
Let him come down from the cross now,
and we will believe in him.
He trusted in God;
let him deliver him now if he wants him.
For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
The revolutionaries who were crucified with him
also kept abusing him in the same way.

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”
which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“This one is calling for Elijah.”
Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge;
he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed,
gave it to him to drink.
But the rest said,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.”
But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice,
and gave up his spirit.

Here all kneel and pause for a short time.

And behold, the veil of the sanctuary
was torn in two from top to bottom.
The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened,
and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection,
they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus
feared greatly when they saw the earthquake
and all that was happening, and they said,
“Truly, this was the Son of God!”
There were many women there, looking on from a distance,
who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.
Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph,
and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

When it was evening,
there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph,
who was himself a disciple of Jesus.
He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus;
then Pilate ordered it to be handed over.
Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen
and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock.
Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb
and departed.
But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
remained sitting there, facing the tomb.

The next day, the one following the day of preparation,
the chief priests and the Pharisees
gathered before Pilate and said,
“Sir, we remember that this impostor while still alive said,
‘After three days I will be raised up.’
Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day,
lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people,
‘He has been raised from the dead.’
This last imposture would be worse than the first.”
Pilate said to them,
“The guard is yours;
go, secure it as best you can.”
So they went and secured the tomb
by fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard.

Jesus’ passion is reported in all four gospels. Matthew’s version is essentially a collection of episodes that together tell the story of Jesus’ last days from particular theological perspectives.

Matthew’s passion narrative is very similar to Mark’s, which is to be expected since Mark’s gospel was a major source for Matthew. However, the two are not identical. If we notice what Matthew has retained and what he has added to Mark’s story, we can discern those teachings that he wanted to emphasize for his audience of primarily Jewish Christians.

Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests

The name Judas is the Greek form of Judah (which in Hebrew means “praised”), a proper name frequently found both in the Old and the New Testament. Even among the Twelve there were two that bore the name, and for this reason it is usually associated with the surname Iscariot (Hebrew for “a man of Kerioth” or Carioth, which is a city of Judah (see Joshua 15:25)). His birthplace in Judah differentiates him from the other Apostles, who were all Galileans.

and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

The gospels are unanimous in showing that Judas initiates the treachery.

They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.

Some commentators see an allusion here to Zechariah 11:12:  “I said to them, If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, let it go.And they counted out my wages, thirty pieces of silver.”

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,

The feast lasted a week and a day (14 through 21 Nisan). This is one of the three annual feasts for which all men were expected to come to the Temple. The city was jammed with people, many of whom rented space. The city’s normal population of 30,000 swelled to 130,000.

the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man

Mark identifies him as a man carrying a jug of water, an unusual event since women carried the water jugs.

and tell him, ‘The teacher says, “My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.'” The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered, and prepared the Passover. When it was evening, he reclined at table with the Twelve.

This makes it clear that no one else was present, contrary to the usual family setting of the Passover meal. Jesus’ family for this meal are those who will be instrumental in building his Body, the Church.

And while they were eating, he said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, “Surely it is not I, Lord?” He said in reply, “He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me.

Jesus knows exactly who the traitor is.

The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”

This condemnation of Judas’ act is the most severe of all the gospels.

The death of Jesus is inevitable (Psalm 41:10 and Isaiah 53:7), but it is not inevitable that one of his disciples should betray him.

Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” He answered, “You have said so.”

This verse is unique to Matthew and establishes a direct confrontation between the betrayer and the betrayed.

Notice how the other apostles address Jesus as “Lord,” while Judas uses “Rabbi,” the title normally used in Matthew’s gospel by the faithless.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread,

To commemorate the first Passover, unleavened bread is prescribed for the celebratory meal because in the flight from Egypt there had been no time to make leavened bread.

said the blessing, broke it,

The act of blessing and breaking is one word in Greek: eucharisteo.

and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

The body to be eaten as promised a year earlier after the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:53-58).

Then he took a cup,

The liturgy of the Passover meal requires that four cups of wine be drunk. The cup which Jesus is using here is the third cup, the cup of thanksgiving (see 1 Corinthians 10:16).

gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood

Again, he promised to give his blood to be drunk a year earlier (John 6:53-58).

of the covenant,

The institution of the Eucharist is the only time in the New Testament where Jesus uses the word “covenant.” Recall that covenants were sealed with the blood of the animal that was killed for the covenant offering.

