We continue our reading notes on Matthew’s Passion narrative, in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Today we come to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Matt 27:27-3127 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 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.
While Matthew is brief and matter-of-fact in referring to the physical torture and crucifixion of Jesus, he includes much more detail in describing the insults and ridicule, which seem to him to be more than incidental to the point of the story. This could be because of OT passages like Isa 50:6, Ps 22:6-8 and Ps 69:9, 19, 20, which highlight the mockery. Moreover, in the ancient world one’s honour was considered more important than health, wealth, or even life itself; so the dishonouring of Jesus is culturally more reprehensible than the physical suffering.
The “taunting” Jesus endures also echoes the words of Jesus about the “reviling” (same Greek word) that his disciples will endure for his name (5:11) and offers a model for his disciples when they are similarly treated. It’s possible that this part of Jesus’ experience had the most resonance with Matthew’s readers, if they were being dishonoured by their family/community but not to the point of physical persecution.
Matt 27:32-3732 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. 37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
By recording the fact that a stranger had to be drafted to carry Jesus’ cross for him, Matthew may be pointing out Jesus’ abandonment by his friends – this is surely something his disciples should have been there to do for him. It may also be an allusion to 16:24.
The wine mixed with gall may have been offered in sympathy, as a narcotic (as Mark’s account suggests, describing it as “myrrh”). Matthew changes Mark’s wording and introduces the word ‘gall’, probably to echo the language of Ps 69:21; this emphasises the bitter taste, implying that it is offered in mockery.
Jesus’ refusal to drink the wine may echo his vow of abstinence in 26:29, or perhaps may indicate his determination to experience the full measure of the pain of death.
The dividing of his clothing was the usual practice in which the Roman executioners could keep their possessions (I suppose every job has to have its perqs). The dividing of his clothes and casting lots for them clearly echo Ps 22:18, but Matthew makes no explicit reference to the Psalm, until it is on the lips of Jesus in verse 46.
The sign over Jesus’ head, like the purple robe and crown of thorns, is an ironic revelation of the true identity of Jesus. Just as the religious leaders had mocked Jesus’ claim to be a prophet (26:68), the political authorities join in mocking his claim to be a king.
Matt 27:38-4438 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Unlike Luke, Matthew makes no distinction between the first and second of the bandits, highlighting the chorus of mockery rather than Jesus’ saving words to the one who repents.
The word the NIV translates as “rebels” can elsewhere be used to mean “thieves” or “bandits” (e.g. John 10:1). However, there was probably a political dimension to their crime, since they are being punished with crucifixion; and (Josephus and others regularly use the word to refer to revolutionaries
The mockery comes at Jesus from all angles – from the rebels, from the crowds and from the religious leaders. In particular, the mocking focuses on his claim to be the Son of God, and echoes the language of the temptation narrative in chapter 4 (“If you are the Son of God…”).
Again, there are echoes of the OT (v43 echoes Ps 22:8), identifying Jesus with the righteous sufferer of the psalms, and his enemies with the ‘evil men’ who oppose him. The irony of verse 42 (“He saved others…but he can’t save himself!”) is powerful and unmistakable, just at the point where he refuses to save himself (though he can) in order to save the world.
To think about
Throughout this chapter, Matthew is dropping hints about the parallels between Psalm 22 and the experience of Jesus. It becomes explicit in v46 when Jesus cries out the opening words of this Psalm. It’s highly probably that Jesus was not simply referring to the feeling of being “forsaken” by the Father, but was calling to mind the whole Psalm – both the suffering, and also the future hope of vindication.
Over the next three days, at the end of each post we’ll read through the story of Jesus’ crucifixion interspersed with parts of Psalm 22. Read them and contemplate.