Monday, 17 March 2008

Matthew 28 Women witnesses to the resurrection

All four gospels are agreed that women went first to the tomb of the first day of the week and discovered the tomb to be empty. The plausibility of Mark’s account that they went to complete the embalmment of the body has long been questioned. Indeed Mark himself has the women question the viability of it. Matthew suggests that the women simply came to visit the tomb. The desire to visit the last resting place of a friend is a powerful motive in almost any culture. No other motive need be postulated. However, there developed a tradition in Judaism whereby the tomb was watched for three days to stay with the dead person until the soul left the body. When this became a traditional and habitual practice is disputed. But recent evidence seems to suggest that the practice went back to the 1st century CE and continued up to the Byzantine era. The women, then, go to watch over the tomb. Matthew’s account seems to suggest, also, that they went as soon as the Sabbath was over: that is at the first opportunity. They therefore form the counter witness to the false witness of the guards who had specifically been placed to watch over the tomb – not in mourning or in fulfilment of traditional burial procedure, but for reasons of security. It seems that may have even witnessed the earthquake and the descent of the angel and his rolling away the stone.
The main difference in Matthew’s account from that of Mark is that just as the women were leaving the tomb, in a mixture of fear and joy, to go and tell the disciples the great news Jesus himself appears to them. In marked contrast to other resurrection stories they instantly recognize him and throw themselves at his feet grabbing him round the legs in worship and love. Jesus tells them not to fear but to go and tell. Jesus gives them the same message that the young man gives to the women in Mark’s gospel.
When they do go back to Galilee Jesus meets them on the top of a mountain: Some of the 11 are still in doubt; they wait to hear his teaching. But it is not teaching they receive: Jesus asserts his authority as Lord. What they receive is an ordination: the mission field has no boundaries; their task is to baptize; those baptized are to be taught to obey every command of Jesus. They are to build houses on the rock. It is a renewed warning to all readers of the gospel. Jesus’s teaching as reported in this gospel is not for approval or analysis. It is not directed at the mind but at the will. It is passed on to us as an imperative not an option. And the risen Jesus in not limited in his presence to Galilee or even Palestine. He remains Emmanuel until the end of time.
If Mark leaves us bewildered and fearful of how the resurrection is going to impact upon us a disciples, sending us back to first principles and urging us to revisit old haunts with faith instead of fear, Matthew announces the triumph of Jesus with a fanfare of trumpets and a ring of assurance: in the words of Edmond Budry’s great hymn:

Craindrais-je encore? Il vit à jamais,
Celui que j’adore, le Prince de paix;
Il est ma victoire, mon puissant soutien,
Ma vie et ma gloire : non, je ne crains rien!
À toi la gloire, O Ressuscité!
À toi la victoire pour l’éternité!

He lives for ever, what is there to fear?
Prince of peace triumphant, him whom I adore
My supporting conqueror, hero ever near
He my life my glory, no I shall not fear!
To you all glory, risen Lord for aye
Yours the saving victory through eternity.

