ColumnsSunday’s Word

Third Song of the Suffering Servant

April 5, 2020


— At the Procession with Palms

Mt 21:1-11

Jesus enters Jerusalem

— At the Mass

Is 50:4-7

Third Song of the Suffering Servant

Ps 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24

Jesus’ Lament on the Cross

Phil 2:6-11

The Hymn of Incarnation “Emptying”

Mt 26:14—27:66

Saint Matthew Passion


Matthew’s Passion is among the more famous texts in the Bible. The scholarly consensus is that Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as a source for his own. And the Passion accounts are indeed very much alike. There is one remarkable difference, however, in a couple of passages that are unique to Matthew’s account. The story of Judas’ remorse and suicide (27:3-10) and the hand washing of Pilate (27:24-25) not only are unique to this Gospel, but they have similar features. One such link is the tagline, “Look to it yourself.” (27:4, 24).

More to the point, each is preoccupied with the theme of shedding “innocent blood.” Judas throws the money back into the treasury because he has betrayed innocent blood. Pilate washes his hands, claiming he is innocent of this man’s blood. Of course, the two of them are primarily responsible for the death of Jesus, and their gestures do not change that.

A third comparison between the two passages concerns the method they choose to make their claim. In returning the money and washing of hands two traditional approaches to resolving conflict are brought forward — payback and purge.

Long ago I came across the studies of Pierre Maranda and Elli Köngäs-Maranda in folk narratives, and how those are repeated in our lives. They point to two ways in which conflicts are commonly resolved, one involving the hero of the story and the other involving the villain. In the first instance, the hero adopts the evil practices of the villain against him, even though what attracted us to the hero in the first place is his avoidance of such behavior. But when it comes to treating the villain with his own medicine, we approve. This contradiction is sometimes called poetic justice, distinguishing it from true justice. It has more in common with vengeance than ethics, and is captured in the term “payback.”

As regards the villain, another transformation takes place. In this case, a character who has been adopting certain nefarious practices, identifying him as the villain, undergoes a change in our perception of him. Now he becomes the very personification of the evil we despise. It is as if noun and adjective switched places. The character with an evil behavior now becomes an evil with a character’s face. The result is that we feel that eliminating that character, usually violently, will solve the problem of evil by cleansing the world of its traces. This is similar to scapegoating, and is at best wishful thinking. In any case, it is indicated by the term “purge,” and is the impulse behind many pogroms and purges in our common history.

The point of all this is that Judas and Pilate represent these two options, but in parody. They attempt to escape responsibility, but it does not work. Their decisions are responsible for the death of Jesus.

Which brings us to Jesus himself. In Matthew’s Gospel more than the others, Jesus insists on forgiving others (Matthew 18, for example). But it is Luke that has provided us with the most concise expression of Jesus’ position on the matter. As he hangs on the cross, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The one who forgives refuses to treat the offender in the same way he treats others. At the same time, the offender is not equated with the offense, for “they know not what they do.”

So it is in Matthew’s Passion account. Jesus refuses the destructive impulses of payback and purge, even while those who attempt it are parodied for their futile attempts to make it work for them.

For reflection: Jesus died as he lived, and as he taught others.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.