Parallel Mark 15: 6-20; Luke 23: 17-23; John 18:39-40, 19:1-3
15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called JesusBarabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, JesusBarabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood;see to it yourselves.” 25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters,and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
The crowds and the soldiers are unable to accept Jesus’ identity but this scene continues the pattern of individuals and groups ironically bearing witness to the truth of who Jesus is. A reader who approaches with a faith that is open to Jesus’ identity will hear in this series of encounters between Pilate, the people, and the soldiers with Jesus will hear a deeper meaning behind the words and actions of the people who desire Jesus’ death. Examining Matthew’s narration of this scene immediately before the crucifixion it is helpful to look at not only the intended impact of the words and actions by both those acting on behalf of Rome and those acting on behalf of Jerusalem but the theological resonance of those words and actions within the symbolic world of Matthew’s gospel. By looking at both we can see how the most Jewish of the gospels could utter words that were used for millenia as an excuse for the persecution of the Jewish people and to reexamine how Matthew intended for the hearer of his gospel to hear these words and interpret these actions.
Although all four gospels narrate that the people ask for the release of Barabbas, several early versions of Matthew’s gospel include that Barabbas is also named Jesus. There is a choice between two men called Jesus, one called the Christ or Messiah and one called Barabbas ‘son of a father.’ One is a notorious criminal and the other, in Matthew’s view, is innocent and righteous. Barabbas is likely a person whose violent actions have been against Roman forces but we don’t have any information beyond the gospels. Matthew calls Barabbas a notorious criminal, Mark and Luke include that he was a rebel who committed murder during the insurrection and John simply call Barabbas a robber or bandit. Despite the resonance in name and titles, the people choose the wrong Jesus to be released. The guilty man goes free at the crowd’s demand and the innocent man suffers and dies.
Only Matthew’s gospel gives us an insight into the conversation between Pilate and his wife who reports that she has suffered because of a dream about Jesus. While it is unlikely that the author of Matthew would have insight into the personal life of Pilate and his wife, the addition does continue to reinforce the message of Jesus’ innocence. Even Pilate, in Matthew, will reinforce the innocence of Jesus by asking what evil he has done. Perhaps the choice between the notorious Barabbas and Jesus was a genuine attempt to sway the crowd to accept the lesser threat of Jesus called Christ, but the little we know of Pilate from Josephus and the Gospels in addition to his long term as the Roman procurator over Judea indicate he was a shrewd if sometimes brutal administrator. Yet, Pilate’s actions demonstrate a political conception of justice that has little to do with innocence of guilt and is primarily concerned with maintaining the interests of the empire which benefits from a peaceful and subdued population. As Warren Carter can memorably state we have a case of “Roman justice all washed up.” (Carter 2001, 145)
A reader with an attentive ear to the Hebrew Scriptures will also hear an echo of Deuteronomy in Pilate’s action of washing his hands to attempt to absolve himself of responsibility in the crucifixion of Jesus. As mentioned previously the concept of bloodguilt is very important in Deuteronomy and here, as happens frequently in Matthew’s gospel, it is an outsider who models something (even if imperfectly) while the leaders among the covenant people do not. Deuteronomy 21: 1-9 deals with how a community is to deal with an unsolved death that occurs near a town. In the event that justice can not be rendered to the dead person because the guilty party remains unknown:
All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken by the wadi, and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. Deuteronomy 21:6-8
Instead of the elders in Jerusalem attempting to purify themselves ritually of innocent blood that will be shed, it is Pilate’s action which more closely models a concern for blood guilt. Yet, Pilate cannot separate himself from the responsibility of a death which his soldiers will preside over. Nor is there the breaking of the heifer’s neck as an act of atonement by the community and the priests are the one encouraging the people to call for the release of a notorious criminal and for the death of innocent blood. Of course, the provisions in Deuteronomy would only apply to an unsolvable death and what occurs here is a public execution.
Only Matthew’s gospel has the line which has often been used to label the Jewish people as ‘Christ killers’: “His blood be on us and on our children!” As I have mentioned frequently Matthew’s gospel is the most Jewish of the gospels, and yet through the history of the church it has also been used to justify the persecution of the Jewish people and religion. Even though Matthew’s community may wonder at the lack of faith exhibited by the people in Judea and the Jewish people throughout the diaspora I doubt Matthew intends for these words to demonstrate a permanent breach between the covenant people and their God. I think it is important to slow down with these words because they have such a long history of use in ways harmful to the covenant people of God and attempt to understand what Matthew intended the message of these words to be. To explore this I will bring up three interlocking perspectives: listening to the resonance of these words with the Hebrew Scriptures, looking at the historical context and looking at the structural clues of how these words resonate within Matthew’s gospel.