Matthew 27. 24 – 26, 35 - 36, 50 – 54. Earthquakes

The main effect of Matthew’s sympathetic treatment of Judas is to shift the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion further over on to the priests and Pilate. But the other changes he makes to Mark’s account of the trial before Pilate also serve to make Pilate less active in the process. Pilate emerges in Matthew’s account as a weak vacillating governor who tries to wash his hands of blame. The intervention of his wife sending word that she has had a dream and encouraging him to have nothing to do with the conviction of an innocent man, his questioning of the crowd, “What then am I to do?” and finally his own public washing of hands claiming innocence show a governor who simply had virtually abdicated decision making finally allowing the mob to make the decision. The people as whole take the unconditional blame: ”His blood be on us and on our children.” These words became the major excuse for anti-semitism which has vitiated the Christian community to some extent ever since. Matthew may well have seen them as an explanation for the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the temple.
The crucifixion of Jesus was routine; Matthew mentions it in a subordinate clause; it took place where probably hundreds were crucified at some time or other: The place of the skull. And in the place of skull the soldiers diced for his clothes. Strangely Matthew makes that the main verb in the sentence! This has been beautifully picked up by William Blake in a magnificent picture of the crucifixion; he has set in the foreground the gamblers rolling a dice for the modest prize of Jesus clothing. In the background are the three crosses: the central one of Jesus dominating the picture. But the soldiers are so engrossed in their game that they are totally oblivious of the suffering on the crosses behind them. One man has the smile of triumph from ear to ear: he’s thrown the six that earns him Jesus’s tunic! These soldiers have come to take crucifying slaves, robbers and rebels as routine business in a day’s work: business that has the added bonus of perks like games to divide the victim’s clothes. For the winner the crucifixion in the background is a sideshow to his victory in the game.
We are outraged: crucifixions should never be allowed to become routine: yet the place of the skull was the place where probably hundreds were crucified at some time or other: crosses and the mutilated bodies hanging on them were as much a part of the Roman world as starving Africans is part of ours. Like those Roman soldiers we too live out our petty victories against the background of appalling suffering: we in the Northern world gamble over the clothes of the poorer Southern hemisphere and celebrate our economic success oblivous of the context. Perhaps 2000 years from now people will marvel at the inhumanity of a time like ours when half the world could eat themselves to death while the other half starved: to them perhaps it will rank in obscenity as high as crucifixion does to us today.
Whatever might be let this simply be said: they led Jesus to the place of the skull, and when they had finished crucifying him they divided his clothing. Jesus joined the anonymous victims - those who were considered so low in the ranks of humanity that their bodies could be sported with, they could be nailed up on a cross naked - exposed to a hostile world - in the place of the skull. And he is with the anonymous victims still: for the place of the skull still exists in our world.
With only minor changes Matthew follows Mark’s account of the death of Jesus right up until the moment when the veil of the temple is torn in two. At that point he heightens the drama. A massive earthquake tears open the city, tombs are opened, the dead walk the streets. It is in response to this sign of elemental power let loose at them moment of Jesus’s death that the centurion and the other soldiers cried out in terror, “Surely this was God’s Son.” This is of course a most significant change, not only in the story but in the theology. In Mark the centurion seems to react to the splendour of God revealed in the broken body of Jesus. These soldiers react to a more orthodox and less unusual revelation of divine power. Matthew has already reported when Jesus entered Jerusalem the previous Sunday that the whole city was shaken. And as that happened Jesus took the disabled into the temple with him thus opening it up to those ritually unclean. Now as the city is shaken for the second time the veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom opening up the very heart of the presence of God to all comers. There was to be a third shaking when Jesus is raised: this time the very door of heaven is opened wide.
Josephus tells us that the temple veil had an embroidery upon it that represented the heavens. Just as the high priest tore his clothes when Jesus said that he would see the Son of Man seated on the right hand of God, so now as Jesus dies the temple veil is torn in testimony against priests and temple. This is getting as near as possible to the notion of God himself rending his garments in disgust at what the religious leaders have perpetrated on his Son. And it is a preparation for that much greater rending of veils when the heavens open and Jesus is revealed indeed in all his glory at the end of the gospel.


Matthew follows Mark’s account of the passion story quite closely but there are some significant changes of emphasis. In particular Judas is given much greater prominence in the narrative. John tells us that Judas kept the money bag, indeed he tells us that Judas stole from it. Matthew tells us that when Judas went to the authorities to betray Jesus at least part of his motive was financial. This interest in financial reward goes strongly against the teaching of Jesus, irrespective of the betrayal: here is a case of mammon seeming to loom too large in a disciple’s affections. The story also shows that the contract he had made with the authorities was stronger than his love for his friend. Having received the money he was duty bound to deliver. With the 30 pieces of silver in the bag he looked for the best opportunity to hand Jesus over to them. When Jesus says at table says “Woe to him by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” it is Judas who is reported as saying “Surely not I Rabbi,” Jesus knowingly replies, “You have said so”.
In Mark’s account once the arrest has been made in Gethsemane we never hear anything of Judas again. He disappears into the night as do all the others. But Matthew gives us a sequel. In this story Judas suffers remorse, and confessing his sin, seeks restitution by handing back the blood money which he throws down on the floor of the treasury in the temple when the priests refuse to take it back. They will not put it to the temple fund since they recognise it to be blood money – so they use it to buy a field from a potter to use as a burial ground for foreigners. In the meantime Judas hanged himself.
Matthew’s account is easily the most sympathetic to Judas. Many commentators have suggested that suicide was a heinous sin in 1st century Judaism quoting Josephus. His story also is a little reminiscent of that of Ahithophel who went home and hanged himself. But there was also a tradition of noble suicide. In some ways the judgment he placed on himself – since the authorities refused to judge him – certainly arouses more sympathy than the stories in Acts and Papias where God seems to smite Judas down peremptorily. But the main ground for sympathy arises out of Judas’s repentance. Again some have objected that it was only remorse: that he went to the priests rather than to Jesus – but Jesus was now before Pilate and hardly available – and the words he uttered were what amounts to a public confession. Besides the word for repent is straightforwardly the word the New Testament routinely uses for a saving change of heart. It would seem that the Christian community never had any real clue as to what had motivated Judas: other than the financial motive – scarcely convincing – offered by Matthew there is not attempt to explain his actions. His reaction on seeing Jesus handed over to Pilate at least suggests that that was not the outcome for which he had been working. Perhaps he had been hoping for a set battle on the Mount of Olives, a popular insurrection and a Messianic war to remove the Romans: that he was in fact leading the authorities into a trap. Jesus was clearly aware of what was going on and would have had time to prepare an ambush. Whatever his intentions Judas, as portrayed by Matthew, hardly deserves the unforgiving infamy that he has received in the literature and art of the Christian community. As far as they were concerned, it would seem that Judas Iscariot had discovered and committed the unforgivable sin. Matthew offers at worst the repentant tragedy of a man who got it wrong.