Matthew’s silent suffering Jesus

Frances writes :- I intend to focus simply on the shortened form of the Gospel for this coming Sunday,  (Matthew 27:11-54) rather than on all three Readings, though I hope you will be able to pick up hints of our Reading from Philippians (2:6-11) on the self-emptying of God the Son. I do this because this is where I think our concentration should be fixed at this time, and because it will take us into the great epic of the Triduum.

Throughout Matthew’s story of the Passion, Jesus is strangely silent. He is silent before his Jewish interlocutors and before Pilate; and this is also what we find throughout the crucifixion, and something we will not find when we read through the account by John.  We need to get to grips with why this should be, what Matthew’s purpose is in this particular presentation of Jesus. Our year’s Readings through this Gospel have shown us a vibrant, active Jesus, one who performed miracles and taught his followers at length; and one moreover frequently engaged in lengthy and often acrimonious argument with the scribes and Pharisees and those who controlled the temple, the Sadducees. Matthew’s Gospel is in fact an account of Our Lord’s intense desire to convince Judaism of his veracity, of his being the longed for Saviour of the nation so many were looking for; and of course it is also about his failure to achieve this aim. We must remember that Matthew was writing his recollections of Jesus in the 80’s CE, in the aftermath of the failed Jewish Civil War and the great Revolt against the Romans. Our Gospel might easily have been titled ‘Israel’s covenant with death’, since Matthew will write it in the bitterness and deep pain of a people, his nation, who had missed this heaven-sent opportunity to align itself forever with God their Saviour and Redeemer; and who are now doomed to lasting shame and failure. It might well be a comment on the present state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

And so, and rightly, Jesus is silent before the Jews (the first part of the Passion) and silent as we see before Pilate. He could well have argued his case, but he knows it is pointless; and as we witness, Pilate is fighting his own battle to control a volatile crowd, and surrenders Jesus to avoid a riot; and in a quite deliberate definition of this act releases a known robber and murderer to the willing crowd. Everything that could be said has been said. All Jesus can do now is die as Saviour of the world; and as is equally fitting, he will remain silent, as he did at the betrayal by Peter, and now under the cruel, degrading and excruciatingly painful treatment of the soldiers.

Before a prisoner was crucified, it was common for them to be ‘softened-up’ by the mockery and brutality of the Roman soldiers. Matthew goes into this at some length, though we should note that the Greek speaks of ‘mockery’ and not the curious Jerusalem Bible translation ‘fun’. We are told that an entire cohort, that is 500 soldiers, take part in this exercise, and as with so much military training, it was designed deliberately as a group exercise, hardening-up the men, enabling them by their pack behaviour to lose identity and responsibility for their brutality. Jesus was scourged, that exquisitely descriptive Greek word, fragello – to rip apart. All this takes place in the Roman Praetorium, so defiled territory for a Jew, and he is stripped naked, something no Jew would ever endure, as bodily decency was part of the Torah, and quintessential for good behaviour. Dressed in a common Roman soldier’s cloak, he was mocked as king with a crown of long, sharp thorns thrust on his head and then, thoroughly debilitated by this treatment, he was dragged off to crucifixion.  Small wonder that the soldiers compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross, without him Jesus might well just have succumbed along the way

Matthew glosses over the actual nailing to the cross. Perhaps it was just too terrible, and remarks instead on the drugged wine prisoners were given to drink, recalling Jesus’ refusal of the drug; and he goes back to the description of the parcelling out of the clothing of the condemned, a perk of the trade. Jesus dies totally naked, exposed and shamed for all to see. So we are deliberately presented with a picture of Jesus throughout this Gospel as one utterly alone, abused and mocked by all, deserted by his friends, and made to appear very small and helpless in the face of the treatment by the Jews and by the great Roman war machine. The Roman army was huge by this time, and with a few notable exceptions, did not engage in many wars; so events like a crucifixion were seen as good ‘training’ exercises, designed to keep the troops up to scratch. We do have a few tiny flickers of relief in this story, but, unlike other Gospels, with Luke’s good thief and John’s prominent women and the giving of his mother into the care of John, they all come from pagans: Pilate’s wife’s tiny and futile interjection, and then at the death, the acclaim, again by pagans, of Jesus’ identity. But as is fitting for this Gospel, it is a staggeringly bleak picture. What we do have however are the last earthly word of Jesus’ taken from Psalm 22 with it’s grief but certain trust in God, the only one who will hear the cry of the desolate. What we also have is the answer the cosmos makes at this death, and the ripping of the great temple curtain separating the crowds from the Holy of Holies. His friends may have deserted him, his enemies done their worst; but God in his temple has responded with his answer, the downing of any veil between God and humanity, the exposure of the divine eternally to human gaze. Moreover, the universe has made its great growl of anguish in the seismological action, action which would have spoken volumes to men and women with no knowledge of earth-creating actions, and who would immediately have understood this as the action of the divine. Matthew then speaks of multiple resurrections, heralding the God/man whom no one, neither Romans, nor Jewish hierarchy, nor hostile crowds, nor faithless friends can contain. “In truth this was a son of God.”