Monthly Archives: March 2021

Matthew 26:57-68 Jesus before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin

Mattias Stom, Christ before Caiaphas, early 1630s

Matthew 26: 57-68

Parallel Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:54-55, 63-71

57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. 58 But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. 59 Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'” 62 The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 63 But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah,the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you,

From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah!Who is it that struck you?”

Jesus now stands alone surrounded by the religious leaders who seek his life. Peter remains at a distance with the servants[1] and the remaining disciples have disappeared into the night. The shepherd has been handed over and the flock has scattered. In contrast the scribes and the elders have gathered together around Caiaphas the high priest[2] for this moment. There is no presumption of innocence in this scene, the entire ordeal in the household of Caiaphas is orchestrated as a movement towards the humiliation and execution of Jesus as a dangerous and blasphemous threat to the people.

In our post-modern and pluralistic world, blasphemy is no longer considered a major offence, but in Jesus’ world to be called a blasphemer would be worse than being called a traitor. Throughout scripture the greatest danger is idolatry and in a worldview where one’s safety and security is tied to one’s obedience to the God of Israel, blasphemy which lead people away from their God is an offence against the community. In our more secular world capital offenses are offenses against the state: a traitor or a murder may be sentenced to death but not a person who violates the religious norms of the community. This shifted in the enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, in the aftermath of the thirty years war which was the bloodiest conflict in Europe until the World Wars of the twentieth century. The accusation of Jesus as one who is dangerous to the beliefs of the people of Jerusalem is a serious one in this context and it will also be linked to his identity as a potential king who could challenge the claims of Rome.

In modern society we expect a semblance of respect for due process and legal adherence to the law in a court scene. Although Israel was to have a fair judgment for people regardless of circumstances what we see in this scene is a gathering to declare as a group an expected verdict. The gathering, as Matthew reports it, is not seeking truth but intentionally seeking false witnesses[3] that will corroborate the charges against Jesus. According to Deuteronomy 19:15-21 a person cannot be sentenced based on a single witness’ accusation, and that is why there is the struggle to find witnesses who can give the same story of Jesus’ supposed threat to the belief and security of the people. Ironically, this is also the passage in Deuteronomy that deals how the priests and the judges are to discern false witnesses when settling a dispute before the Lord the God of Israel. Instead, it is the priests and elders intentionally seeking false witnesses against the chosen one of God. Those who are responsible for the temple bring forward false witnesses which accuse Jesus of threatening to destroy and rebuild the temple. Although this language is used in John’s gospel by Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus only points to the temple’s impending destruction. (24:2) Jesus’ only answer to the false witnesses and their accusations is silence.

The proceedings reach their climax when the high priest puts Jesus under oath before God to answer if he is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is an echo of Peter’s confession in 16:16 of Jesus’ identity, but Jesus only answers “You say (so)” which he uses throughout the passion narrative and then changes from the Messiah, Son of God title used by the high priest to the Son of Man title. As mentioned previously, the Son of Man is a title which is linked to the visions of Daniel, and Matthew allows us to hear Jesus quoting Daniel 7:13. To claim that Jesus is the messiah (king) and Son of God (also a kingly title, although Matthew uses it to point to something larger) places him as a political threat, but Jesus’ claim to identify with the Son of Man who comes to execute the judgment of the Lord of Israel on the nations is an even stronger claim to be linked with God’s will and power.

The high priest and later the entire Sanhedrin (council) declare Jesus has blasphemed. The irony in this passage is strong because they, in the view of the passage, are the ones who have failed to seek truth and have instead sought false witnesses. The high priest ironically asks Jesus to confess that he is who Peter confesses Jesus to be. The heavenly Father revealed this identity to Peter, but the high priest remains unenlightened and unable to see who the Son of Man is. Yet, the identification of Jesus as the Son of Man helps us to see that Matthew does not see Jesus’ upcoming crucifixion as a rejection of the Jewish people. Although the temple will be destroyed and the high priesthood will be lost, the Son of Man is a figure for regathering the elect (presumably both from Israel and the nations) from the four winds. (24:31)

Matthew may also be hearing Jesus in connection with the suffering servant of Isaiah. There is a resonance in the actions of the members of the Sanhedrin after the verdict and Isaiah 50:6:

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard, I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

