Making of a Reader, VII Six Scenes from Matthew 26
In the fourth installment of this series, I highlighted Matthew's use of juxtaposition, an editing style which deliberately places one scene in the story alongside another (Pietisten, Summer 2000). The reasons for this careful placement are as diverse as the colors on a painter's palette. For example, an editor can create a natural sequence for moving the story line along, or she may cause us to compare and/or contrast one scene with an adjacent one. The important point is to understand that all placement is intentional and that we must take this into consideration as readers. Matthew 26 is a remarkable example of how attention to this careful placement provides dramatic effect and meaning to the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. In order to highlight this editing technique, I find it helpful to read the narrative as if I were following a play.
Scene One: "When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 'You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified'" (vss. 1-2).
Finished saying all what things? To answer this we must first glance back over the 25th chapter and the long parables of judgment concerning the coming Kingdom of God. In fact this large body of Jesus' teaching begins when he sits on the Mount of Olives with his disciples (Matt. 24:3). These are thick and dark passages, brooding with images of a coming storm and urgent warnings for watchfulness, including careful attention to staying the course as faithful disciples who await the return of their master.
The disciples are preoccupied with understanding the timing of this coming catastrophe. Indeed, all that Jesus says throughout chapters 24 and 25 appears to be prompted by this single question: "Tell us when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age."
Jesus does not respond directly until the opening scene of chapter 26. Now the timing is precise and chilling. Two days! After Passover..."the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." The disciples do not respond. All this time they thought they were discussing eschatology. What lies imminently before them is far more serious. Jesus reveals the timing of his own death.
Scene two: "Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the place of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, 'Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people' " (vss. 3-5).
As the curtain closes upon Jesus telling the disciples he will be handed over, it rises again to reveal a secret room in the palace of the High Priest, where we overhear the first stirrings of the conspiracy to make the arrest. Already, Matthew has given his readers a pre-eminent position from which to view the unfolding drama. We see both scenes and are privy to both conversations. Unlike the disciples, who hear Jesus announce his own death, we also know that the plot is in motion to bring it about. However, those who gather to lay plans to grab hold of Jesus do not know that Jesus has just told his disciples that after the Passover he will be handed over. The elders think their plan is a secret. Jesus is already aware and has announced this to his disciples. Matthew uses a critical technique to develop tension within his drama. The audience knows more than do the actors on the stage. The disparity of information draws us in like a magnet.
Scene three: The focus returns to Jesus, who is staying at a house in Bethany. During the visit, a woman pours expensive ointment over the head of Jesus. The disciples respond as if it were a waste of a valuable commodity that might have been sold, with the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus does not respond to their argument per se, but rather proclaims that the pouring of the ointment was actually a ritual of preparation for his burial. Once again, death becomes the theme of the whole scene! The disciples, who voice their outrage at the irresponsible use of expensive ointment, are now silent. But what kind of silence is this? Matthew doesn't give us a single hint into the disciples' reaction. My mind explores the possibilities. Dumfounded! Shocked! Denying! Angry! Confused! Frightened! We are left to wonder. The curtain falls.
Scene four: " Judas, one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, 'What will you give me if I betray him to you' " (vss. 14-16)?
Matthew brings us back to the conspiracy to secure the alternating pattern with which he structures the drama. However, the two separate settings—Jesus/disciples vs. conspirators—begin to intersect as one of the disciples visits a chief priest. We are unprepared for this development. From Jesus' own band of followers will come the vital connection that seems to give the conspirators the edge they are looking for. Judas' act carries a deeper irony. Just as the disciples wanted to sell the expensive ointment for some money in the previous scene, now Judas will sell the priceless life of his master for thirty pieces of silver. By setting these scenes against each other, Matthew is able to high-light this strange similarity without directly commenting on it.
We are left in the dark concerning Judas' motivation. We are not given a warning and cannot even discover when the first thoughts of betrayal rose to his consciousness. Matthew allows us to only overhear the details of the transaction. We are led to conclude that he must be acting alone. Was Judas with the others while the woman anointed the head of Jesus? Was he there in that first scene when Jesus announced his coming death? We are always searching for a cause for these matters, some reasonable explanation, some early tip-off. Even as we recoil when the faithful servant conspires with the enemies, we are aware that we stand on familiar ground. Betrayal haunts our greatest literature and drama. We know it to be real, part of the way things are. In the resulting confusion, the forces of light and darkness diffuse into a tangle of gray. Try as we might to keep things clear and obvious, good and bad, light and darkness, Kingdom of God and Kingdom of the world, Matthew forces us to acknowledge that the two are present in the same space, often in the same person.
Scene five: It is Passover and Jesus eats the ancient meal with his disciples, dipping the matzoth into the bitter herbs, the fresh greens into salt water, blending the haroset and the bitter herb into an Hillel sandwich. Judas is there. The conspirator is in the room. For the first time in the chapter the two sides now stand under the same spotlight. As in scene one, Jesus is aware of much more than the others around him. Matthew has also provided this awareness to us. He announces that one of those dipping greens with him will betray him. A flurry of denial follows. "Surely, not I, Lord," they argue. Then Judas and Jesus walk to the front of the stage, alone for the first time. "Surely, not I, Rabbi," says Judas. Judas uses the same line as the other disciples. Does Judas suspect that his secret is known? Or can he lie with the best of them? The tension builds as the two face each other. We know what the even disciples do not know—what Jesus now announces to Judas. "You have said so."
Scene six: Matthew changes the scene without changing the location. Everyone is still sitting around the table and eating. The writer does not resolve the previous conversation. Does Judas remain at table? Did the disciples overhear and understand the exchange between Jesus and Judas? The matter is simply dropped. Even issues of betrayal and conspiracy give way before the central concern of the moment. In the same way, Jesus transformed the meaning of the woman anointing his head with costly ointment into preparation for his burial, now—"Jesus took a loaf of bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, 'take, eat; this is my body.' " With this single line, the Passover meal is transfigured into the last supper. This is the final meal. Passover is finished. It is time for the Son of Man to be handed over.
Let us leave theology aside and stay with the story as it moves inexorably toward this moment. Matthew has gripped us and will not let us turn away. This is the time that Jesus spoke of in the very first scene of the chapter. We watch all the actors in this drama move within this powerful narrative flow without knowing the full significance of their action. How can they? No one has the full scope of this event. Neither conspirators nor disciples can fathom their own roles and how they interconnect. Who is in charge here? Everything that follows from this point will only continue to confirm that each person has already been given a part. Like them, we think we act out of our own choices, only to discover that we are caught up in something much larger. After supper, Jesus will tell his friends that they will scatter and that Peter will deny him. They all argue against what we will come to witness, and what they will come to discover to their horror, was inevitable. We are only able to conclude that this moment, this death, has been the plot of the entire story. We are here because there was no other ending possible. It is not the conspiracy that leads to this ending. Jesus wrests this power from them with his own insistence that his death is in his own hands, that it has a deeper meaning than anyone can imagine. Even Jesus' profound pleading in the garden that this might end in some other way cannot avert the deep current that brings him to this destiny. How else can we watch the strange irony of humans laying hold of the Son of Man, who can be cuffed only because this is what "must" happen.
Why it "must" happen will be debated and commented on by theologians outside the drama, from a place of distance and safety. Matthew is not interested in this question. We are to stand in the moment and concede to the hand of the author, whose will is greater than our own. We can only hope that the one who wills such a destiny for this Jesus understands what he is doing and that we can endure it. That we may even dare to hope that it is for our own good.