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’

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