Following Jesus Christ in St. Matthew’s Gospel into the days of his death and resurrection, we hope to learn from him. In a previous post, we considered lessons Jesus taught as he began his last days.
He recognized that God was with him, even as he faced death. “Thy will be done,” Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Galilee. “Thy will be done,” Jesus cried trembling as he faced death before his arrest that dark night in Jerusalem. God’s with you, he says to us, even in life’s darkest moments.
It’s a lesson we hope to learn. We welcome God’s will when life’s good, but find it hard to accept when times are bad. “My thoughts are above your thoughts, and my ways above your ways,” God says. God’s plans are often hidden, like seed in the ground or treasure in a field. We find God’s plan especially hard to understand in suffering and death.
And so, many today deny a plan of God exists in our world. If God exists–and some would say he really doesn’t– God is uninvolved in our world in any way. Some say there are no plans at work in our world at all; life is random, without rhyme or reason; everything just happens.
Or some say life is what I want it to be. I can make it happen, and there’s no point in looking for God’s will. I decide.
We believe God has a plan and his plan is for our good. God’s wills our good, even though it may sometimes be hard to see.
“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus before Caiaphas
After his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is taken to “Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and elders were assembled,” Matthew’s Gospel continues. What shall we learn here?
Caiaphas’ residence would be somewhere in Jerusalem’s Upper City where influential Jews lived. It was an area close by the Temple and Herod’s Palace, where Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor also resided when he was in the city. Jesus would be taken to that well-to-do area of the city.
Recently, archeologists have excavated some of the homes of Jewish officials in the Upper City and they’ve found Roman style villas with courtyards and elegant furnishings. They would be among the red-roofed buildings seen in the model below of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum.
Jesus would be judged and sentenced to death, scourged and crowned with thorns in the Upper City. His followers would be few there, unlike Bethany where we said previously he had strong support.
Matthew presents Jesus’ appearance before the Jesus leaders in dramatic form. Caiaphas probes his identity thoroughly in what is more of a cross examination than a court trial. At the same time Jesus is being questioned, Peter the Apostles is also questioned. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter strongly professed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, now just as strongly he denies he ever knew him.
The gospel invites us into this story to ask what we say. For Caiaphas Jesus is a trouble-maker or maybe a religious fanatic. He and his friends are worried that Jesus might start a revolution endangering all they held dear.
Who do we say Jesus is? If he’s only a healer, a teacher, a social revolutionary with delusions of grandeur, then he’s only another innocent person victimized by powerful enemies. Is he only another human being?
But if he’s God’s Son, the face of God to us, then he’s tremendously important to us and to our world. “Who is he?” “Who is this who suffers and experiences such humbling?” “Why?” are new questions before us. God is here, and attention must be paid. Jesus, God in human form, not distant or untouched by human circumstances, suffers and dies and lives and loves as we do.
“Tell us under oath whether you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Caiaphas asks Jesus.
“You have said it,” Jesus answers.
Jesus who prayed in fear in the garden, who feels abandoned and alone, whose sweat falls to ground as the dark engulfs him is the face of God before us. Jesus who gave himself to his disciples in bread and wine, who knelt before them in the Supper Room and washed their feet is the face of God. He comes humbly before us that we might meet him unafraid.
With Peter, we say “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” With Thomas, we say, “My Lord and my God.”
Notice how Matthew’s gospel strongly asserts the reality of Jesus’ human experience He really suffers, he really fears, he really knows our sorrows and pains, for he has borne them himself. He does not “seem” to be human, he is human.
“Why did be come among us?” we ask. Because God who lives in light inaccessible, wishes to draw us into his light. Jesus who shares our human experience leads us into that light.
We remember the Passion of Jesus to grow in love of him. His Passion is a book to be read over and over, always wise, always new, always true. It leads us to peace. From its pages we know a loving God wants to be near us.
St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of my community, called the Passion of Jesus the door into the presence of God. It invites us to approach God bravely, to enter God’s presence with confidence and then rest in the presence of the God who loves you.
As the Jewish leaders send Jesus off to Pontius Pilate, Matthew recalls the tragic end of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood,” the disciple says as he flings the 30 pieces of silver into the temple. What lesson can be draw from this event?
“His second tragedy,” Pope Benedict says of Judas,”is that he can no longer believe in forgiveness. His remorse turns into despair. Now he see only himself and his darkness; he no longer sees the light of Jesus, which can illumine and overcome the darkness. He shows the wrong type of remorse; the type unable to hope, that see only its own darkness.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p 68)
Judas would not believe the story of the Prodigal Son. Such sadness hangs over the fate of Judas. We learn from the tragedy of Judas to believe in God’s forgiveness, even for the greatest sinner.
When you read Matthew’s account of the Passion notice the gradual silence of Jesus. As the hours go by, his words become fewer and fewer. He works no obvious wonders, no obvious cures. His own power seems to slip away leaving him more and more helpless, and his powerful enemies more in control.
In the garden, he prays a short troubled prayer, over and over: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but your will be done.”
He looks for the comfort of friends but finds none. They fall asleep and seem to not notice. “Pray that you don’t enter temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” Jesus tells them.
His words are few before Caiaphas. Quick to answer false charges before, he says nothing to the false witnesses bringing charges against him. Only when Caiaphas directly asks if he is the Messiah, the Son of God, does Jesus answer: “ You have said so. I tell you from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Similarly, Jesus is mostly silent before Pilate. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks him. “You say so,” Jesus answers. Then, he says no more.
He’s silent when the crowd calls for Barrabas; he has no words but cries of pain when the soldiers scourge him. He makes no response to their mockery as they lead him away to be crucified.
The only words he says towards the end in Matthew’s gospel–Mark’s Gospel also reports these words– are the final words from psalm 22, which the evangelists quote in Aramaic, as well as Greek: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.?”
“It is not ordinary cry of abandonment. Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all who suffer under “God’s darkness”; he takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness on himself–and in so doing he transforms it.” (Jesus of Nazareth, )
In the Passion of Jesus we find God as a companion, as “one like us in all things but sin.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”