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Liturgy of the Passion, Cycle A

The texts selected for the observance of the Sixth Sunday in Lent as Passion Sunday each year obviously emphasize the suffering of those who are obedient to the Lord. In these Series A texts, the psalmist suffers scorn and ridicule even though the psalmist is obedient to the Lord. The Servant of Isaiah 50:4-9a suffers shame and reproach even though the Servant’s ear is always open to hear the commands of the Lord, and of course Jesus is said to have been obedient to God even to the point of suffering the most shameful death on the cross in Philippians 2:5-11 and in Matthew 26:14–27:66. Our lives are consistent with these texts because even today where we are and in the congregations and communities in which we live and serve, we are people who are still suffering scorn and ridicule, reproach and death. In the very best of our religious tradition, therefore, we can and should proclaim on Passion Sunday that together with the psalmist, the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 50:4-9a, and Jesus the Son of God in Philippians 2:5-11 and in the Matthew 26:14–27:66 text God also suffers with us, since if God’s People suffer and the Son of God suffers, certainly God also suffers with us.

Psalm 31:9-16
Our use of this Israelite individual lament within our Christian worship services on Passion Sunday is an indication that we perceive that deliverance from human suffering is still a future expectation for us at the Easter appearance of Jesus Christ our Lord and at our own “Easter” resurrection appearance. Along with the psalmist, we also cry to the Lord for deliverance from our suffering.

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Most of us who participate in Christian worship services and hear this text on Passion Sunday probably associate the claims of daily direct inspiration, of suffering at the hands of ruthless tormentors, and of confident trust in the Lord in this portion of the third Servant Song of the Isaiah tradition with Jesus the Christ as we perceive him. As Christians, we can certainly interpret the Israelite Scriptures in any way that we wish, and it is quite understandable that we think about Jesus as we read and as we hear this text. It would be helpful, however, if we would share in some way with the congregation that the Suffering Servant Songs in the Isaiah tradition have a meaning and a context of their own in which they portray not Jesus but the Israelite prophetic tradition in its ideal form. In the suffering of God’s chosen Servant, God also suffers. In this sense, the Older and the Newer Testaments, the Israelite and the Christian Scriptures, and we ourselves as Jews and Christians are brought closer together and together closer to God.

Philippians 2:5-11
Probably no other text in our Bible other than the Lord’s Prayer is used as frequently and in as many different situations of the Church Year as is this text, this great Christ-hymn. It can be and is used as an Advent text, a Christmas text, an Epiphany text, a Lenten text, and a text for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. In each of these situations we should place the emphasis on the most appropriate aspect of the text for each occasion. For this Passion Sunday, we should focus on the suffering of Jesus in human form and his courageous willingness to go to Jerusalem, even though he knew that the oppressive Roman military forces there would probably seize, torture, and crucify him because they feared that Jesus’ oppressed fellow Jews, who were filled with hope by Jesus’ public proclamation that the Lord, rather than Caesar, would soon be ruling over them, would revolt against them. Through our use of this Philippians 2:5-11 Christ-hymn, we proclaim that in the suffering of Jesus the Christ we are proclaiming the suffering of God and in our proclamation of the glorification of Jesus we are proclaiming the glorification of God.

Matthew 26:14–27:66
Not only is this prescribed text too lengthy to be effective as a reading within the context of a well-rounded worship service; more seriously, its use on the Sixth Sunday in Lent covers the entirety of Holy Week and presupposes that the congregation need not and will not assemble again until Easter Sunday. Therefore, it would be much more appropriate if the reading on the Sixth Sunday in Lent would be limited to 26:6-13, the thought-provoking account about Jesus and his interactions with the woman who poured the expensive perfume from an alabaster flask upon Jesus’ head in the house of the man Simon who had been afflicted by leprosy. In this text Jesus defends the action of the woman when his own disciples had been indignant about the “waste” of the perfume on Jesus. Jesus affirms her and her action by saying she has been showing kindness to him and wherever this account “is proclaimed throughout the whole world that which she has done will be spoken about favorably in memory of her.” This Matthew 26:6-13 text, which is not utilized anywhere within the three-year lectionary that so many Christians are using, along with its parallel text in Mark 14:3-9 provided the title for the very significant critique of biblical texts by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (First edition, 1983, Tenth Anniversary Edition, New York: Crossroad, 1994).

If worship leaders and congregations use the extensive Matthew 26:14–15:66 texts, they should be aware that even a brief comparison of Matthew 27 with its antecedent in Mark 15 indicates a very significant tendency within the Gospel traditions to exonerate the oppressive Roman authorities and to transfer to the Jewish people culpability for the suffering and death of Jesus. The following are the most notable additions in Matthew 27 to the Mark 15 text that transfer blame from the Romans to the Jewish people.

1. The account in Matthew 27:3-10 has Judas Iscariot throwing down the thirty pieces of silver in the temple. The Jewish temple authorities are portrayed as callously lacking in compassion even for Judas who supposedly had helped them.

2. Matthew 27:19 adds to the Markan account the incident of Pilate’s wife alerting him to avoid judgment of the righteous man Jesus. She has been inspired to do this in a dream, a Matthean theme as the dream revelation to Joseph in Matthew 1:20-24 indicates. In this text God is said to have given the revelation to the wife of the cruel Roman official; God is not said to have provided a revelation for any of the Jewish people.

3. Only Matthew 27:24-25 among the Four Gospels has Pilate wash his hands of the responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. Only Matthew 27:24-25 has all of the Jewish people take the responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus upon themselves and upon their children. Although it is not inherently impossible that Pilate might have washed his hands to signify his non-culpability after he had given the order to have Jesus crucified, it is hardly conceivable that he would have made a public spectacle of the impotence of Roman justice when pressured by the demands from a group of people within a subjected population. Also, it would have been physically impossible for the entire Jewish nation to have spoken with one voice as if in unison, except in a literary drama. Even if the entire Jewish nation could have spoken in unison, it is in no way plausible that it would have requested for itself in perpetuity the full responsibility for the death sentence imposed by an oppressive occupational force on a popular leader from among its own oppressed people. For a more extensive discussion of the anti-Jewish polemic in Matthew 27, see Norman A. Beck, Mature Christianity in the 21st Century: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament (New York: Crossroad, 1994), pp. 194-196.

4. Only Matthew 27:43 has the Jewish leaders add the words, “He has put his trust in God? Let God rescue him now, if God wishes to acknowledge him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ “

5. Only Matthew has in 27:62-66 the intensely anti-Jewish story about the guard detachment at the tomb of Jesus.

As responsible Christian leaders, we have an obligation to reject and repudiate the tendency within the Four Gospel traditions to exonerate the oppressive Roman authorities and to place the blame on all of the Jewish people for the suffering and death of Jesus. Since we are not in danger, as the early followers of Jesus were, that the oppressive Roman officials will seize, torture, and crucify us if we say anything openly against them, we can now in our proclamation of the gospel transfer the blame for the suffering and death of Jesus after nineteen centuries back where it belongs, from the oppressed Jewish people to the oppressive Roman Empire officials. There is no time that is more appropriate for this than the Sixth Sunday in Lent this year, especially if we have the entire Matthew 26:14–27:66 text, rather than the shorter 26:6-13 selection that has been recommended here, read within our worshiping congregations.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen