The Messiah Condemned

Matthew 27:11-31

MatthewMeanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"

"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer.

Then Pilate asked him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?" But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge-- to the great amazement of the governor.

Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor.

"Barabbas," they answered.

"What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked.

They all answered, "Crucify him!"

"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!"

All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.

After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Commentary by Donald Senior, C.P.

The passion story shifts to a new scene as Jesus is brought to trial before Pilate, the Roman procurator. Now themes of kingship and allegiance come to the fore.

Pilate questions Jesus on his identity as a king but the mysterious prisoner offers no response to the accusations hurled at him by the leaders. The Christian reader knows that Jesus is truly a king but a king unlike any that Pilate could understand.

It was apparently a custom to release to the crowd a prisoner of their choice on the occasion of the Passover. Pilate offers the assembled people a choice of either Barabbas, a "notorious prisoner" (27:16) or Jesus. Ancient manuscripts suggest that Matthew may have dramatically heightened the focus of the choice by having Barabbas actually named "Jesus the one called Barabbas" paralleling "Jesus, the one called the Christ".

Each time Pilate offers that choice the leaders and the crowds choose to free Barabbas and demand to have Jesus crucified. Matthew builds the drama to the final moment. In a gesture reminiscent of the ritual for declaring innocence in Deuteronomy 21, Pilate washes his hands and tells the crowd: "I am innocent of this man's blood. Look to it yourselves." In reply, the "entire people" declares: "His blood be upon us and upon our children." (27:24-25).

For nearly two thousand years this passage has been tragically misinterpreted as an excuse to punish Jews for their supposed guilt for the death of Jesus. There is no question that Matthew intends this as a dramatic and decisive moment. Jesus, Son of Abraham, Son of David, had come to his people and like the prophets before him had experienced rejection. All of the opposition led by the errant leaders now culminates here in the passion story. While the Gentile Pilate declares his innocence, Jesus' own people accept responsibility for his innocent blood. Matthew sees here a turning point in history which would ultimately lead to the mission to the Gentiles.

But did the evangelist intend this text as a perpetual condemnation of his own Jewish people? Certainly not! Matthew surely faulted Jesus' contemporaries for not being open to the gospel and may even have interpreted the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt of 66-70 A.D. as a sign of God's punishment on that generation (that is, "us and our children"). But there is no evidence he intended this text to be an excuse for anti-Semitism or believed that Jesus' own Jewish people should be exempt from being treated with the same compassion, forgiveness and justice the disciples of Jesus should show to every human being and how much more the very flesh and blood to which Jesus belongs.

Jesus the king was now condemned by his own people and by the Roman authorities. The soldiers mock his seeming powerlessness, using the symbols of imperial power--the crown, the scepter, and the rituals of homage--to deride Jesus. But the reader knows another truth: Jesus is invested with God's power--not the oppressive power of brute force or domination but the liberating power of love and justice.

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