But there is no animal at this meal, which is very peculiar. The most important part of the Passover celebration was the lamb, the primary reminder of how the Passover lambs were sacrificed in Egypt so that the Israelite firstborn sons would not be killed in the tenth plague.

The sacrificial language and overtones of Jesus’ discourse tell us that the body being offered is not that of a lamb or any other animal: it is his own body being sacrificed and his own blood being poured out. Just as the Passover lamb was sacrificed in Egypt to spare the firstborn sons of Israel, so now Jesus is about to be sacrificed on the cross to spare all humanity.

The Eucharist is the new Passover of the new covenant.

which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.

Only Matthew has this phrase. Certain Jewish sacrifices atoned for sin and guilt. The atoning death of Jesus liberates man not only from ritual sin and guilt, but from sin simply, for which there was no atonement in the Israelite sacrificial system. Isaiah 53:10 says that the suffering servant is offered as a sin sacrifice.

With these words, Matthew teaches his audience (and us) that Christ’s suffering, freely accepted in love and obedience to his Father’s will, redeemed us.

I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.”

Jesus defers drinking the fourth cup of the Passover meal, interrupting the most sacred liturgy of Jewish family life. This is very unusual for observant Jews.

Jesus states that he will drink the final cup of the liturgy with the apostles when the age of the Messiah has dawned. Then, by his resurrection, they (and we) will have been made new.

Then, after singing a hymn,

The Great Hallel (Psalms 114 through 118) is sung at this point in the Passover liturgy.

they went out

The leave without finishing the liturgy; the fourth cup of the Passover meal has not been drunk.

to the Mount of Olives.

Jesus spent his days in Jerusalem preaching and teaching, but retreated to the Mount of Olives each evening, perhaps for protection.

This pattern made it easy for Judas to tell the priests where to apprehend Jesus without a scene.

Then Jesus said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed’;

Jesus is quoting Zechariah 13:7.

but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.”

Both Matthew and Mark, as opposed to Luke and John, record apparitions to the disciples located only in Galilee. This prediction is fulfilled in Matthew 28:16-20.

Peter said to him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.”

Peter, usually the spokesman for the group, here speaks for himself. Peter’s excessive self-confidence will be followed by a fall more grievous than the others.

Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”

Three is the number of completion in Hebrew numerology, it will be a complete denial.

Peter said to him, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And all the disciples spoke likewise.

The other disciples join Peter in affirming their loyalty.

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane,

Gethsemane was well known to be Jesus’ favorite places to pray. Its exact position of Gethsemane is not known, but St. Jerome tells us that it was at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

The name Gethsemane means “oil press.”

and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee,

He takes with him Peter, James, and John: the inner circle, the three who were present for the raising of Jarius’ daughter and at the transfiguration.

and began to feel sorrow and distress.

After the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the devil had departed from him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13). Now, with the passion, he attacks again, using the flesh’s natural fear and repugnance to suffering.

Both Mark and Matthew picture Jesus in true agony in the garden. Being fully human, Jesus did not want to suffer and die.

Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.”

To be sorrowful unto death means to be pushed to the extreme limits with grief. The words describe almost unendurable suffering.

Spoken in the context of Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s imminent arrest, Jesus’ sorrow echoes the words of Sirach 37:2: “Is it not a grief to the death when a companion and friend turns to enmity?”

He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer,

Knowing all that is about to happen to him, Jesus kneels down and falls on his face, highlighting his distress and the intensity of the prayer that follows.

saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me;

“This cup” is a symbol of suffering and divine anger (Isaiah 51:17, Ezekiel 23:33).

It was natural for Jesus to shrink from the horror of the cross, a horror magnified by his knowledge that he would experience the weight of divine anger on sin.

yet, not as I will, but as you will.”

Nevertheless, Jesus’ human will is perfectly united to the Father’s; he is determined to follow the will of his father and submits to God’s plan.

Jesus faces his suffering, feels the full force of it, and freely embraces it for the sake of our salvation.

