Midday Prayer 28 March 2018. Passiontide.
Meditation on Matthew 27:11-26
At the beginning of what we count as Chapter 27 of the Gospel of Matthew, it is said: ‘All the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus … and handed him over to Pilate the governor’ (vs. 1). That means that after Judas, in the midst of the twelve disciples, had handed over Jesus to the priests, now these priests on their turn are handing him over to the Gentiles (also 27:18), until, at the end of our pericope, the governor hands him over to be crucified (vs. 26; cf. Mt. 26:17-19). Pilate the governor is acting here as the representative of the Gentiles. Of course, he can act so because he represents the Roman Empire, and as such he became his place in the Christian Creed, that implies – we may say – a place in political theology. In the first letter of Peter, we find the sentence that a governor ‘is sent by the Lord for the punishment of evildoers, and from the praise of them that do well’ (1 Petr. 2:14). We may ask: will this governor, Pilate, act according to this mission of him? And we know the outcome: he didn’t act so.
When we compare the first verses of our reading with the parallel section in the Gospel of St. Mark (Mk. 15:2-10), we discover that, much more than in the story according to his predecessor, Matthew is telling how Pilate HIMSELF is taking the initiative in the interrogation of Jesus and in the following negotiation with the crowd. ‘“Are you the King of the Jews?” – “You say so!” – “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” – he gave him no answer’ (vss. 11-14). Therefore, Pilate is depending not on the confession of Jesus, but on his own judgement. He has to act. But how he will do so?
Now, being a politician, he has two means at his disposal. Firstly, there is the old Roman tactics of divide et impera, Divide And Rule. Pilate can try to play off the crowd against the priests and elders, and the priests and elders against the crowd. He can try to split the Jewish people, from the interest of his own policy, Secondly, he can try to frame the question in such a way, that it seems that the people are acting according to their own willingness, whereas actually they are wishing what in the end he himself is wishing that has to happen. In our text, we can recognize how Pilate is trying to use both means of political tactics. ‘Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (vss. 15-17)’ It is necessary, that the outcome will have the appearance that they themselves have been wanted what will happen. That is the second means. ‘For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over’ (vs. 18): that means, Pilate presupposes that the crowd will ask for Jesus to be released, because only the priests and elders had acted out of jealousy: that is the first means: Divide and Rule. In this way the crowd, against the Jewish leadership, will ask for Jesus – as it actually is in accordance with his, Pilate’s, own will, that reasonably he will not utter himself.
But then, there happens an unforeseen intervention. ‘While he was sitting on the judgment seat (the bèma), his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for today I have suffered a great deal in a dream because of him” (vs. 19).’ We can remember here an earlier intervention, at the beginning of the story of the passion according to St. Matthew. When Jesus and his disciples were in Bethany, there came a woman with an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head. The twelve disciples resist this act, but Jesus says: ‘she did it for my burial’ (Mt. 26:6-13). This woman had, as now the wife of Pilate has, from the point of view of gender politics, the rather traditional task to correct the acting of men, Both are closer to the destiny of Jesus, but the men try to neglect and to dismiss these women. // The wife of Pilate was visited by a dream. In the first Chapters of this Gospel, five times such a dream was a medium from heaven to tell the truth to Joseph, or to the magoi (the wise men), and to instruct them (Mt. 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). In the same way this woman receives a revelation in a dream. ‘For I have suffered a great deal because of him’, she reports. The expression in Greek, polla pathein, we can also find in the first of the so-called predictions of the passion: the Son of Man ‘will suffer a great deal from the elders and the chief priests…’ (Mt. 16:21). That means, that this women experiences the participation of Christ, HER suffering reflects the suffering of this ‘righteous man’. Pilate has been warned! His own intuition, that Jesus is an innocent victim, corresponds with the vision of his wife. But now the important question is: will he take responsibility for this intuition, that now has been confirmed, too? Or will he continue his political tactics, and therewith conceal himself? In the orthodox Churches, especially in the Ethiopian Church, Pilate as well as his wife (under the name Procla) are venerated as Saints. With regard to the woman, one can understand this. But with regard to Pilate? He is the executor Novi Testamenti, J.G. Hamann said. That means: actually, he contributed to the crucifixion of our Lord that had been executed to our salvation. But, can you say that he consciously fulfilled this mission?
During the conversation of Pilate with the message from his wife, ‘the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed (vs. 20).’ That means, because of the interruption of the story, Pilate’s tactic is failing. No longer he can succeed in dividing and ruling, to play off the crowd against the leadership, the leadership against the crowd. And therefore, when he asks again “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?”, now they say, “Barabbas” (vs. 21).’ The tactic is failing. That implies: now Pilate the governor not has to play as a usual politician, but he has to take responsibility. He has to make a decision.
But ‘when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (vs. 24)’. With this performance, Pilate suggests not to be responsible. But in the eye of the Gospel, nevertheless he is! The Greek word for ‘innocent’, athooios, in the Septuaginta literally means: ‘not to be punished’. ‘Do not shed blood that is not punishable’, the prophet says (Jer. 22:3). Some verses before our reading, Judas has confessed vis-à-vis the chief priests and the elders: ‘I have sinned in that I betrayed blood that is not to be punished’ (Mt. 27:4 – the same word). But the leadership isn’t interested in his repentance: ‘what is this to us? See you to it’. And Judas went away and hanged himself. But the important point is: he HAS showed his repentance, and Pilate has not.
‘Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood on us and on our children!” (vs. 25). We don’t have to translate: his blood be on us. The expression does not mean an imprecation, but a declaration. The people as a whole, that is to say: as well the leadership as the crowd, together take their responsibility for the crucifixion of him, who is called their Messiah. The damned Christian antisemitism of all ages has used exactly this utterance, to remember the sin of the Jewish people and to revenge for their guilt again and again, often with violent means. But the text is revealing quite the opposite: Pilate, as the representative of the Gentiles, refuses to take responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, but the people of Israel as a whole, in contrast, takes its responsibility.
And now finally we have to remember, that there is told that Jesus, when eating the Passover meal with his disciples in the preceding chapter, took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to them, and said: “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sin” (Mt. 26:28). Judas, and the Jewish people as a whole, take their responsibility for the shedding of innocent blood. And in doing that, they enter the sphere of forgiveness and remission of sin, that is the sphere of the cross. Pilate, the Gentile and the politician, is refusing exactly to do that. Let us pray that we ourselves, every man and women in his or her own responsibility, honesty and repentance, will be found on the side of Judas and of the Jewish people. Amen.