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4 November. Matthew chapters 27-28
These last two chapters of the Gospel cover Matthew’s version of the most important events of the whole Bible – the death and resurrection of Jesus. What can I add to the volumes that have been written about those world-changing three days?
Let’s consider the attitudes towards Jesus of the people who encountered him. Firstly those who responded negatively. Firstly, the “chief priests and elders” (27:20) who whipped up the emotions of the crowd to have Jesus crucified, even though Pilate was minded to release him. Those same priests and elders panicked, if Matthew’s account is to be believed, on Easter day when the report of the resurrection reached them: like most politicians whose judgements have been proved wrong, rather than admitting their mistake they turned to bribery and false reporting in order to suppress the truth (28:12-14).
Then there were the soldiers who mocked him, made him (and Simon) carry the cross, gambled for his clothing as he hung dying. And the two bandits hung alongside him who, along with the soldiers and passers-by, taunted him to perform one last miracle by coning down from the cross – just as he had been tempted by the Devil in the desert to perform miracles for the sake of his own health and popularity. And of course the crowd, who would go along with whatever the religious leaders said.
Two key players changed their mind in all the confusion of the proceedings of Holy Week: Pilate who seemed to believe Jesus was innocent, but was not prepared to risk his own reputation in Rome by letting a riot begin because of it; and Judas, who repented of his betrayal. But for him it was too late.
But among other observers were individuals who bucked the trend, who had the courage to ignore popular opinion and believe that Jesus was worth respect, who had at least the common humanity which cannot ignore another person in distress. These few made all the difference.
There was Pilate’s wife, who because of a presumably God-given dream (what was it, we wonder?) was convinced of Jesus’ innocence (27:19) – but her word was not enough to turn Pontius from his course. There were the unnamed bystanders who twice offered him wine (presumably as a feeble attempt at anaesthetising his pain – which he refused). There were his own mother, the mothers of some of his disciples and “many other women” who endured the mental torment of watching him and the two thieves die in agony, because they believed in Jesus to the end. Hats off to Joseph of Arimathea: he had the courage to believe in Jesus’ right to a respectful burial, to ask for his bloodied body, and to risk ritual uncleanness by handling it. The two Marys (Magdalen, and the mother of James and Joseph) also were willing to start embalming the body, and to come back at first light after the Sabbath to continue despite knowing the sealed tombstone would be almost impossible to move. If they had not done so, would they have witnessed the most incredible sight ever?
Maybe these people had been in the crowd when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and remembered that showing mercy to someone in great difficulty (irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, beliefs or what got them into difficulty) is a sign of love for God as well a neighbour. Maybe they were also there when he said “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”. For it is easy – I will admit to it myself – to walk past when someone is in trouble, especially if they are not like us. It is not difficult to agree with the principle that we are all brothers and sisters in this life and we need to help each other. But it is far more difficult to put it into practice. Thank God for those who do, and especially for those who helped Jesus and showed him respect in both life and death.