Matthew 27: 32-55 The Crucifixion of Jesus

Reproduction of Carl Heinrich Bloch’s, Christ on the Cross (1870)

Matthew 27: 32-55

32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided[1]him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself.He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.'” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole landuntil three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Matthew’s description of the crucifixion resonates with the poetic language of the Hebrew Scriptures which help provide words that begin to make sense of the seemingly senseless violence committed against Jesus. Matthew wants the hearer of this narrative to understand something larger than the death of an innocent man is occurring here. Matthew is not looking to provide a theological explanation of the cross or an apologetic for a crucified Messiah. Instead, Matthew narrates the scene with the language of lament in the Psalms and Lamentations hovering in the background providing a rich set of words to bear witness to the moment as scripture and all of creation responds to the death of Jesus who is sentenced to die as the King of the Jews.

Jesus, perhaps weakened excessively by the flogging which was mentioned as a passing comment in verse 26, does not carry his own cross, instead Simon of Cyrene is compelled to take up Jesus’ cross. Matthew deletes the relationship of Simon to Alexander and Rufus which is present in Mark’s gospel and these names probably do not have connection to Matthew’s community. What is significant in Matthew’s narration that Simon of Cyrene is there to take up the cross of Jesus while Simon renamed Peter is absent. Peter and the remainder of the 11 male disciples are absent from this scene and have been unable to pick up their crosses in this moment. Even if Jesus is not physically unable to carry the cross, the transferring of the cross to Simon of Cyrene may be another way to humiliate Jesus by mocking him for weakness.

On arriving at Golgotha, Matthew now indicates Jesus is given wine mixed with gall to drink. The change from myrrh in Mark to gall in Matthew brings about two changes. First, as M. Eugene Boring can state, “Mark’s helpful narcotic becomes in Matthew a cruel joke.” (NIB VIII:490) and while it is one more humiliation in the process of crucifixion it also now echoes Psalm 69:21: “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they give me vinegar to drink.”[2] Psalm 69 is one of the lament psalms calling on God to answer the petitioner in the midst of persecution by one’s enemies, and these psalms move beyond the polite language of a worship space to the vulnerable cry for help in the midst of trouble. Perhaps in hearing in the crucifixion echoes of the Psalms of lament, Matthew is helping his community to access these powerful cries out for God’s action in the midst of persecution.

The following sentence introduces us to the dominant echo throughout the crucifixion scene, Psalm 22. The act of crucifying Jesus is merely referred to as a comment, but then the act of dividing clothing echoes Psalm 22:18: “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” A common question, that cannot be answered historically, is whether Matthew (and Mark) are bringing the narration of the crucifixion to echo Psalm 22, and for Matthew Psalm 69, because they are looking for a scriptural citation or whether the events themselves resonate strongly with the wording of these psalms which provide familiar phrases which help the author describe the event. My own opinion is that Matthew views the world in light of the imagery of scripture and as a scribe trained in the ways of the kingdom of heaven, he goes into the rich storehouse of scriptural images pulling out these treasured words which help him to adequately narrate this pivotal event in the story of Jesus.

The charge against Jesus, that he is ‘the King of the Jews,’ indicate that Rome mocks him as a political threat to the power of Pilate and, by extension, Rome. Jesus is just one more ‘messianic pretender’ in Rome’s view who continues to fan the flames of the rebellious elements of the population who are looking for God’s intervention through a kingly figure to end Rome’s imperial rule over Jerusalem and the provinces that once were the kingdom of Israel. For Matthew the identity of Jesus as the Son of David, Son of God and the Messiah/Christ are important to understanding Jesus, but the manner in which Jesus embodies each of these titles is more important than the title itself. Jesus is not the Christ/Messiah that many, even some of his own disciples, are expecting. The charge against Jesus ironically will echo many of the claims of Matthew’s gospel, but those terms have to be oriented around the life and words of Jesus.

Throughout the gospel of Matthew we have seen what Rowan Williams would describe as a “reorganization of religious language,” or Richard B. Hays would argue is a “’transfiguration,’ with emphasis on the figural dimension of Matthew’s interpretive vision.” (Hays 2016, 187) Matthew continues to pull together images from throughout the Hebrew Scriptures which both, in Matthew’s view, prefigure the events of Christ’s life but also are read in new, and often surprising ways, in light of the witness of Christ’s life. The plethora of imagery and scriptural references may be overwhelming for some readers, and many readers will engage the narrative without catching all the echoes in Matthew. Yet, Matthew in his transfiguration of the religious language of the Hebrew Scriptures is attempting to train new followers how to read the scriptures through the lens of the encounter with the God who is with us in Jesus.

The presence of the two bandits who are crucified on his left and right again call attention to the absence of his disciples, this time John and James the sons of Zebedee. In 20:20-23 the mother of James and John boldly comes to Jesus asking for her sons to occupy the place at the right and left when Jesus comes into his kingdom. James and John state they are able to drink the cup that Jesus will drink, but as the new covenant is initiated by his blood James and John are absent while two bandits who taunt Jesus, like the surrounding crowds and the chief priests and elders, now occupy the positions they claimed to be able to fill. Like Simon of Cyrene these two unnamed bandits now occupy the spots left vacant as the male disciples of Jesus fled after Jesus was handed over to the chief priests.

