by Br Julian McDonald cfc
The Centurion and his men who were keeping watch over Jesus were terror-stricken at seeing the earthquake and all that was happening and said: “Clearly this was the Son of God.” Matthew 26: 14 – 27: 66
Today’s long gospel-reading is Matthew’s account of the trial, torture and execution of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. In telling the story, Matthew followed a template that has been etched into the history of every culture and nation of our world. It is the story of the struggle that emerges when personal integrity clashes with national interest, when the status and security of the powerful are threatened by the wisdom and honesty of an individual who knows that justice and freedom and the common good always trump the self-interest and privilege of the few. The forces of injustice, jealousy and betrayal that led to the crucifixion of Jesus have been played out in the downfall and demise of political leaders, geniuses and commoners alike, simply because those in positions of power and status regarded the very existence of such people as a threat to their comfort and personal ambition. Even in our own day and age, we have witnessed the demise of democratically-elected Presidents and Prime Ministers betrayed and ousted by colleagues whose ambition has known no bounds.
In commenting on today’s gospel-reading, Jesuit priest, John Kavanaugh observed: “Christians may not feel the full impact of Passion Week because they fail to see that Jesus Christ is still betrayed for the sake of safe religion and imperious tribe and nation.” (p. 46, The Word Embodied, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. 1998)
In every arena in which human beings vie with one another for superiority, there is the risk that truth, honesty and human decency will become casualties. The tragedy for Jesus was that competition simply had no place in his agenda. For three years he had been proclaiming and offering gratuitously to everyone he encountered the beneficent and boundless love, mercy, compassion and love of God. Those with status and power, insecure in their capacity to exercise their leadership responsibly and justly, chose to see Jesus as a threat and concocted a plot to rid themselves of him. His fate was sealed by an impassioned plea from Caiaphas, the incumbent High Priest, to the assembled members of the Sanhedrin: “‘You have no understanding whatever! Can’t you see that it is better for you to have one man die (for the people) than to have the whole nation destroyed.’…From that day onward, there was a plan afoot to kill him.” (John 11: 50-53)
The plot that was hatched and carried to completion was no poorly planned exercise. It required the assent and collaboration of the highest religious and civil officials of the Jewish nation and engaged the active participation of high-ranking members of the occupying Roman army and Provincial Government. Moreover, it relied on the carefully planned seduction of a key member of those who had an intimate knowledge of Jesus’ movements. Judas had to be identified, persuaded and manipulated into the role he played. What was done to Jesus was not the result of some haphazard, amateurish plan to teach him a lesson about meddling in other people’s affairs.
While we don’t know the make-up of the community for whom Matthew wrote his Gospel, scholars suggest that it probably was a group of neophyte Christians of Jewish ancestry living in a Jerusalem that was still under Roman control. That’s possibly why Matthew presented Pilate as a Governor who was inclined to release Jesus. Matthew was probably reluctant to antagonise an occupying force with whose brutality he was familiar. So, he described Pilate as a man who gave in to a group of Jews baying for blood. However, it would be simplistic for us to sheet home to the Jews the blame for Jesus’ death. Jesus died because his execution was planned by powerful people hell-bent on ridding themselves of him. Let’s, then, be in no doubt that the blame cannot be attributed to a small group whose emotions had been worked into a frenzy by others stirring them on. And let’s be quite clear that anti-Semitism is totally foreign to the Gospel.
Let’s also not forget that those who cried out for Jesus’ blood belonged to a people who were our spiritual ancestors. They are the people who gave us the Old or First Testament. Their descendants gave us the New Testament. The guilt we can so easily ascribe to those who demanded the execution of Jesus extends to us whenever we are silent in the face of injustice. No judicial system is perfect. We have all witnessed up close or from a distance “kangaroo courts” and inept judicial enquiries. We all know of miscarriages of justice and judicial officials who have betrayed their trust.
The kind of society of which we are a part has always reserved its sternest judgement for those who betray the trust we have placed in them. Recall for a moment the judgements we make about ministers of religion and government who are found to have committed some act of betrayal. What they are seen to have done is a betrayal of the trust that is vital for holding in place relationships that build the fabric of society. They are the relationships that bind together marriage partners and members of families. They are the relationships that are integral to church communities and to the professions of medicine, law and teaching. They are the relationships on which nations are built, that allow us to vote with confidence and freedom in State and National elections.
I wonder if the harshness we extend to betrayers springs from a fear that there may be in ourselves a little bit of Judas. I am not comfortable with the thought that I, too, am capable of betraying the trust that others place in me. Matthew holds that mirror up to us in his description of how all twelve of the Apostles reacted when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him:
“In the course of the meal (the Passover supper) Jesus said: ‘I assure you, one of you is about to betray me.’ Distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another: ‘Surely it is not I, Lord?’” (Matthew 26: 20-22)
Psychologists and other astute observers of human behaviour tell us that the failings in others which we find most difficult to forgive are the ones we struggle with in our own lives. If we delude ourselves into thinking that we are absolutely trustworthy, we can forget that every single one of us has a dark side. Nearly all the disciples failed when Jesus needed them to be faithful and loyal to him. Note, it was when there was risk to their own safety. Even though Thomas had rashly urged them to all to go and die with him, when real danger loomed, they disowned him and ran. If there is one clear message with which this gospel-reading leaves us, it is that all of us at some time in our lives will betray the one who lived and died for us. Despite our frailty, he still loves us endlessly.