The Gathering Storm
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, "As you know, the Passover is two days away -- and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. "But not during the Feast," they said, "or there may be a riot among the people."
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
Then one of the Twelve -- the one called Judas Iscariot -- went to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?" So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
Matthew portrays Jesus' passion as an encounter with destiny, not a destiny of blind fate but one made inevitable by the strong commitments of Jesus' mission from God and the fierce resistance of the power of death.
The opening scenes of the passion story set the mood. Matthew begins with a solemn introduction (26:1-5): now that Jesus has finished all of his life giving words to Israel, he is ready to enact his most powerful teaching and most compelling example. With the penetrating insight of the Son of God, Jesus calmly foretells to his disciples the coming events of the passion.
In contrast with the serenity of Jesus, the religious leaders gather to forge a desperate plot. Even as they determine to arrest him "by treachery" they fear Jesus' magnetic hold on the people of Israel. Throughout his gospel Matthew portrays the religious leaders in a single, negative dimension. They symbolize opposition to Jesus and his message and their vices illustrate what a disciple is not to be.
Not everyone rejected Jesus, as the poignant scene of the anointing demonstrates (26:6-13). When he is in Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem dining in Simon the leper's home (so typical of Jesus' compassion for the sick and outcasts), an unnamed woman offers Jesus a lavish gesture of hospitality and love. She anoints his head with precious perfumed oil.
While in the first century world anointing guests with oil was not unknown in banquets of the wealthy, the disciples of Jesus consider the woman's action as shocking and extravagant. But for Jesus and the gospel, this act of lavish love is just right for the fateful moment of the passion. The woman anoints Jesus on the head, just as prophets and kings were anointed--thus she offers Jesus' the homage he is due. And, as Jesus himself proclaims, in lovingly anointing his body she has prepared him for death and burial. Loving reverence for Jesus and an understanding of his death are signs of true discipleship--and so the bold gesture of this anonymous woman would be remembered "wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world." Without question this is the most remarkable endorsement of any character in the entire New Testament.
In stark contrast to the tender and bold love of the woman, Judas, one of Jesus' twelve apostles, goes to the chief priests and sells his soul in betraying Jesus. Matthew alone notes the counting out of "thirty pieces of silver," the price of slave according to Exodus 21:32. Undoubtedly, Judas was a painful enigma to the early community: how could one of the Twelve chosen by Jesus so betray him? Matthew's Gospel does not underestimate the corrosive influence of money and greed: "where your heart is, there will your treasure be...You cannot serve God and mammon" (6:21,24).
The cast of characters is on stage--Jesus, his disciples, his opponents. The machinery of betrayal and death begins to turn. And, notes Matthew, Judas went out "looking for an opportunity to hand him over" (26:16). The Greek word Matthew uses for "opportunity" is eukairian--the kairos, the moment of choice and destiny. There is irony here: Both Judas and Jesus move towards the same fateful moment--for one it will be a time of betrayal and self-destruction; for Jesus, a moment of ultimate fidelity and life-giving.top of page