We continue our reading notes on Matthew’s Passion narrative, in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Today we look at the trial before Pilate, in which Matthew continues to emphasise the innocence of Jesus. Although it may seem Pilate is concerned with Jesus’ innocence, his delaying tactics are probably more about toying with the Jewish rulers to show who was really in charge. After all, Pilate had a reputation for being brutal and self-serving, and was quite hostile to the Jews early in his rule. He caused great offence when he attempted to set up a Roman standard within Jerusalem, when he tried use temple treasury money to fund aqueduct construction, and when he defiled the temple sacrifices by mixing human blood in with them (see Lk 13:1).
Matt 27:11-1411 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. 12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
The accusation before the Sanhedrin (see last week) was a religious one, regarding blasphemy. Now before Pilate it is a political one – that he claimed to be “King of the Jews.”
Just like when he was before the Sanhedrin, Jesus refuses to offer a defence to the charges against him. Pilate’s amazement echoes the amazement earlier in Mt of the disciples (8:27, 21:20), the crowds (9:33, 15:31) and the Pharisees (22:22). A person was expected to vigorously defend, plead, ingratiate, or otherwise contest the charges. This was an unheard-of trial strategy.
Matt 27:15-1815 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
Interestingly, this custom isn’t referred to outside the gospels, but it is consistent with what we know of Roman practice. Matthew doesn’t tell us that Barabbas is a murderer or insurrectionist (see Mk15:7 for this information), but does call him a “well-known prisoner.” Later copies of Matthew’s gospel only call him Barabbas, out of reverence for the name “Jesus.” But by giving usJesus Barabbas’ full name, Matthew may be heightening the drama and irony of this choice between “two Jesuses.” In Hebrew, bar-abbas means “son of the father,” yet another irony.
What does Matthew mean in verse 18 about the Jews’ “self-interest”? It may be that Pilate knew they had no genuine desire to protect the Romans from a popular revolutionary leader, and so the charges must have some other motive. Alternatively, it may be that Pilate knew the religious leaders were jealous of Jesus’ greater popularity – by presenting the crowd with a choice, he thought they’d go against their leaders and have Jesus released. Or maybe a bit of both.
Matt 27:19-2319 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.” 20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. 21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. 22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” 23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
Given the role that dreams have played earlier in this Gospel (1:20, 2:12, 13, 19, 22) it is likely that Matthew wants us to see this as a divine warning that Pilate should have taken seriously, increasing his blameworthiness.
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the crowds have been pulled to and fro between Jesus and the religious leaders. Now, under the persuasion and incitement of the chief priests and elders, they commit themselves to the campaign for Jesus to be crucified. (Whether or not this crowd was made up of the same people as the ones who greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday, they probably fulfil the same symbolic role in the narrative, representing the nation as a whole.)
The crowd thus chooses the “Jesus” who represents human efforts to bring about their restoration – a would-be leader of a violent military and political insurrection. And they reject the Jesus who comes in peace and submits to violence in order to bring about Israel’s restoration God’s way. In doing this, Jesus shows himself to be the true “Son-of-the-Father.”
Matt 27:24-2624 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!” 25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Pilate’s handwashing (recorded only in this Gospel) echoes a traditional Jewish gesture of repudiation of responsibility for innocent blood (Deut 21:6-7), which he may have been aware of. But his words (“It is your responsibility!”) unknowingly echo those of the chief priests to Judas (back in v4). Like the Jewish leaders, he share their guilt and can’t simply wash his hands of it.
Verse 25 has notoriously been used over the centuries to justify anti-Semitism, and is traditionally read as placing upon all Jewish people, for all time, the particular guilt for Jesus death. However, it’s far more likely that Matthew would have understood this self-invoked curse on this and the next generation, as fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. (See also 23:35-36.)
The references in the gospels to the flogging are brief and unadorned, in contrast with some of the cinematic and sermonic portrayals.
To think about
Echoing the many other times we’ve had cause to ask this question: which “Jesus” do you choose? The one who gives you what you want in this life: wealth and success according to how our world defines it? Or the one who bids you “come and die” that you might truly gain life?