In this critical moment, we see Jesus reliving the test of Adam and proving himself to be a faithful Son of God precisely where Adam was unfaithful:

  • Both were tested by Satan in a garden (Gethsemane, Eden)
  • Adam did not trust the Father in his time of testing, preferring his own will to God’s; whereas Jesus says to the Father, “your will be done”
  • Adam’s disobedience led him to the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, while Christ’s prayer of obedience led him to the wood of the cross, which Christians will later call the Tree of Life

When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. 

The disciples are too weary to stay awake. People retired and arose early in the ancient world (there was no electricity; they worked by natural light).

He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Peter is being addressed individually.

The word in Greek for “test” is peirasmos, which is also translated as “temptation.”  It is the same word used to describe the temptations that Satan inflicted on Christ in the desert at the beginning of his ministry; and is also the same word found at the end of the Our Father (“lead us not into temptation”, Luke 11:4).

Jesus is encouraging Peter to resist the testing he is about to face as he witnesses his master being arrested, condemned, scourged, and crucified.

The spirit and the flesh correspond to the two tendencies of rabbinic psychology, good and evil.

Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? 

Jesus prays a variation of the same prayer three times; his apostles disappoint him three times.

Three is the number of completion in Hebrew numerology.  Christ has completely submitted to God’s will, and the apostles have completely failed him.

Jesus is utterly alone in his agony.

Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.”

Jesus has asked his friends to help him keep watch so that he can pray, yet Jesus himself is the one who sees the approaching party. 

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs,

The wording makes Judas appear to be the leader; however, this is unlikely. He is more like their guide, since he knew the area and would need to identify Jesus to the guards.

who had come from the chief priests and the elders of the people.

The scribes are not mentioned as part of the crowd but will appear at the trial. The Pharisees are not mentioned at all in this reading although the scribes were mostly Pharisees. The chief priests were Sadducees.

His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying, “The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him.” Immediately he went over to Jesus and said, “Hail, Rabbi!” and he kissed him.

A kiss is a normal form of greeting in the culture of the day.

Jesus answered him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. And behold, one of those who accompanied Jesus put his hand to his sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear.

All four gospels report this incident. John’s gospel (18:10) tells us the person that drew his sword was Peter.

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?”

Matthew’s gospel emphasizes the fact that Jesus could defend himself, but chooses not to.

Recall that in Matthew’s temptation story (4:1-11), Jesus overcomes the temptation to use his power to save himself.  Combined with Matthew’s overarching theme that Jesus is fulfilling the messianic prophecies, Matthew is demonstrating the necessity of the cross.

At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to seize me? Day after day I sat teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me. But all this has come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.”

The account makes it clear that Jesus is giving himself up of his own free will.  Though the authorities have come with clubs and swords, it is not by their power that he is arrested and killed, but by his own love and his desire to fulfill his Father’s will.

Then all the disciples left him and fled.

The disciples had been ready to defend Jesus by force — when he himself rejects the defense, they don’t know what to do. For the rest of the Passion narrative, they are not eyewitnesses. They have reconstructed these events from the large numbers of other eyewitnesses.

Those who had arrested Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter was following him at a distance as far as the high priest’s courtyard, and going inside he sat down with the servants to see the outcome.

The houses of affluent Jews had a front lobby, which opened into a courtyard (i.e., patio). By crossing the courtyard, one could enter the rooms proper.

Peter goes through the lobby but stays in the courtyard.

The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward.

The ruling council was composed of 71 members including the presiding officer, which was the high priest. It was composed of the elders of the chief families and clans, the former high priests, and the scribes. Apparently, the testimony of the witnesses did not agree.

Finally two came forward who stated, “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and within three days rebuild it.'”

Deuteronomy 17:6 requires two witnesses in order to condemn a person to death. The testimony of these two witnesses is the same and therefore fulfills the requirement.

Their testimony refers to Jesus’ statement in John 2:19-21: “Jesus answered and said to them, Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.The Jews said, This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?But he was speaking about the temple of his body.”

The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

The swearing of the oath makes this a covenant ritual. The invocation of the “living God” would damn the soul forever if he lied, as a violation of the second commandment.

