Pastor’s Pen – March 31, 2023
We have travelled through the season of Lent arriving at last at Holy Week, when the church contemplates and celebrates the passion and death of Jesus, and his resurrection and outpouring of his Holy Spirit. Through these sacred liturgies, we can enter with Christ into the mystery of suffering in our own lives and in our world, and the mystery of how that suffering leads to Life. I want to reflect here on this dimension of our spirituality – but from a unique starting point, one verse in this Sunday’s gospel, the Passion according to Matthew. We only hear this reading once every three years.
In the part about Christ’s trial before the Roman governor, Pilate declares himself innocent in the death of Jesus, while the crowd responds, “His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Matt. 27:25). This line has often been cited as “proof” that the Jewish people bear all responsibility for the death of Jesus.
In our society today, antisemitism is on the rise. The most recent statistics show a 34% rise over the previous year, with a US average of seven incidents per day. After previously going down for 15 years, antisemitic incidents have been on the increase since 2016. We can’t go into the whole history of Christians’ role in antisemitism, but we know that the verse quoted above (Mt. 27:25) has often provided the justification for wholesale condemnation of and discrimination against Jewish people because of their supposed collective guilt for the death of Jesus.
While there are any number of arguments against such an erroneous interpretation, I want to focus here on only one of the most recent. Scholars think the gospel writer intended this verse as supreme irony, an irony which would have been immediately recognized by his readers. The blood of Jesus would indeed fall upon the Jews and their children (just as it would fall on all the people of the world) – and Matthew’s Christian readers would have grasped the ironic meaning that this Blood brings salvation and Eternal Life to all whom it touches. The murderous cry of the crowd is unwittingly a prediction of their own salvation! Matthew’s gospel makes this claim about the Life-giving power of the Blood unmistakable: in its account of the Last Supper just verses earlier, Jesus declares, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Why look so closely at this one verse? Because the suffering and death of Jesus – the greatest sign of God’s compassion and mercy for the human race, His intent to overcome all human violence and hatred with suffering love – has been twisted to justify hatred and condemnation of God’s own Chosen People. We humans have an astounding ability to take the story of Jesus’ suffering love, compassion, nonviolence, and salvific intent and turn it into an excuse for our own prejudice, hate and violence.
During this Holy Week, I pray that our liturgies can move us toward compassion and mercy and away from our tendencies to judge, condemn, and reject others. In a similar way, my Lenten video series about Jesus’ call to “Change your life and believe in the Good News” moves us from viewing God as judgmental and vindictive to seeing His loving-kindness and compassion for every one of us. May our liturgies us help us see the incredible depth of love in Jesus’ willingness to suffer without wanting revenge. May we move with Him toward the light and joy of the Resurrection and Life that God wants to us to share with all people.
See you in church. And Happy Easter, a few days early.