Matthew never explicitly links Jesus to this figure of the suffering servant, but this figure may also be one of the many scriptural allusions that Matthew uses to attempt to explain who Jesus is and why Jesus’ death resonates with the scriptures. Regardless of whether Matthew makes this additional allusion, we have several of Jesus’ titles used throughout the gospel (Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man) being viewed as blasphemy by the religious leaders assembled at the household of Caiaphas. Just as these religious leaders ironically sought false witness, they also ironically speak the truth as they accuse and insult Jesus. Yet, those reading Matthew’s gospel are coming from a different understanding of blasphemy than the accusers of Jesus. For these religious leaders Jesus’ words and actions are a threat to the holiness of their society, but Jesus views these leaders as those who have been unfaithful sons, tenants, and unwilling guests of the wedding banquet. (21:28-22:14)

[1] The Greek hupereton is servants and not guards, the term can mean helper or assistant and can have religious or political implications, like an assistant in the synagogue or court, but not the implication of a guards whose presence is threatening in a physical sense.

[2] Although the gathering does occur physically in the household of Caiaphas, the Greek text does not have “in the house.” The NRSV adds this, and it does make the text a little easier to read, but the focus is on Caiaphas’ role rather than the location.

[3] False witness and testimony throughout this passage are the Greek psuedomarturos. Pseudo is still used in English (Pseudoscience) to denote something that is fake or lacking veracity. Martauros is where our English word ‘martyr’ comes from.


Can You Hear Me by

My scars sense the raw pain that you feel.

Although my wounds stitched themselves together,

They left faint traces that narrate the pain of the past

For those who draw close enough and look closely.

The scars remember the deep ache that discolored the skin.

Yet, deeper than physical wounds are the ones on the heart

The penetrating cuts of shattered hopes that pierce the soul.

The dreams of the past and the promise of the present

All turn to ash in the white-hot furnace of the abuse.

Sometimes the strong walls of home can’t keep the wolves outside the door

To survive in the midst of wolves you become a monster that they fear.

Yet, your own teeth began to terrify those whose embrace you desire.

You stare in disbelief at the scared, scarred animal you’ve become.

Your wounds learned to wound, tooth for tooth, claw for claw

But the wolves are quick and cunning and often just out of reach

And those who share your sanctuary may find themselves bleeding.

The pain can heal, if you can find a sanctuary from the wolves.

God knows, that isn’t easy, for they do love their hunt.

The wounds of body, spirit, soul and mind can slowly heal,

But you will bear the marks of this within you for your life.

Some nights the deep ache will reawaken in your nightmares.

You may still see the animalistic fear in the mirror long after the danger is gone.

Yet, in scars there can be the gift of seeing the pain that others ignore

Of feeling what others cannot feel, and of helping bind the wounds.

Helping one more human return to the world of humanity.

To rebuild the safety and security of the home that protects their beloved ones.

And perhaps, in a small way, helping heal the wound of the world

One scarred sister or one broken brother at a time.

Matthew 26: 47-56 The Handing Over of Jesus

The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) by Giotto di Bondone. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy between 1304 and 1306

Matthew 26: 47-56

Parallels Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

The eleven disciples failed to keep watch and presumably during the time of their slumber Judas departed and returned with this large and armed crowd to hand over Jesus into the custody of the chief priests. Judas has moved from disciple to ‘handing over one’[1] and as we saw earlier in the Lord’s Supper he no longer addresses Jesus as ‘Lord’, which is an address which indicates faith in Matthew’s gospel, but instead as ‘Rabbi. Also the term ‘friend’ in the gospel is not a term of closeness but rather a term of distance or formality when one has acted improperly.[2] What Jesus has announced several times has now occurred, he has been handed over to the custody of the chief priests and the ‘handing over one’ is one of the twelve.

There is a sense of parallel in this scene between the crowd and those with Jesus: the large crowd arrives armed with swords and clubs lead to their location by one of their own, but when this sword armed crowd lays hands on Jesus one of those with Jesus, presumably a disciple, lays his hand on his sword to strike. This follower of Jesus still meets violence with violence and has to be told to return his sword to its place. Jesus’ ministry has been pointing to another way: where lex talionis (an eye for an eye) is replaced by turning the other cheek and where even one’s enemies are to be loved. Jesus’ disciples are not to respond to violence with violence. Jesus will not respond to the sword with the sword, nor are his disciples to take the sword and be killed by the sword. Jesus does not yield to the temptation to summon the heavenly angelic armies in overwhelming numbers.[3] Although Matthew does not cite scripture, he understands Jesus’ arrest and upcoming death as a fulfillment of the scriptures.