The high priest meant no more by this title than it signified in the Old Testament: the specially chosen one, the Davidic king. In the eyes of the Sanhedrin, that Jesus should claim such a privilege insulted God; for this humiliated, rejected man to presume to reveal and mediate the Lord’s glory to Israel was a supreme irreverence to God.

Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so.

This sort of gives a half-affirmative answer. Mark 14:62 gives a simple “I am.”

But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.'”

Jesus then points to his future exaltation drawing from Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1.

Then the high priest tore his robes

A sign of great distress. In that day, garments were very valuable, especially the robes of the high priest.

and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?” They said in reply, “He deserves to die!”

Leviticus 24:16 says that blasphemy was punishable by death.

Then they spat in his face and struck him, while some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy for us, Messiah: who is it that struck you?”

By omitting the blindfold and the servants of Mark 14:67, Matthew creates some confusion. The Sanhedrin members themselves appear to slap Jesus. Their question asks him to identify unknown (rather than unseen) mockers.

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. One of the maids came over to him and said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it in front of everyone, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about!” As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man!” A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter, “Surely you too are one of them; even your speech gives you away.” At that he began to curse and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately a cock crowed.

In the Jewish moral theology of apostasy during persecution, a private denial was less grave than a public one and an evasive denial was less grave than an explicit one. In Mark 14:66-71, this shows an escalation of Peter’s sins: first a private, evasive denial; then a public, evasive denial; and finally a public, explicit denial. Matthew obscures this pattern with a public, evasive denial; a private, explicit denial; and then a public, explicit denial.

Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly.

Both Matthew and Luke note that Peter wept “bitterly.” Peter neither concealed nor excused his lapse. For such lapses there is no remedy but repentance.

When it was morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.

Jewish custom forbade night trials, with serious charges.  Since such trials had no legal validity, the Sanhedrin waits until morning to take further action.

They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.

The governor was the senior Roman official in Judea. The Jewish leaders brought Jesus before Pilate because, being under Roman law, they could not carry out capital punishment on their own. They were seeking a public sentence of death to counteract Jesus’ reputation and erase his teaching from the people’s minds.

Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”

Note that Judas regrets his actions, but does not actually repent.

They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.” Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.

Acts 1:18 gives a different account: “He bought a parcel of land with the wages of his iniquity, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle, and all his insides spilled out.”

The chief priests gathered up the money, but said, “It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury, for it is the price of blood.” 

There is no known prohibition that disallowed putting such money in the Temple treasury.

After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood. Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of a man with a price on his head, a price set by some of the Israelites, and they paid it out for the potter’s field just as the Lord had commanded me.”

Most of the words in the quotation are actually from Zechariah (11:12-13), but the content is also closely related to Jeremiah 19:1–13, which is a prophecy of judgment for the shedding of innocent blood. Jeremiah twice speaks of a potter (19:1,11), and Matthew’s “Field of Blood” recalls his designation of Tophet as the “Valley of Slaughter” (Jeremiah 19:6), which also was to become a burial ground (19:11).

It seems that Matthew finds in Judas’s and the priests’ actions a fulfillment of the judgment prophecies of both Zechariah and Jeremiah.

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and he questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

This is a Roman trial. Note that the chief priest had asked “Are you the Messiah?”, a question with religious implications, while the Gentile magistrate asks “Are you the king of the Jews?”, which questions his loyalty to the Roman emperor.

Jesus said, “You say so.”

You have answered your own question.

And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?”

The Jewish leaders, knowing that the charge of blasphemy would be meaningless to the Roman court, trumped up three political charges that Pilate would not be able to ignore: 1) that Jesus was a revolutionary, 2) that he had urged the people not to pay taxes, and 3) that he claimed to be king.

But he did not answer him one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Jesus’ complete silence can be seen as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7.

Now on the occasion of the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished.

This custom is not attested to outside the gospels.

It may be that Pilate suspected that the Jewish leadership, with whom he had a tense and often acrimonious relationship, was trying to trap him somehow. This offer may have been more of an attempt to test that theory than an effort to save Jesus.

And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.

Barabbas is a notorious insurrectionist. Pilate tries to load the deck by presenting what he considered the least welcome alternative to Jesus.

So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Which one do you want me to release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over.

