Preaching the Passions
Palm Sunday and Holy Week 2023
The challenges for the preacher this week are many, quantity of words to be uttered among them. The two massive passion narratives, for Palm Sunday and Good Friday, add to this weight of words, but are among the most important moments of the year. This year on those two days we have what were the traditional Gospels from the Book of Common Prayer and its Western predecessors, prior to the three-year lectionary cycle.
Matthew and John are thus the two classic accounts, known not just from their liturgical reading but the musical adaptations, and from their translation into familiar works of art. Then and now, these two also exemplify the challenge of preaching different texts and perspectives; with versions of the same story central to the two liturgies, telling it in two markedly different ways, the challenge of preaching on the actual text, rather than on a world we imagine behind it, comes to the fore.
There is a tension of course between the bare facts discernible in the story of Jesus’ passion and the interpretive overlay of the Gospels (and of Paul and other NT texts), which tell us why all this happens or what it means. I have referred elsewhere to the progressive objection, not just to the excesses of penal substitutionary atonement but even to atonement itself, to the whole idea that the death of Jesus achieves something other than a moral lesson about oppression. We seem, in those moments of understandable reaction to the ways the tradition abstracts the death of Jesus, to strain at gnats of history while swallowing camels of interpretation.
These narratives are not transparent windows onto the events themselves, but highly developed theological portraits of them (like related works of visual art). What is offered to congregations this week should not be a harmony of the two, nor an account pieced together from favored fragments, but the actual text of scripture. This does not mean that we can ignore other information about the ancient text and world, or from our contemporary experience, but first we need to encounter these texts as they are rather than excerpting, re-writing, or abstracting.
There are at least two reasons we cannot, or should not, look past the accounts rather than reading them as they are. One is that we actually have no immediate access to the events, but only to these texts. Other versions will be our creations, and mirror our sensibilities. Like them or not on a given day, we are at their mercy. The other reason is that this mercy is precisely where we place our trust; while Jesus himself is the one in whom we have hoped, he is not the imaginative construction of our varied wish-fulfillment, but the Word revealed in our encounter with these particular words. I will choose the mistakes we may make, falteringly attempting fidelity to these words, over the mistakes we make imagining a different of convenient or interesting story in its place.
These two Passion stories are distinctive, but both raise problems. There are other ways to “duck” besides those already mentioned, such as swapping the Matthew texts on Sunday and using the snippet from the Palms Gospel intended for the liturgical prologue and blessing of palms as Gospel for the day, but this is not using the lectionary or liturgy we are given. The Church has always managed to live with the tension between observing the Palms story and hearing the Passion Gospel, and the benefits of doing both are many.
There are also pressures from some quarters to drop John from Good Friday altogether, given its anti-Judaic tone and the ways it has been read as supporting anti-semitism. This is a very serious question, and while I will come back to John, I feel it is incumbent on all Christian preachers to address anti-semitism whenever this is read; but dropping it on Good Friday is no solution at all.
Matthew takes over the bare Markan account in toto, but adds elements (quite subtly, for the most part) that exemplify our basic hermeneutical problem: despite retaining Mark’s account, with its emphasis on the humanity of Jesus and the nature of his ordeal, such as in the cry of desolation (“My God, my God…”) being the only word recorded from the Cross, Matthew doubles down on the claim that all this means something other than what the implied onlooker sees as a condemned man go to his fate. Prophesy is being fulfilled, and God is in charge.
The changes and additions all serve this theme. Matthew (only) mentions thirty pieces of silver, which implies fulfillment of prophecy (Zech 11:12-13); the instruction to prepare the Passover now includes the note that Jesus’ “time is at hand” (26:18); Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane moves more quickly and clearly to full acceptance of divine will (v. 43); at the arrest scene, Jesus asks “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (v. 53-4).
The role of Judas is emphasized in Matthew, and the inclusion of his repentance (27:3-10) is unique in the Gospels. It underscores the connection with Zechariah’s thirty coins, but Matthew also invokes Jeremiah (vv. 9-10), which while puzzling at least clearly presents this as fulfilling prophecy. Pilate’s wife’s dream and his hand-washing are also unique to Matthew, and suggest that a different power is at work from the apparent domination of Rome. Last but not least, Matthew uniquely adds the anecdote of the guards at the tomb, which serves to anticipate the divine source of the resurrection.
Matthew and his audience—including us as readers now—are being presented with two stories in one. One is the meaningless judicial murder of an inconvenient religious dissident, the other is the salvation of the world. If we remove one side of this tension and only consider the murder, we have a mere tragedy, and if we remove the other to affirm divine power, we have only an abstraction. What the Gospel prods us to consider is the connection. The difficult but powerful suggestion by Matthew is that events that do not seem liberative may actually be so, or may become so in God’s time. It is not—despite some fundamentalisms’ tendency to abstraction or to woeful notions of “satisfaction”—that these apparent and historical events with their political and social dimensions are not relevant, relative to some cosmic transaction. Rather this is what the love of God looks like, for good or ill.
Just now I glossed over one detail in Matthew’s account of the trial before Pilate, where the crowd calls out not just “crucify him!” but chillingly “His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:25). The history of reception of this text is simply horrifying; in context, our evangelist—who is the most embedded in Jewish thought and practice of all four— is trying to make sense both of the pangs of mutual rejection being experienced between the nascent Christian community and its wider Jewish family, and also alluding to the disaster of the Jewish revolt, and the end of Jerusalem and its Temple. There is no eternal curse here, but a (deplorable) moment of trying to make sense of alienation and suffering (again) in a specific generation.
These issues are all the more pressing when reading John. Again, a background of inner-group tensions and wider social upheaval must inform its tendency to attribute to “the Jews” as a whole (better translated “the Judeans”) the role in Jesus’ demise that the synoptics lay clearly at the feet of some corrupt elites. Even the Matthew text just considered reflects how “the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matt 27:20), rather than some inherent collective malice.
Maybe just a century after it was written, Clement of Alexandria reflected on the nature and composition of this Gospel: “John, the last of all, seeing that what was corporeal was set forth in the Gospels, on the entreaty of his intimate friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel” (cited in Eusebius Hist. 6.14.7). That is, John’s account is not so much presenting the two intertwined stories as in Matthew, but makes the divine story of Jesus’ glory primary. The tension between human history and divine purpose may then be harder to discern, because John does not really purport to describe the mere events, but renders their hidden truth for the eye of faith.
So in the Passion narrative John’s Jesus is uniquely masterful, always in control of his destiny, and just as elsewhere in this Gospel he moves unerringly through action and conversation, while others flounder and misunderstand him (Pilate’s “what is truth?” moment being perhaps the height of this motif). On the cross Jesus now cries out in triumph, not desolation.
John’s ancient readers however still knew that there was another “corporeal” version of the story behind this one, the story of a pitiful condemned Galilean. So do we. All the more than for Matthew, John’s presentation presents a divine plan, but requires the memory of a different story to show how audacious it was to claim that the crucified one was the Word made flesh, lifted up to draw the world to himself.
This is another reason we need more than one Gospel, and we need to hear Matthew’s Passion before John’s in Holy Week. The best way we can address the misuse of both these narratives in historic anti-semitism, and in the oppressive abstractions of theologies that ignore how Jesus of Nazareth died, oppressed and forsaken, is actually to read them. The cross cannot truly be the banner behind which people rally for violent and oppressive ends, because the poor man Jesus and the triumphant savior are one and the same.