Jesus’ followers have put away their swords, yet the crowd that came to confront them was armed for a fight. Jesus refuses to be the ‘bandit’ messiah who fights with sword and club, that instead becomes the modus operandi of the chief priests. Jesus was maligned as being associated with ‘sinners’ but now he is handed, at the behest of the religious leaders, into the hands of sinners. He spoke in the temple during the day, but his arrest comes away from the city in the dark of night.

The disciples desert him, despite their earlier protestations of faithfulness even to the point of death. Peter remains at a distance and the ‘handing over one’ will return to the priests, but the rest of the disciples fade into the darkness only to reemerge in the light of the resurrection. Yet, throughout this passage there is a sense of necessity, that it was necessary for things to occur in this manner. The disciples, the crowd, and even the high priests and the elders are caught up in something they are unable to comprehend.   

[1] This is the participle form of paradidomi which has been used throughout this section. Judas both in the gospel and beyond becomes defined by this action. He is the ‘handing over one’ or the betrayer.

[2] See Matthew 20:13, 22:12

[3] 12 legions would be three to four times the size of the Roman army stationed in Syria.

Matthew 26: 36-46 Jesus and the Disciples in the Hour of Testing

19th Century Ceramic from the Rosary and St. Martin Chapel in Bruley, France

Matthew 26: 36-46

Parallels Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;  the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Jesus grieves. God has often been described using Greek philosophical concepts or the enlightenment idea of a detached God, but the God of the scriptures grieves. Jesus does not embrace his upcoming death calmly, like the Greek teacher Socrates, nor is Jesus portrayed as a warrior motivated by honor. Contrary to the Stoics who attempted to live self-control, discipline, and modesty becoming free from passion through apatheia this is the narrative of the passion (pathos) which means it is a narrative of suffering.[1] The God who is with us in Jesus is not a detached God unable to feel but is the God of scriptures who grieves over the situation of the world and God’s people.[2] This window into Jesus’ emotional state and prayers at Gethsemane gives us a strong contrast to the view of the heroic in the Greco-Roman world and instead gives us a look at the life of Jesus and the Father who are wrapped up in the messiness and the suffering of the world.

Jesus has already indicated that he is soon to be handed over to the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders and has also indicated that his closest disciples will all be scandalized because of him and one of the twelve will hand him over to the chief priests. Even Peter, who has insisted he will die if necessary to remain faithful to Jesus, will prove not only to be one who denies that he even knows him but also one who is not strong enough to even keep watch. Jesus goes off alone to pray, but his prayers hang in the air of Gethsemane unanswered. Jesus still refers to God as my Father, but this is a time of testing. Jesus encounters the emotion that the disciples have felt when he has indicated that he would be handed over to the authorities. During their final meal, the disciples were greatly grieved and now Jesus begins to be grieved and distressed.[3] Jesus asks for there to be another way forward. Using the metaphor for the upcoming suffering as a cup that must be drunk, Jesus uses a common image in the psalms and prophets for both judgment and consolation for the people.[4] Yet Jesus subordinates his will to the will of the Father and the option of the cup passing without being drunk remains an unanswered petition.

Peter, James and John have been unable to keep watch, even for the first watch of an hour. They prove that they are not strong enough[5] even to fulfill this request of Jesus, and they are not ready for the time of testing.[6] Jesus encourages them to pray as they keep watch and departs a second time to pray. Only Matthew includes the words to the second petition to the Father, which continues the cup metaphor but indicates that if the contents of this cup must be consumed that Jesus will submit to the will of the Father. Jesus, upon seeing the disciples sleeping on watch again, releases them[7] and departs for a final prayer. This three fold repetition, familiar to those who have read through these reflections on Matthew’s gospel, completes the cycle of prayer and prepares us for the rapid transition to the handing over of Jesus. The transition is abrupt as the disciples are roused with the announcement that the hour has ‘come near/is at hand’ when the Son of Man is handed over into the hands of sinners. It is interesting that Jesus, often accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners[8] now turns the accusation towards those who are coming to take him into custody. The transition between the prayers at Gethsemane and the handing over of Jesus has come near with the approach of the disciple who will hand Jesus over.

For a different style of reflection upon this passage and the upcoming crucifixion narrative see my poem Golgotha.

[1] Pathos which is behind both the English word passion and its opposite, apathy, can mean suffering or experience or emotion. When referring to rhetoric pathos was to persuade by emotional means, but when referring to the passion (pathos) narrative it is referring to the primary meaning of suffering. This is also the root of the English word pathetic.