Matthew loves patterns of three, and this continues with the three groups that mock Jesus while ironically bearing witness to scripture’s witness to Jesus. First the passersby blaspheme Jesus, and the action of blaspheming Jesus while ‘wag their heads’ echoes Lamentations 2:15-16

All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; the hiss and wag their heads at daughter Jerusalem; “Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?” All your enemies open their mouths against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: “We have devoured her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; at last we have seen it!”

Now the language that lamented, in Lamentation’s poetry, the destruction of Jerusalem in now applied to the death of Jesus and in a daring reframing on this language ‘those who pass along the way’ are the people of Jerusalem who mock the one who is now standing in their stead. Also standing in the background in Psalm 22 which continues to echo throughout this section. In both the taunts of the ones passing by and the chief priests, scribes and elders:

All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in who he delights!” Psalm 22; 7-8

 Just as the passersby and the leaders are now recast to be those who rejoice over Jerusalem’s destruction (Lamentations) or the suffering of the righteous one (Psalm 22) they also echo Satan in the temptations. (4:1-11) Once Jesus was accused of being in league with Beelzebul by the Pharisees, (12:22-32) now Matthew places the mocking words when Satan challenged Jesus to come down from the temple are echoed by these leaders calling on him to come down from the cross. They continue to blaspheme the activity of the Spirit of God through Jesus, and they unknowingly find themselves echoing the demonic forces they once accused Jesus of being in league with.

The cry of Jesus from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” again echoes Psalm 22:1. The misunderstanding of the cry for Elijah is smoothed over by Matthew’s transliteration of the Hebrew ‘Eloi’ to a closer approximation of Elijah in Greek. Although Matthew may be the most Jewish of the gospels he is writing for a Greek speaking audience. Matthew has continually used the Greek Septuagint as his scriptural reference. We don’t know if Matthew had access to Hebrew scrolls of the scriptures or whether members in his community spoke in Hebrew, but his continued referencing of Greek and smoothing out of Hebrew words used in Mark indicates that the gospel was written to be spread through the Greek speaking world.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel Jesus has referred to himself as the Son of Man, and one of the expectations of the time was that Elijah would appear again to herald the Son of Man. Matthew understands that John the Baptist fulfilled this roll, but some of those at the cross understand this cry of desperation directed to God as an appeal for Elijah to come and initiate the coming of the kingdom of Heaven. There may be mixed opinions in the crowd, some may be continuing to mock Jesus as he remains on the cross, while others may have enough hope for the kingdom of heaven that they may be open to possibility of Elijah’s sudden appearance and vindication of Jesus’ claims. If they entertained a hope that Elijah would be the one to come and rescue Jesus, they are disappointed when he breathes his last without the prophet’s return. But this one sign that does not materialize as the crowd hopes, just like Jesus’ inability, or unwillingness, to come down from the cross, are not the only signs that point to what is occurring in this crucifixion.

Matthew wants his readers to understand that in the death of Christ they are witnessing a cosmic event. The heavens react to the crucifixion of the one who proclaimed the kingdom of heaven by becoming darkened for three hours while Jesus remains on the cross. The earth react to the death of the Son of Man by shaking and breaking open. The temple reacts to the death of the one who is ‘God with us’ by the veil of the temple which separates the Holy of Holies from the remainder of the temple is rent from top to bottom. Even the dead react as the Lord of life dies, and they emerge from their broken tombs to bear witness to many in the city. Even Rome’s emissary at the crucifixion can observe the signs at the death of the King of the Jews and declare, now without irony, “Truly[3] this man was God’s Son!”

The male disciples of Jesus are not present at the crucifixion, but women who had followed him from Galilee are. Although James and John are not present on the right and the left of Jesus, their mother is there looking on from a distance along with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Many people assume that Matthew, being the most Jewish gospel, by definition adopts a patriarchal and hierarchical attitude towards women, but the text of Matthew’s gospel points to a different reality for the women who were in proximity to Jesus. Matthew has included women, particularly women of questionable character in a patriarchal worldview, in the genealogy of Jesus, is the only gospel to portray women reclining at the table with Jesus and in Matthean church gatherings, often matches a masculine parable with a feminine parable, can commend a Canaanite woman as the example of ‘great faith’ in the gospel, and commend the activity of the woman who anoints him at the meal in Bethany as one whose good dead will be told in remembrance of her. (Corley 1993, 147-179) These women who have followed Jesus,[4]now take their place at the crucifixion in the absence of the male disciples. These women who have also been present at the table with Jesus, who have heard his words and seen his actions now bear witness to the crucifixion. These women disciples will also be the first to hear the message of the resurrection and will be charged with carrying this message to the male disciples to regather them to encounter the risen Christ in Galilee.

[1] Literally blasphemed (Greek blasphemeo) same word as in 26:65

[2] The connection is stronger in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible that Matthew quotes). The numbering in the Septuagint is slightly different than the Masoretic text (Hebrew) which English translations are based on. In Greek the Psalm reads, “And they gave gall in my food and for my thirst they gave me sour wine.”

[3] Frequently behind the word truly in Matthew is the Hebrew word amen, but here the Centurion uses the Greek altheia which is makes sense in the narrative since the Centurion would likely not be a Hebrew speaker.

[4] Had followed is the Greek akoloutheo which is often in Matthew a technical term for the activity of disciples. (Corley 1993, 173)

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