By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Year A
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7; Response: Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Second Reading: Philippians 2:6-11; Gospel: Matthew 26:14-27:66
The first reading is a poem/song lifted out of the part of the Book of Isaiah called Second Isaiah. This prophet was active among the Israelite exiles in Babylon (Iraq) circa 540 B.C. Like many other oracles/prophetic statements attributed to Isaiah, this poem and three similar to it had much influence on the formation of the Passion Narratives in our four gospels and on the theology of other New Testament documents. Our gospel authors composed their gospels from 40 to 65 years after the events of the Passion. They often relied on the oracles of the ancient prophets to express their thoughts about Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. The four songs sing of a Servant of the Lord – from conception to death to vindication by God. In Christian interpretation, these poems spoke about and were predictive of Jesus as the Servant of the Lord.
In today’s reading, we can see parts of the formation of our Passion Narratives. The reading notes that God gave the Servant “a well-trained tongue.” Think of the lecture Jesus gave Pilate during the trial – in John 18:34-37; 19:11, “. . . that I might know how to speak to the weary” (See Jesus’ consolation of the women of Jerusalem in Luke 23:27-31). “I have not rebelled, not turned back (See Matthew 26:53-54; John 12:27-28). “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting” (See Mark 14:65; 15:17-20; Matt 26:67-68; 27:28-31a; Luke 22:63-65; John 19:1-3). “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I will not be put to shame.” Think of Jesus’ submission to the will of his Father in Mark 14:36; Matthew 26:39, 42; Luke 22:42. These are examples of what biblical scholars call a trajectory, taking Old Testament texts and giving them new applications in the New Testament.
Psalm 22 displays additional examples of trajectories from Old to New Testament. All the verses selected for the response to the first reading are exemplified in the Passion Narratives – the mockery of Jesus by bystanders and soldiers, the piercing of Jesus’ body, the division of his clothes in John 19:23-24. Like the first reading, the response psalm ends with an expression of confidence in the Lord. The second reading is an early Christian hymn quoted by St. Paul to the Philippians as a lesson in humility. The introduction, omitted in our reading, is important: “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus….” That mind was the intention of serving others instead of trying to control others as some of the Philippian Christians were doing. The gist of the hymn: though Jesus was God, he did not consider this something to cling to, but emptied himself by becoming human, becoming obedient all the way to death on a cross. Because of this humiliation, God exalted him. The lesson Paul teaches: if you humble yourselves, God will also exalt you.
The basic story of the Passion Narratives is well known to most Christians. Each of the four narratives has unique features not found in the other three gospels. The basic, and probably the oldest, form is in the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source but added not only their own material, but sometimes made major changes in Mark’s narrative. The Gospel of John is unique in its narrative and does not show dependence on another gospel, though many of the traditions in John are also found in the other gospels. This year is Year A, in which the Passion Narrative is taken from the Gospel of Matthew. Since we cannot here review the whole of Matthew’s gospel and compare it with the other gospels, let’s review what is unique to Matthew.
The betrayal of Jesus by Judas is found in all four gospels; but in Matthew, only Judas addresses Jesus with this question, “Rabbi, is it I?” Jesus affirms it. Rabbi is a title Matthew detests, as we see in Matthew 23:7. Therefore, we find it only in the mouth of Judas. At the arrest of Jesus following Judas’s kiss of betrayal, only in Matthew does Jesus address Judas with these words: “Friend, do what you have come for.” A strange theology to us – Jesus commanding Judas to do as planned. But by whom? Also, at the arrest of Jesus, all four gospels narrate Peter’s armed resistance to Jesus’ arrest. Only in Matthew does Jesus say, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you not think that I can appeal to my Father and he will send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” An account of the death of Judas is found in Matthew. Luke, in Acts 1:17-18, has an account that contradicts that of Matthew. In Matthew, Judas repents, professing the innocence of Jesus. He throws the silver price of betrayal back into the temple, goes out and hangs himself. Matthew seems to base his version on the story of David’s prime minister. He betrayed his king, then hanged himself (See 2 Samuel 17:23).
Only in Matthew does Pilate’s wife intervene, requesting of her husband that he “have nothing to do with this good man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.” Only in Matthew does Pilate attempt to evade blame for the death of Jesus by washing his hands as a symbol of his own innocence, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves.” Only in Matthew do we hear that horrid cry attributed by him to all the people, “His blood be on us and on our children!” That cry became a foundation of anti-Semitism among Christians for most of Christian history. Its interpretation blamed all Jews of all time for Jesus’ death so that Christian persecution of Jews became pervasive. Not until Vatican II was this injustice officially rejected by the Church.
We cannot be certain of Matthew’s intentions, but that cry can be understood in an acceptable way – as a call to God to let the blood of Jesus be upon them and their children for salvation as it is to all peoples of the earth. At the death of Jesus, only Matthew notes an earthquake causing a resurrection of the dead, even before Jesus rose from the dead, as the cause of their resurrection. How does Matthew get around this problem? He kept them outside Jerusalem until after Jesus’ resurrection!