Pilate is used to dealing with rebels and realizes that Jesus is no serious threat to the Roman Empire.  Matthew points out that Pilate understands that what lies at the heart of the chief priests’ contention against him is a religious rivalry.

While he was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.”

This scene, which stresses the innocence of Jesus, only appears in Matthew’s gospel. He wanted his Jewish audience to be assured that Jesus was completely innocent of all charges brought against him both in the Jewish court and in the Roman court.

The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus.

The group who had sent the arresting party now incites the crowd.

The governor said to them in reply, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They answered, “Barabbas!”

There is much symbolism in this choice, because the name Barabbas means “son of the father.” In choosing him, the crowds favor this false “son of the father,” who represents violence and vengence, over Jesus, The Son of The Father, who represents peace and forgiveness.

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?”

An indirect statement of Jesus’ innocence.

They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.”

Rather than take a stand to protect the innocent Jesus, Pilate cowardly caves to the pressure and allows Jesus to be scourged and crucified.  In an effort to quell his troubled conscience, he accommodates himself to a Jewish custom of washing — a symbolic and futile gesture to distance himself from responsibility for Christ’s death.

And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

The people take the responsibility for Jesus’ fate onto themselves.  This includes the priests, the elders, and the crowd; all Israel is represented. See 2 Samuel 1:16, Jeremiah 26:15.

Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified.

The entire proceeding is blatantly unjust. After being declared innocent, Jesus is immediately sent for torture, then death.

Roman scourging was much more severe than a whipping.  It normally involved the prisoner’s being stripped and tied to a pillar or low post. The whip had multi-stranded leather thongs ending with sharp pieces of bone or metal spikes, which would rip a person’s flesh in a single stroke. Prisoners often died from this punishment.

When used in conjunction with crucifixion, it allowed the Roman soldiers some control over how long the prisoner would survive. A long, severe scourging would greatly weaken the prisoner and result in a quicker death on the cross. This is the case with Christ.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium

The praetorium was the official residence and military headquarters of a Roman governor, where he had his guard and held court. Only Saint Luke has Jesus appearing before both Pilate and Herod.

and gathered the whole cohort around him.

At full strength, the cohort numbered 600 men. It seems improbable that the entire force was gathered here; “the whole” is believed to infer a large representative grouping.

They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him.

Mark and John call it a purple robe, purple being the color of royalty and of the Roman aristocracy. Scarlet was the color worn by Roman military, by high-ranking officials, and by the emporer himself.

Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand.

The reed was meant to simulate a scepter, completing the costume of cruel sarcasm.

And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

In a scene that represents the height of Jesus’ humiliation, the mockery of the soldiers added psychological torture to the physical torment. The crude sport of the soldiers expresses their contempt not only for the alleged king, but also for the people whose king this was purported to be.  They even mimic the royal address one would give to the emperor (“Hail, Caesar!”).

While they scoff at Jesus, they have no idea how appropriate their words actually are.  Despite their cruel intentions, they unwittingly proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ: He really is the Messiah, the true King of the Jews.  The homage these pagan soldiers pay in jest anticipates the sincere honor countless Christians will give Jesus as they worship him as their Lord and King.

They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head.

One might hear echoes of Isaiah’s prophecy about the suffering servant of the Lord: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).

And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him.

Crucifixion was an Oriental method of punishment adopted by the Romans, usually reserved only for slaves, bandits, and rebels. It was so horrible that it was prohibited by Roman law to crucify Roman citizens.

Crucifixion was a slow and agonizing death. Nails were probably driven through the wrists rather than the palms. The weight of the suspended body made breathing difficult and painful. Involuntary efforts by the legs to ease the pressure greatly increased pain in the feet, an ordeal that continued until the exhausted victim could no longer breathe.  In some cases, this might take several days, which is why prisoners were sometimes weakened by first flogging or scourging them.

As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.

Roman soldiers had the authority to require assistance from civilians, and they press into service Simon of Cyrene.

Roman crucifixions generally took place outside the city walls along crowded roads so that many people could see what happened when someone revolted against Rome.  At the crucifixion site, the vertical part of the cross was planted in the ground.  The condemned criminal was given the crossbeam in the city and had it placed over his shoulders like a yoke, with his arms hooked over it.  He would be forced to carry the crossbeam through the streets and out the city gates using the longest possible route, so that the maximum number of people might view the scene and be deterred from crime.

