Bit Parts

SJF • Palm Sunday A • Tobias Haller BSG God also highly exalted him and give him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Every knee bending, every tongue confessing — Isaiah said it first and Saint Paul repeated it. But that’s hardly what it seems like in the Passion according to Saint Matthew that we heard today. Maybe in the Palm Gospel, where everybody is celebrating and calling out to Jesus our Lord, but certainly not in the evangelist Matthew’s version of the Passion. It doesn’t take very long for the cries of “Hosanna” to turn into, “Let him be crucified.” And the change of heart seems to be just about universal. Just about everybody is against Jesus. It isn’t just Judas, and the chief priests and the elders, and the crowds, and the soldiers. Even his friends don’t seem to want to have any more to do with him any more; even Peter, the only one with even a modicum of courage to follow at a distance, even he, as you recall, denies Jesus when put to the test. In Matthew’s version of the Passion even both of the thieves crucified there, on either side of Jesus, join in the fun and curse him. The opposition is almost entirely unanimous.

There are, however, a few exceptions. Matthew portrays Pilate, for instance, in a somewhat sympathetic light — a typical politician torn between trying to keep the peace and trying to please the mob and seeing to it that true justice is done. As is often true with politicians, he chooses the easy way, he chooses peace and pleasing the mob instead of justice. He washes his hands of the innocent blood, and allows the execution to proceed.

Pilate is certainly not the first politician to try to have his cake and eat it too; nor is he the last to place himself in a position of deniability and shift the responsibility to someone else. In a more modern setting, rather than washing his hands, he would probably have had his press secretary issue a statement to the effect that “we were badly advised and we were operating on insufficient intelligence” and perhaps he might even use those timeless words, “mistakes were made.” Still, Matthew does not portray Pilate as a bloodthirsty villain, and certainly not as being against Jesus except to the extent that his job requires it. +++ But there are two other characters in Matthew’s Gospel that I’d like to invite to step into the spotlight today. They are not major players by any means, but rather they are bit parts in the drama. They are one step up from being an “extra” — but still don’t get into the category of a featured role. In the movie business they are called an “under five” — which means that they have fewer than five lines. In fact, in this case each of them has only one line.

And one of them is an offstage voice: Pilate’s wife; she sends that message, warning her husband to have nothing to do with the trial of an innocent man because she has had a bad dream about him. For Matthew, this harks back to his account of the Nativity in which Joseph — as I’m sure you recall — is warned in dreams at the very beginning of the Jesus’s life; and so here another dream comes to the wife of Pontius Pilate, in the closing hours of the Jesus’s life. I suppose to pick up another analogy of a film you might imagine this as a voiceover — I’m sure you’ve all seen films where someone is reading a letter from someone else, and you hear the voice of that other person — picture Pilate unrolling a scroll and hearing his wife’s voice as he reads her letter: “Have nothing to do with this man, for I have been troubled in a dream on his account.” A bit part, clearly, but an important one — for it adds to Pilate’s discomfort with the whole situation and his desire to keep his distance from it.

The other bit player is the centurion, who with the other soldiers gathered at the foot of the cross, has the last word in today’s reading of the Passion: “Truly this man was God’s son.” Now, the role of these Roman soldier is all the more interesting because earlier in the drama they were on the “anti” side, those who mocked Jesus — so this represents a major change of heart, at the end, when suddenly they see something that most of the others can’t see; they see this so-called king of the Jews as not just the king of the Jews but as God’s Son: a declaration not just of royalty but divinity. +++ The interesting thing about these characters — Pilate’s wife, and the centurion and the other soldiers — is that they are all Gentiles — in fact, if you include Pilate, all of the even-close-to “good guys” in Matthew’s Passion are Gentiles. Why is that?

