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The problem with Palm Sunday, of course,
is that we all know how the story ends
and that distorts how we hear and interpret it.
Our foot-of-the-cross perspective
from which we watch Jesus’ death
is like reading the last chapter
of an Agatha Christie murder mystery
before reading the whole novel.
In cheating ourselves
into the climax of a story
without paying attention to how we got there,
we inevitably miss the larger story
and whatever goodness or truth
may be embedded in it.
An additional problem for us,
after all these years of preaching and teaching,
is that we read the betrayal,
through the filter of Christian doctrine
instead of just reading the story.
It is probably impossible
for us to do otherwise.
In other words, we have been given
all the official answers
before we have been allowed to actually
“Why did Jesus have to die?”
“To save us from our sins.”
“How did Jesus save us from our sins?”
“By serving as a ransom and once and for all sacrifice.”
While I am a whistle blower
I am not going to blow the whistle
on the theory of Atonement — at least not today.
when I was at the parish and university center
on the campus of The Ohio State University,
a student who sang in the choir
came up to me after worship one day
and said gravely, and with consternation
written all over his face,
“Stop messing with my Jesus.”
Well, I am not
going to mess with your Jesus today.
I am not
going to poke around in whatever took place
in 30 or 33 of the Common Era.
And that is because
there is a veil over that moment
when Jesus was convicted
and when he was executed.
We cannot see through that veil
that history has pulled over
But I am
going to mess with your Matthew.
Matthew isn’t sacred.
Matthew isn’t the Messiah.
Matthew is a guy
writing about a guy.
there are four story-tellers —
at least four.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Ringo (John).
that I always emphasize how
Luke and Matthew have very different
that get mashed together
in order to harmonize the differences.
And of course,
that Mark and John have no Christmas story.
Well, there are four Passion Stories
and each a little different
to emphasize what the author
wanted to emphasize — BECAUSE
they are each writing to different audiences,
and telling different stories.
we are going to meet Matthew
and Matthew’s story.
Because that is the one
we have been given.
So as I said, there is a veil
covering the events of Jesus’
actual arrest, conviction, and execution.
We only have the stories told
on this side of the veil.
They were told 45 to 80 years afterward
by people who were not witnesses.
Their stories do not pierce the veil
and instead, each in their own way,
seeks to explain why it happened
and what it meant.
So what we hear in Matthew’s telling
is what Matthew thought it was all about
and what Matthew thought it was important to tell
in the way that he told it.
Just like when you and I
tell important stories,
we tell them in the way
that emphasizes what we think
is important to tell.
The whole Passion story is too long
to take apart today,
so l want to focus on how Matthew depicts
Pontus Pilate and “the crowd.”
Remember, Pontus Pilate is long dead and gone
by the time Matthew is telling his story
and he he uses him symbolically.
And Matthew uses “the crowd”
symbolically as well.
The crowd is gone too,
by the time Matthew tells his story.
in the historic Christian narrative
becomes “the Jews.”
They are “the Jews”
largely because the Church
historically loves the Gospel of John,
and John’s Gospel is a polemic
against “the Jews.”
It is such a bitter irony,
as if Jesus and everyone
and who loved him
weren’t also Jews.
It is absolutely irrational
but that is how the narrative
got cemented in churches everywhere.
So even though we are talking about Matthew
we have to contend with John
and counter the erroneous religious narrative
that led to two millennia of anti-Semitism
and the Holocaust.
Matthew was a Jew
and he was writing to convince
other Jewish Christians,
and those who were not Christian yet,
and the emerging Christian Gospel,
should become the future understanding of Judaism.
Matthew is in fact, competing
with the dawning movement
of what would become Rabbinical Judaism.
Matthew is writing his gospel
fifty or more years after Jesus is dead.
Like us, he is on this side of the veil.
What is the veil?
The Jewish-Roman war.
From 66-70 CE —
30 to 35 years after Jesus’ execution
and about 20 years before Matthew writes his story —
there was an horrendously violent
war of rebellion
But you know what, it was also
even a civil war among the Jews
of Judea and Galilee.
By the end, they were fighting one another
even within Jerusalem.
At the end of those three years
not only was the temple in Jerusalem destroyed
but with murderous meticulousness
Rome also killed anyone associated with the religion.
Whatever remnant of the temple-based religion
there was left in 70 CE
they fled or went into hiding.
Basically, what we think of today
as Israel and Palestine
was wiped clean of a Temple-centered Judaism.
How bad was it?
Well Judaism almost went the way
of other historic religions
that have not carried forward.
It hung by a thread.
Hebrew as a language nearly died out.
It was kept alive
by those huddled in the Diaspora
of the Roman Empire.
What we know as Judaism today
is a religion resurrected
from those dark years
by what our Gospels call
This is both important
and hard for Christians to hold onto.
It is in such dissonance
with what we have been taught
that we have trouble keeping it
in our thoughts.
The Pharisees were not,
as our Gospels depict,
a bunch of legalistic scholars.
The Pharisaic movement
was in fact, started as a grassroots reform
that had as much conflict with the Temple,
and the religious aristocracy
that controlled the Temple,
as Jesus and John the Baptist did.
In fact, some people speculate
that Jesus himself was or came from
the Pharisaic movement.
The Pharisees in Matthew’s day
represented Matthew’s competition
for the heart and soul of Judaism.
So Matthew depicts them in a negative light
because he wants Judaism to become a religion
centered on the teachings of Rabbi Jesus.
Matthew uses his story
of the trial and conviction of Jesus
to put the Pharisees on the meat hook
and free Rome of any burden.
In his early telling
Matthew actually has Pontus Pilate
wash his hands of any blood,
has the locals – meaning ordinary Jewish citizens –
for the blood
to be on them — “and on their children.”
We imagine this is what actually happened
because Matthew tells us as much.
Matthew is explaining things
the way he wants to
and for a reason.
He is on the other side of the veil
just like we are.
Later Christian theology
gladly obliged Matthew
and for centuries
persecuted European Jews
as “Christ Killers”
Jesus was actually executed
by State Power
as an enemy of the State.
Matthew wants his contemporary Jews
to embrace Jesus
as the new Moses
born with the DNA of King David.
He wants them to reject
the competition, those emerging
from the Pharisaic movement
and what would eventually become,
So when Matthew tells the story
he has Pilate wash his hands — literally —
and the Jews
ask to take on the guilt — literally — for all time.
With the rise of antisemitism in the United States
it is more important than ever
to acknowledge that this story
has been used to fund antisemitism
for centuries and centuries
AND — it is a story!
A story, not with antisemitic roots
because Matthew was a Jew,
but rather, used against his competition.
It’s a story.
It’s a story
told from this side of the veil
and though Matthew was a lot closer
to the events than we are,
he is still telling a story.
Here is what we know
from this side of the veil.
Jesus spent three years avoiding Jerusalem.
Jesus preached the kingdom of God in rural Galilee
where he was proclaimed a healer, a prophet,
and a magician.
Then Jesus was proclaimed Messiah.
Then Jesus went to Jerusalem.
Once at Jerusalem he was arrested.
Then Jesus was executed by the Romans
Then Jesus was proclaimed as resurrected.
that grafted all those things together
are the stories
told by Matthew,
Maybe the greatest story ever told
given the impact
it has had on the world.
stories hold truth
whether or not
everything in the story is factual.
at least in The Episcopal Church,
is not that the Gospel stories are factual
it is that they are true.
That is what
I want to leave you with
on this Palm Sunday.
is not that the Gospel stories are factual
it is that they are true.
Ponder that this Holy Week.