We have traveled a long road through the Gospel of Matthew and we find ourselves at the passages that mark the tragic end of Jesus’ life and the most shocking visual statement of the Christian faith. Humanity killed our God in the most horrific way imaginable. It was something Jesus had hinted toward throughout his teachings, but it had always gone unnoticed.
The story, though, is not one singular event. There is an entire evening where the actions of each of the cast of characters play a part in the final outcome of the story. It begins with Jesus at the Passover table serving the Last Supper to his disciples (Matthew 26:26-30).
Breaking of the bread and the passing of the cup recorded here would have been unusual, to say the least, for a typical Passover meal. Jesus probably would have engendered some strange looks from his disciples as he was changing the ancient traditions they all were used to. What was he doing? What did he mean by these things?
The actions Jesus told the disciples to take would amount to cannibalism according to the law. What was he trying to say to them?
Can you imagine your pastor saying these things from the pulpit on a Sunday morning? Of course not. Your pastor is not the Son of God, but this change from the traditional order laid out for the feast still would have been an unusual occurrence in this setting.
Jesus is trying to tell them what is going to happen, and how their salvation will be structured; not in the law of Moses, but in the body of the Christ. Unlike anywhere else in the Gospel, Jesus is bringing an image before them to reinforce the teaching. He is trying to warn them of his death, but again, they don’t understand the urgency Jesus is trying to convey.
Matthew 27:11-14 places Jesus before Pilate, and the Roman Procurator gets directly to the point. If Jesus declared himself king of the Jews it would be a capital offence to Roman law. Pilate, seeing an innocent man before him, gives him a way out, but Jesus tells him the allegations are true; he is the king of the Jews. Jesus has, in essence, sealed his fate. He has but one reply; all other charges placed upon Jesus are met by silence instead of a heated rebuttal.
Golgotha is a desolate place outside the walls of Jerusalem where enemies of the empire were sent to execution. A gruesome sight lies before the eyes of the people as three men are hung on crosses by nails. The Roman crucifixion is thought to be the most inhumane system of execution ever invented by humanity. The amount of pain inflicted upon the victim alone would have been enough to drive most insane.
Scripture tells us Jesus occupied the center cross where a sign was placed over his head giving him the title king of the Jews (Matthew 27:37). Here in this place, as I said before, God was killed by humanity. It is the agony of Jesus as he cries out, and the responses of the people as they mock the man who came to save them, that should sway our hearts. In Matthew’s Gospel, there is no thief who comes to the defense of Jesus. No one defends the actions of the man from Galilee.
It is a different story than we are used to. Typically, we read Luke or John at this juncture and recount the scene where one thief rebukes the other for mocking Jesus, but Matthew paints a darker tale. Here, there are no disciples close by. There are no friendly faces. His mother is not there weeping. Everyone has abandoned the Christ.
At the sixth hour of the day, darkness falls on the land (Matthew 27:45) and Jesus’ cry of God’s abandon leads us to believe God was even vacant from the scene. Let us remember that throughout the Scriptures, especially in the Old Testament, clouds and darkness signify God’s presence during the daylight hours. When Moses went to the top of the mountain in Exodus, a cloud obscured the peak of the mountain while God spoke to Moses. At Jesus’ death, when the weight of sin was most heavily upon Jesus, God was not far. At that time, more so than any other, the Father was close to the Son; weeping as he suffered.
God had forsaken Christ, not by being absent, but by being present when Christ most felt shame. The cross, with which we adorn our walls and hang on our necks, was not a beautiful picture to any of the people present. It was a shameful reminder of what happened when someone opposed the empire. At that moment, God felt shame; the most human of experiences.
Questions for discussion
• Is it right for God to be present at the crucifixion? Why or why not?
• Is the cross something we should see as beauty, or something we should see as a shameful reminder of how humanity responded to God? Does it make a difference?
• Is Matthew’s depiction of the crucifixion different from the story we are used to? Why should we discuss something as depressing as this?