[2] See for example Genesis 6:6, Psalm 78:40, Isaiah 63:10

[3] In verse 22 the disciples are lupeo sphodra (greatly grieved) while here Jesus is  moulupeo kai ademoveo (grieved and distressed/anxious) in verse 37 and peripupos estin e psyche my eos thanatou  (deeply grieved, the psyche/soul of me being like death) in verse 38.

[4] There are too many examples to list all of them, but some representative passages would include: Psalm 75:8, Isaiah 51:17-21, Jeremiah 25:15-28, and Ezekiel 23:31-33.

[5] The Greek iskuo means being strong, powerful, or able and gregopeo means to keep watch. While the disciples do fall asleep, the Greek text focuses more on the disciples not being strong enough to fulfill their task of keeping watch.

[6] Periosmos is the same term used in Matthew 6:13 in the Lord’s prayer.

[7] Aphiemi is a common word in the gospels. It can mean let go, release, but also forgive which has an interesting resonance here.

[8] Matthew 9:10-13, 11:19

Reflections on The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 26: Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (1939)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

The Day of the Locust is a book that mocks the perfidious nature of Los Angeles in the 1930s. There is something in the tone of this book that reminds me of the writing of Flannery O’Connor: the ugliness of the characters and the desire to illustrate the worst characterization of reality. I can see why people enjoy this work, but it is not something I would choose to read. There is something almost postmodern in the work’s desire to choose the absurd as a focus of art, the medium is used to mock the message. Perhaps it is appropriate that throughout the book the primary narrator is working on a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles.”

Tod, the primary character in the book, spends much of the book lusting over his neighbor Faye, but his primary desire throughout the book is to rape her, not to cultivate a relationship with her. Tod, like the author apparently, is bent on exposing her as a representative of all that is fake in Hollywood, along with her multiple relationships and some of the absurd situations. The orientation of Tod towards Faye, which continues throughout the book, was a major deterrent from being able to enjoy the work. Each character is a crude stereotype of various groups, and while this may be faithful to the way people in the 1930s viewed other groups, and perhaps it is to shine a light on this part of society, to read this book for me was to enter into characters that I couldn’t find anything redemptive in a slow-moving plot full of absurdity. It is a story of people caught in their ideas of themselves and never finding anything real, but the book itself seemed very contrived and fake to me. Others have found this work very powerful and delightful, so please make your own decisions, these brief reflections are merely a collection of my thoughts on each work.

Matthew 26:31-35 Scandalized and Scattered Disciples

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 26: 31-35

Parallel Mark 14:27-31; Luke 22:31-34

31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

32 But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” 33 Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” 35 Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.

The people of God throughout the scriptures have struggled to live as a community faithful to the covenant that they have been invited into. The disciples will continue this pattern during this time where the symbolic action at the Passover meal now become realized in the scandalous crucifixion of their Lord. Even Peter, for all his bold declarations, will continue to be a ‘little faith one’ who doubts, denies, and is unable to bear even the burden of staying awake with Jesus while he prays. Yet, for Matthew, the events that surround the life of Jesus are illustrated in the scriptures of Israel in predictive ways. The scattering of the scandalized disciples when their shepherd is taken from them echoes the relationship between God and God’s people in scripture, and these resonances help wrap the crucifixion narrative in the larger story of God’s relationship with God’s people and the rest of creation.

Many Christians are familiar with God and Jesus being identified as being the faithful or good shepherd of the flock. Psalm 23 may be the most familiar of these images, along with John 10 where Jesus is the good shepherd. Also resonant here is Ezekiel 34, where Israel has been cared for by unfaithful shepherds (leaders) and so God takes on the role of the true shepherd to seek out the scattered sheep. But here, Matthew, like Mark, quotes Zechariah 13:7:

Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.

In Zechariah, the one struck is close to God, and the scattering of the sheep is because of the shepherd being lost rather than due to the unfaithfulness of previous shepherds. The words of Zechariah now become an explanation for the sheep of the shepherd[1] being scattered. David Garland catches the language of this passage, and its connection with previous imagery in the gospel, well when he states:

They will all be “scandalized” and “scattered” when their shepherd is struck. As Judas has succumbed to the lure of wealth like the seed choked by thorns (13:22), the other disciples will wilt at the first sign of persecution like the seed that landed in rocky soil. (Garland 2001, 255)

With the sudden removal of Jesus, the disciples will become ‘scandalized in’ Jesus[2] and there is within the senseless horror of the upcoming crucifixion as sense, for the gospels, of God’s active direction of this action for the sake of the sheep. Even here the prediction of the disciples’ scandalization because of Jesus’ apprehension, trial, and crucifixion is the promise of his being ‘raised up’ and going ahead of them to Galilee. The scattering of the shepherd’s flock will be followed by their regathering where the flock was initially gathered in Galilee.

Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, do not want to accept that they will be ‘scandalized’ and ‘scattered’ so easily. Peter even claims that even if it is necessary for him to die with Jesus, he will not be scandalized by him, but Jesus replies that this night he will deny him three times. Even though the disciples might seem like seeds that spring up quickly and wilt at the first sign of persecution, they are caught up in a story that is larger than themselves. Their scandalization and scattering are not final and their inability to maintain the level of steadfastness they expect of themselves is not a disqualification from being a part of what God is doing in this scene. They will be regathered together under their shepherd at the end to be led out into the rest of the world.

[1] In Greek the expression is ‘sheep of the shepherd’ rather than ‘sheep of the flock’ as the NRSV interprets. The meaning is ultimately the same.

[2] The Greek scandalize returns here in a passive form. NRSV translates this ‘become deserters.’ Scandalizo is frequently translated ‘stumbling block’ or ‘fall away’ but it is where our English word scandalize comes from. The prepositional phrase en emoi (in me) may seem a little strange in English, which is probably why most translations render this ‘because of me’

Matthew 26:17-30 The Covenant Meal

Mosaic from the Cathedral in Monreale, Photo by Sibeaster shared as public domain

Matthew 26: 17-30

Parallel Mark 14: 12-26, Luke 22:7-23

 17 On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. 20 When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; 21 and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” 25 Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of thecovenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

30 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

The basic story of the Lord’s supper is one of the most frequently heard narratives in churches that regularly celebrate communion, but sometimes that familiarity can make hearing the particularities of Matthew’s narration of this meal challenging. Most churches use a conglomeration of the language of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians in their words of institution, and other than the introducing the words occurring ‘in the night in which he was betrayed’ we often overlook the prediction of Jesus’ upcoming betrayal and the denial by the disciples. Matthew also grounds the language of this celebration in the Jewish language of covenant and the connection with the celebration of Passover heightens this covenantal understanding in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew begins the story in a more abbreviated manner than the other gospels, but also focuses his narration on particular elements. Only Matthew brings both Greek concepts of time into the beginning of this scene. While Matthew, along with the other gospels, uses chronological time to state when this story occurs in relation to the Passover celebration on the calendar, Matthew also uses the Greek idea of kairos[1] in the information the disciples are to give to a certain man who Jesus will celebrate Passover with. Matthew’s narration also gives the impression that Jesus will be celebrating with the man along with his disciples.[2] Matthew omits the manner in which the disciples identify which ‘certain man’ they will approach, but the title they are instructed to use for Jesus with this man indicate he is probably not a person whose faith understands who he is dining with. Although Jesus has stated previously that the disciples ‘have one teacher, and they are all brothers’ (23:8) normally the address of Jesus as teacher indicates either a perspective without faith.[3]

In the evening Jesus arrives to the Passover celebration which has been prepared and reclines[4] with the twelve at the meal. During the meal Jesus announces that one of the twelve will ‘hand him over’[5] The disciples have previously been distressed when Jesus announced his ‘being handed over’ but the information that one of the twelve will be the one responsible for this causes them great distress or excessive grief and they each respond with a strong denial which expects a negative response the “Not I being (the one), Lord?” Note the title used by the eleven disciples in contrast to Judas’, “Not I being (the one), Rabbi?”[6] Throughout Matthew, those who respond to Jesus appropriately almost always address him as Lord. Jesus’ response to Judas will be identical to his later response to Caiaphas and Pilate, “You said (so).” Jesus returns to his favored ‘Son of Man’ title when he indicates he will go ‘as it has been written’ while at the same time declaring ‘woe’ on the one who is the agent of handing the Son of Man over. Woe was used previously in the ‘seven woes’ directed towards the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, and now Judas in aligning with those opposed to Jesus finds himself as one under the same sentence as these Pharisees and scribes who, in Matthew’s view, are leading people astray.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul all narrate the words around the bread and cup in a similar way, focusing on the bread as the body and the wine as the blood of the covenant. Matthew’s unique addition to this formula is that this blood of the covenant is for the forgiveness of sins. For Matthew, Jesus’ narrated mission spoken by the angel of the Lord is, “that he will save his people from their sins.” (1:21) We now see Matthew narrating what this forgiveness of sins will look like, and what a renewed covenant with their God will look like. At the beginning of Matthew, the announcement of Jesus’ vocation saving people from their sins immediately follows the genealogy which demonstrates their position as a people in exile awaiting deliverance. As the gospel concludes the reintroduction of the forgiveness/releasing many from their sins invites us to understand the crucifixion in the framework of the renewal of the covenant between God and the people