One critical passage of the law which echoes throughout the scriptures is called the thirteen attributes. This list, which appears fourteen times in scripture and is echoed in many others places, (Myers 2005, 264) first appears in Exodus 34:
The LORD, The LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34: 6-7
This familiar passage, which occurs for the first time in the aftermath of the Golden Calf, is the identity that God chooses as God renews the broken covenant with the people of Israel. Actions continue to have consequences, consequences which may impact generations to come, but God’s steadfast love and faithfulness endure long beyond those consequences. Yet, scripturally, the limit to the consequences is the third and fourth generations.
Historically, Matthew’s gospel is probably written after the Jewish War of 70 C.E. where the city of Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed. Matthew probably understands the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and people being connected with the destruction of that time. These words and others in Matthew’s gospel may help his community to make sense in the midst of the trauma of this war and the dislocation of many early Christians from Judea and Galilee because of this conflict. This conflict which takes place approximately forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus would fit within the timeframe of the third and fourth generation.
Matthew does not consider the crucifixion the end of the story, and I do not believe that Matthew considers the destruction of the Jewish war as the end of the story between God and the covenant people. From the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we have heard the story of Jesus as a Jewish story that is connected to the story of the nations, and yet, as the angel tells Joseph in Matthew 1:22, “he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew strengthens this linkage in the Lord’s Supper when he speaks of the cup saying, “for this is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” It is likely that Matthew, who so frequently weaves in both explicit and implicit references to the scriptures, expects his hearers to hear a connection between the blood of the new covenant poured out for many and the blood called for here. Just as Moses anointed the people with the blood of the covenant at the giving of the law in Exodus 24:6-8, now ironically something similar is happening with the new covenant. As Richard B. Hays can state:
But as readers we may wonder whether there is a 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 the house of Israel. (Hays 2016, 135)
Although many Christians throughout history attempted to turn the LORD the God of Israel into a God who visits iniquity for a thousand generations on the Jewish people, a God whose steadfast love and faithfulness no longer available to them, we are finally seeing a reevaluation of this in the aftermath of the Holocaust. There have been a number of theological attempts to reconcile the continuing presence of a Jewish community who remains unable to see Jesus as anything more than a teacher or a prophet, but perhaps Matthew’s option is to understand that these words may not be primarily about bringing bloodguilt upon themselves but instead is about cleansing, binding the covenant, and forgiveness of sins. Perhaps Pilate, in attempting to avoid bloodguilt, also avoids this cleansing, forgiveness and sealing of the covenant that Matthew may see occurring here.
The scene transitions abruptly as Pilate flogs and hands over Jesus to be crucified. Crucifixion in the Roman world is about killing both the person and their reputation. The attempt to destroy Jesus’ reputation began in the trial in the courtyard of Caiaphas and now continues with the mocking of the soldiers. These actions which mockingly imitate the dress and bearing of a king are used to ridicule the title of Christ/Messiah, or as the charge placed on the cross will read ‘King of the Jews.’ Yet, the soldiers are just the latest to witness to the truth even in their mocking of Jesus. The hearers of Matthew’s gospel would understand Jesus as one who is worthy to wear a robe, crown, and scepter and yet these soldiers are a part of the cruel mockery of Jesus which is intended to rob him of his reputation and honor as well as his life.
Perhaps it also illustrates something of the respective societies about the off hand way in which Matthew narrates the flogging and handing over for crucifixion of Jesus. Many cinematographers have focused heavily on the flogging and have given comparatively little time to the actual crucifixion, but Matthew merely as an afterthought can state, “after flogging Jesus.” In the ancient world flogging, and crucifixion for that matter, were known actions that were done intentionally in the public space to draw attention to the consequences of actions against those in authority. Although a person familiar with the action of crucifixion may wonder if the person flogging Jesus was a little too effective since his time on the cross was relatively short prior to death, Matthew is not concerned with this and is more concerned with the something larger that is happening in the humiliation and death of the innocent one Jesus who is called the Christ.
 Faith throughout Matthew’s gospel is an awareness or openness to the presence and power of the God of Israel working in and through Jesus and the approaching kingdom of heaven.
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