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That’s a good question — since Matthew is generally considered to be the most Jewish of the four evangelists; that is, he is the one who most often quotes from the Old Testament in the course of his Gospel. You know how it all went, from the Nativity stories right on: “this happened to fulfill what was said by the prophet” every step of the way he is bringing the Old Testament into the New, relating it, tying it together. Notice in today’s account of the Passion how he dwells on the details of Psalm 22: actually quoting it at one point. He includes the mocking, the challenges to have God deliver him, the piercing of the hands and feet, the division of the garments and the casting of lots; and then most powerfully, when he actually quotes the opening verse of the Psalm, putting those words, in Aramaic, into Jesus’s mouth — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — as Jesus himself cries out that powerful verse of Psalm 22 as his arms are stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross. That Psalm is the lament of an innocent man surrounded by gangs of enemies who have literally ripped him to shreds and hung him out to dry — and die.

And yet, for Matthew, in spite of his own Jewishness, and of the echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures that run through his Gospel, and his outreach to his own people, Matthew chooses to highlight the Gentile bit players as the most sympathetic characters in his account of the Passion.

And right there at the heart of the quandary you have the clue as to why Matthew has done this, what Matthew’s intention was in giving these sympathetic parts to Gentiles. You see, Matthew is writing to his own people, writing to a Jewish audience, and he is using a form of argument to convince them, a form of argument that is itself a rich part of the Jewish tradition, a form of argument called “light and heavy” — of which I’ve spoken before because Jesus himself makes use of the form, in another account of the Passion, when he says, “If they do this when the wood is green what will they do when it is dry?”

And what is the point of the argument? Remember, Matthew is an evangelist — he has one primary goal: to tell the Good News to the end that those who hear it may believe. This is the one thing all the evangelists have in common, however different their style, their audience, or the details that they choose to emphasize in their accounts. Here, Matthew, is writing to his own people; he is trying to embarrass them into realizing the extent of their error in having rejected the Messiah.

He echoes the language Peter uses at the first Pentecost, when Peter tells the Jewish pilgrims from all over the world that they acted in ignorance, but that this was part of God’s plan not only to save them, but to bring the Gentiles into salvation. Matthew’s goal as an evangelist is to convict and convert his own people. He wants more than anything to help them see that Jesus was and is the Messiah of God. Throughout his Gospel he has been showing how Jesus fulfilled the ancient prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures — and in the Passion, he makes use of these Gentile bit players to say, “If even these Gentiles, who know nothing of God, these pagans living outside the law and the covenant, outside the blessing of God, if even they are capable of seeing the Messiah, shouldn’t you be able to as well — you my brothers and sisters, you who have read and heard the holy Scriptures from your childhood up? You who know God — don’t you know him when you see him?”

Matthew is using that argument of “light and heavy” as we might say “it’s so easy even a child can do it” — meaning that if a child can do it certainly an adult can. He is saying, if even a Gentile can recognize the God of the Jews when he comes, who is the God of all people, why can’t the Jews who have been given that promise from the very beginning?

Like the apostles Peter and Paul, Matthew wants his people — the Jewish people of his day — to join him in accepting Jesus as the fulfillment for which they had so long waited.

This is the way in which the prophecy of Isaiah would come to pass, the prophecy that Saint Paul reaffirmed in his letter to the church at Philippi — that all people, of every land, of every tongue, Jew and Gentile alike, of every tribe and kindred on this celestial ball, together with the chosen heirs of Israel’s race would bend the knee and cry out as one that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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We set our feet today upon the path of Holy Week at the end of which we will watch with our Savior as he is crowned, not with a royal diadem but with a crown of thorns. We too ought to be embarrassed by this Gospel — for we have not always witnessed to our Savior as we should. But let us pray to God to give us the strength to follow Jesus, to walk with him and to watch with him, that we may one day live with him and praise him in that place where he sits enthroned in glory — where by the will of God and the grace and mercy of his sacrifice we will join with angels and archangels, with the prophets and the dreamers, with the blessed company of the apostles and martyrs, with the penitent and repentant — even those embarrassed into faith — where every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.+