Matthew’s Passion narrative

Palm Sunday
Cycle A
13th April 2014.

Homily given before reading the Passion.

Imagine that you are a non-Christian, reading a copy of Matthew’s Gospel for the very first time. Not knowing anything about Christianity, you would probably notice an odd thing about the writing; in Matthew’s Gospel there is more detail supplied about Jesus’ final hours than about any other event in his life. Immediately you ask: “What was so significant about this person’s death? Why would it overshadow all the good things he said and did during his life?”

The community of believers that Matthew wrote his Gospel for were primarily Jewish converts to Christianity. They were under tremendous pressure; not only were they still under Roman rule, but they were driven out of their synagogues for their belief in Jesus. And on top of this their newly born church was witnessing an influx of non-Jewish converts. For the first time, Jews found themselves worshipping and living alongside Gentiles who accepted the Gospel. The pressure to accept this new reality must have been great.

It was to this situation of community upheaval that Matthew began speaking and writing of things that were important to his audience’s circumstances. So while Matthew did reveal the importance of Jesus’ sayings and miracles, he maintained the primary focus on Jesus’ passion, crucifixion, death and resurrection because in these events he saw the principal work of our salvation.

Without Jesus’ cross, all his words and deeds would lose their power and meaning.

By listening to and examining some of the key elements in Matthew’s passion narrative we can appreciate the community for which Matthew wrote and gain a deeper understanding of Jesus’ victory on the cross as it applies to our lives today.

From the outset Matthew’s passion narrative reveals Jesus as a Messiah who remains in control of the events leading to his arrest and death. A difficult trial faces Jesus, but he embraces the struggle decisively, confident as the Son of God that he is doing his Father’s will; fulfilling his plan in all things. Here at the end of his ministry he is readily moving forward to his trial and death.

God is in control’ despite the upheaval, chaos and pain. However it may appear to the chief priests and scribes thinking they have the upper hand, Jesus decisively embraces the passion as the very moment for which he has been preparing his whole life.

Jesus’ suffering is no accident or twist of fate. It is not a by product of the chief priests’ opposition, Judas’s betrayal or Pilate’s power. Jesus’ death is God’s will for the salvation of all humankind. Matthew makes no attempt to hide the emotional turmoil this decision causes Jesus.

Listen and you will hear the real, human sorrow and anguish evident when Jesus prays: “My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass me by.” Jesus does not shrink back from the anguish of his cross.

He endures it to win our salvation. Matthew’s community undergoing upheaval and suffering was also encouraged to follow the way of the cross.

At the end of the Last Supper Jesus tells his disciples: “I shall not drink wine again until that day when I will drink new wine with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Indicating his awareness of his fate and it also made Matthew’s early readers aware that they could no longer look back to the Mosaic laws and rituals from which they had come.

This new stage of history begins at the very moment of Jesus’ death, as Matthew shows with the dramatic events that occur immediately thereafter: such as the earth shaking and rocks splitting and the tombs of the saints opening.

Jesus’ death accomplishes the very thing that Judaism looked for with the coming of the Messiah; the new era of the reign of God; when he promised to shake the earth and raise up his holy ones. Our salvation and renewal began when Jesus died on the cross.

Yet God’s chosen people; even ten of Jesus’ own disciples; missed its inauguration. It is left to a group of outsiders, the roman soldiers, who readily accept the cross and the signs of transformation that accompanies it.

By telling the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as he did, Matthew sought to hold out hope to a community undergoing enormous pressure from inside and out. On a personal level we all experience struggles: the pain of rejection, the challenge to do God’s will in the face of opposition; the sorrow of apparent failures that face us every day.

Like Matthew’s community, we too can learn that not every obstacle comes from outside ourselves. “The spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak.” Growth and renewal come at a price; opening ourselves to be shaken up and allowing the Spirit to breathe new life into us. Let us look inside ourselves to discover that part of us that is the least like the Spirit and thus the weakest part of us.

The message of the passion is that Jesus is with us in this process of upheaval of our old life. While it is a challenge to follow the way of the cross, it is at the same time our best hope.

If we understand anything from listening and praying through Matthew’s narrative, the truth is that Jesus has already won the victory. We do not see its fullness, but neither could Jesus’ disciples. Hopefully we can take it in little by little, perhaps it takes a whole lifetime for that truth to reach our human brains, melt into our hearts and transform our very lives.

Perhaps a final comment after listening to the passion narrative is simply a quietly personal, yet profound “Thank you.”

Ref: Devotional Commentary

Leo Zanchettin

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