Capital punishment is abhorrent to most of us, particularly when a just person dies for specious reasons or to political ends. That’s what confronts us in today’s gospel, though the gospel writers pay little attention to the details of the death and suffering of Jesus. They are much more interested in the meaning of these events.
The Romans execute Jesus outside Jerusalem when the city is filled with pilgrims who have travelled there for the Passover festival. For Jesus’ friends and followers, every subsequent Passover will be celebrated in the light of his public execution. They share their memories and reflect on the meaning of his shameful death in the light of their sacred traditions. It is not surprising that the final events of Jesus’ life are probably the first part of his story to be committed to writing and that the gospel accounts resonate with the symbolism of Passover.
Though Matthew draws much of his material from Mark, he fashions the tradition into a new narrative and adds several distinctive features. ‘To fulfil all righteousness’ is Jesus’ stated mission (3:15). He has declared ‘blessed’ those who suffer for the sake of righteousness (or justice)’ (5:10-12). He now embodies his own teaching as the just or righteous one, the one truly in right relationship with God. The prayer on his lips as he faces death (Psalm 22) is that of the suffering just Israelite who is faithful to his mission and whose trust in God never fails.
There are hints that Jesus’ death is not the end, but rather the beginning of the new age of God’s empire, a compassionate alternative to the brutality of Rome. In response to the high priest Caiaphas, Jesus points beyond death to his post-resurrection life ‘at the right hand of power….’ Extraordinary signs follow his death: the tearing of the temple curtain; the trembling of the earth; the recognition by the Roman centurion and his companions that this man is of God; and finally, the opening of the graves and appearance of the dead in anticipation of the final resurrection.
Matthew’s story offers the hope of reversal to all who witness the events surrounding Jesus’ death. It offers hope to the women who have followed him all the way from Galilee, to the male disciples who have deserted or denied him, to his Roman executioners, and to faithful disciples like Joseph of Arimathea. It has the potential to bring hope to their counterparts through the ages such as those who keep watch for the innocent on death row, or for the women first raped and then condemned to death in order to uphold privilege within unjust social and political systems. We are invited to position ourselves within the circle of faithful disciples in need of the hope that the gospel can offer.
Veronica Lawson RSM