The language of ‘the blood of the covenant’ first emerges in relation to the people of Israel in Exodus 24 when Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel meet on behalf of the people and Moses offers an offering and cast the blood of the offering upon them to mark the covenant relationship that the people of Israel had agreed to with the LORD God.  During the Exodus narrative after the people are sprinkled with the blood of the covenant, Moses and the leaders are invited to dine with God on the mountain. (Exodus 24:9-11) The image of the blood of the covenant is also echoes in Zechariah:

As for you also, because of the blood of the covenant with you, I will set you prisoners free, O prisoners of hope. Zechariah 9:11

For the prophets, the renewal of the covenant will bring about the end of the exile and a renewed relationship between the people and their God. In the Exodus God brought the people out of Egypt to be something new and marked that relationship with the covenant. In the exile the prophets dreamed of a renewed covenant with God that brought about the end of the exile, and here this new covenant will emerge in a world dominated by Rome.

Blood coming upon the people can be both judgment and forgiveness. Previously in Matthew 23, in the seven woes against the scribe and Pharisees, the blood of the prophets testified against them:

so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Amen, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. (23:35-36)

Judas will later despair of handing over innocent blood (27:4) which leads him to hang himself. Those who innocent blood testifies against find themselves in a state of woe. Yet, blood here also releases/forgives sin and the practice of sharing the bread and wine in the context of the Passover meal echoes the claim of God’s action to gather together the covenant people. Sin and debt are often held together in Matthew and this also echoes both the release from debts in the Jubilee practice of Leviticus 25 and the remission of debts in Deuteronomy 15. The multiple echoes and rich imagery of this scene existed before the church began to think liturgically and theologically about the practice of communion, but an examination of these themes can enrich both the practice and beliefs practice within communities. The practice of celebrating this meal in the church enacts covenantal relationship between God and God’s people and links the church’s action and life to the life and practices of the people of Israel. The language suggests that Matthew understands Jesus’ actions here framing Jesus’ upcoming death on the cross as a sacrificial offering that seals a new covenant relationship between God and God’s people. Just as Moses and the chief men ate and drank in the presence of God, now the disciples are (unaware) invited to dine in the presence of the ‘God who is with us’.[7] This also invites us to reconsider the traditional interpretation of Mathew 27:45 where the people ask for “his blood to come upon us.” Matthew as the most Jewish gospel, I believe, is preparing us to consider:

deeper intentionality at work here, not the intentionality of the hostile, fickle crowd, but the intentionality of the God who has sent Jesus to the lost sheep of Israel. (Hays 2016, 135)

One of the gifts of studying Matthew’s gospel is the way that listening closely continues to unlock new resonance and depth in the narration of Jesus’ life and teaching. The twelve original disciples have frequently misunderstood Jesus and have demonstrated themselves to be ‘little faith ones’ who do not fully grasp everything happening in the moment. Yet, they are continually invited to learn in participating with Jesus in these moments which will define the experience of what it means to be followers of Christ as they later begin to form communities that can practice and learn and reflect upon their faith which allows them to see what God is doing in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

[1] The Greek concept of kairos is the concept of ‘appointed’ specifically in Biblical though ‘divinely appointed’ time in contrast to chronos (chronological) time which is the time measured in hours and days on clocks and calendars.

[2] Matthew’s sparce narration of this scene Jesus’ instructions state ‘to/toward you to make the Passover with my disciples.” When translations state ‘at your house’ they are harmonizing with Mark and Luke.

[3] See for example Matthew 8:19, 9:11, 10:24-25, 12:38, 17:24, 19:16, 22:15-40

[4] Dining in this context was done ‘reclining at the table’ with tables lower to the ground, rather than sitting elevated in chairs like most modern people assume.

[5] This is the Greek paradidomi which occurs frequently throughout the passion narrative.

[6] Rabbi was previously used in 23:8-9 as a title used by the Pharisees and not to be used by the disciples, it is also used by Judas in 26:48 when he hands Jesus over.

[7] Matthew’s gospel is bracketed by the claim of Jesus as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ and as we’ve seen throughout this investigation this theme emerges at multiple points in the echoes and language choices of the gospel.