It would be highly unusual for the Romans to permit another person to carry the crossbeam for a criminal condemned to crucifixion.  The fact that they do so here is an indication of the especially savage nature of the scourging.  He is so physically weak that they fear he may not make it to the execution site outside the city.

We don’t know much about this Simon.  Cyrene was a center of Jewish population in northern Africa.  He may have been in Jerusalem as a pilgrim for the Passover feast.  Luke’s gospel notes that Simon is “coming in from the country” when he is enlisted to carry Jesus’ cross.  He probably has no idea about the dramatic events occurring in Jerusalem that day.  The fact that he was not in Jerusalem during the uproar surrounding Christ’s trial and condemnation tells us that he did not participate in the mob shouting for Jesus’ execution.  Not all of the Jews were intensely opposed to Jesus.

And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of the Skull),

The name Calvary comes into English from the Rheims New Testament translation of the Latin calvariae. Hebrew (and Christian) legend has it that Adam’s skull was buried there (hence the depiction of a skull beneath the cross in some crucifixion paintings). The second Adam is sacrificed over the remains of the first.

they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink.

He may have refused to drink because he was saving the act of drinking as a symbolic act. (Recall earlier in the reading (Matthew 26:29), Jesus said, “I will not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.”) See also Psalm 69:21 (69:22 in NAB).

Another possibility is that the gall, which could have been any of several bitter herbs (Mark’s gospel mentions myrrh), made the wine undrinkable.

After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots;

The division of garments was a privilege of the squad of soldiers who handled the execution; the crucified were stripped entirely nude as a final humiliation.

This action fulfilled Psalm 22:18, as is made explicit in John 19:23-24. In fact, the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus include numerous fulfillments of Psalm 22.

then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And they placed over his head the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.

The placard at the head of the cross specified the crime. It was written in Greek, the language of culture; in Latin, the language of the government; and in Hebrew, the language of the country.

By phrasing the charge this way, Pilate was insulting the Jewish leaders — but the irony of its truth was apparent to the early church.

(It is from John’s gospel that we get the inscription INRI, which are the first letters of “Jesus the Nazorean King of the Jews” in Latin.

Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left.

All four Gospels state that Jesus was crucified between two criminals; in his death, he “was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

The goal of crucifixion was not simply to execute but to do so with the maximum amount of pain and public humiliation.  Stripped of clothing and nailed or bound to a cross with their arms extended and raised, their exposed bodies had no means of coping with heat, cold, insects, or pain.

Those passing by reviled him,

See Psalm 109:25.

shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, and come down from the cross!”

These taunts are reminiscent of the devil’s temptations of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:3, 6).

In light of the full gospel story, note the irony: Jesus was going to return after three days, and “rebuild” the temple of his body. Precisely because he was the Son of God, he would not come down from the cross.

Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him

The mockery of those who are executed has been a universal feature wherever public executions have been practiced. The taunts come from all Israel: the passersby, priests, scribes, and elders.

and said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'”

An expansion of the scene not found in Mark’s gospel. The chief priests, scribes, and elders tempt God just as the devil tempted Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). Recall that two of the tempations began, “If you are the Son of God…”

Neither God the Father nor Jesus responds to the temptation to prove Jesus’ identity as God’s Son by sparing Jesus his suffering and death on the cross. Once again, Matthew is emphasizing the necessity of the cross.

The revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way. From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

While Jesus hung between heaven and earth, darkness came over the whole land. As a symbol of the power of darkness (Luke 22:53), this was fitting: as heavenly light had shown upon his cradle, darkness should characterize his terrible death.

And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The opening words of Psalm 22. This is not a cry of despair or abandonment by Jesus; he is invoking the entire psalm by its opening words (a common practice at the time) and calling to the mind of the hearer all the prophecies of the psalm which he is fulfilling.  The psalm expresses his total trust that the Father will vindicate him and ends on a clearly victorious note.

The cry is in Aramaic, except the Hebrew “Eli.” Mark gives the Aramaic “Eloi.”

Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “This one is calling for Elijah.”

The cry of Eli, Eli sounds like the name Elijah. The bystanders who thought this must have been Jews.

Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink. But the rest said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.” But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit.

John 19:30 tells us that Jesus drank the wine and cried out “It is finished,” the words proclaimed after the fourth cup of the Passover meal was consumed. Jesus has completed his Passover sacrifice.

And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two

In the temple, the curtain (i.e., the veil of the sanctuary) separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was accessible only by the high priest and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

The veil has now been lifted, and the Holy of Holies is no longer forbidden.  Heaven has been opened.

from top to bottom.

No man could tear the curtain in this direction; a way of indicating that this was God’s doing.

The earth quaked, rocks were split,

This is Matthew’s way of emphasizing the earth-shattering importance of the event that has taken place.

tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. 

Some see this resurrection of holy men and women who were buried in Jerusalem as a partial, symbolic fulfillment of Dan. 12:2. This not only symbolized Jesus’ victory over death, but portended the resurrection of all people, the final cosmic event of human history.

There is no way of knowing who these people were, or whether they died again or were translated directly to heaven.

The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

It is ironic and unexpected that the first to recognize Jesus’ true identity were Romans.

There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

These are the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee. John (19:25) has them much closer to the action and accompanied by John himself and the Blessed Virgin.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus.

Mark and Luke identify Joseph as a member of the Sanhedrin. Matthew may have seen a problem in the discipleship of a member of the council that had voted the death of Jesus, but it is unclear whether Joseph actually attended the council meeting.  Arimathea is about twenty miles northeast of Jerusalem.

He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed.

Joseph’s gift of a tomb completes Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah 53:9.

But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb.

It is not unimportant that the two Marys carefully note the location of the tomb. The areas surrounding the walls of Jerusalem had literally hundreds, if not thousands, of tombs. The resurrection apologetic demands that the spot where Jesus is buried should be known exactly. Likewise, it is also important that the tomb is new, not previously used.

The next day, the one following the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that this impostor while still alive said, ‘After three days I will be raised up.’

It is remarkable that the priests and Pharisees show such accurate knowledge of the prediction of a resurrection which Jesus’ own disciples seem to have forgotten completely.

Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ This last imposture would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “The guard is yours; go secure it as best you can.” So they went and secured the tomb by fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard.

This detail of the Roman guard is not contained in any of the other gospels. Matthew wants his Jewish audience to know that the claim that Jesus did not rise, but that his body was stolen, is not true.

Pilate has met his obligation: the threat to Roman peace and stability has been removed.  A contingent from the Jewish ruling body has also accomplished its goals: the contentious wonder-working preacher has been silenced, and any possibility of future upheaval has been sealed in the tomb with his body.  Neither Pilate nor the Jewish leaders realize that in reality everything is now in place for the eschatological event of the resurrection — they have ironically become agents through whom the plan of God unfolds.

Themes and Connections

The end of Lent.  In this final Lenten Sunday, as we prepare to enter the sacred time of Holy Week, we look again at the significance of Christ in our lives.  We recognize him as our Savior, but we look more closely in order to discover just what kind of Savior he is.  We find he has taken the form of a slave; he has been glorified with a name above all other names; he continues to suffer with us.

A self-emptying Savior.  We have not been saved through military power but through the kenotic humility of Jesus.  Though he was divine, Jesus came in the form of a slave.  We have a Savior who was crushed for our iniquities, nailed to a cross as a convicted felon, and who there endured the sense of abandonment.  Why has God stooped so low?  Why did Christ empty himself so completely? Yes, he was obedient to God’s will, even to death, but that doesn’t answer the fundamental question: Why does God love us with such abandon?

A highly exalted Savior.  We have a Savior who was lifted up and exalted precisely because he emptied himself of his divine prerogatives.  He became one of us in order to show us how we are to live.  Unlike conquerors who triumph by putting down their opponents, Jesus was raised up because he himself was first willing to be put down.  His glorification was won at a great price, but it is his by victory and not by mere bestowal.  His name commands the homage no other name can claim, and it does so because he first handed himself over to us.

An example for us.  We have a Savior who first offered himself for us and then continues to offer himself to us as an example to follow.  As he was willing to empty himself for our sake, so we must be willing to empty ourselves for the sake of others.