The reading of the whole story of Jesus’ last night and day of his ministry, the last supper, trial, crucifixion and burial, is an important part of Christian liturgy on this Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Palm Sunday). It poses a particular problem when, as this year, it is the turn of Matthew’s gospel.
High up on the list of verses that we might wish had never made it into the Bible is this part of the story:
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. (Matt 27:24-26 NRSV)
The history of this central verse’s interpretation is a bloody one, that has been used to justify everything from insult to genocide. It meant, for me today, that in order to prepare people for the reading, it needed a prior comment, to draw people’s attention to its presence in the text, to the sin of past Christian interpretation of the verse, and to an alternative understanding.
In fact, I’m not so sure Matthew’s gospel is anti-Semitic, and certainly not to the extent that John’s gospel is. It is anti-Pharisaic, or more accurately perhaps, anti the proto-rabbinic movement of Matthew’s day, for whom the Pharisees make a useful proxy whipping-boy in the conflict between the churches and the synagogues Matthew knows.
But here, I suspect, in what history has made this dreadful verse, Matthew may be trying to do something rather different and less combative.
Earlier in the gospel he has – far more explicitly than his source – showed Jesus declaring: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 15:24) And a few chapters earlier, Matthew’s Jesus instructs his disciples to go nowhere near Gentiles or Samaritans, but only to those same lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matt 10:6). Only after the crucifixion and resurrection will Jesus send them to the nations.
God’s covenant, for Matthew, needs first to be renewed with the people of Israel, before it can be shared more widely. Jesus’ death, as signified in his words at the last supper, is the pouring out of his “blood of the covenant”. We may, therefore need to read the story of Jesus’s death in the light of the first making of God’s covenant with Israel.
Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24: 6-8 NRSV)
We forget, sometimes, what a messy business Israelite religion was! But only when blood from the sacrifice was sprinkled / thrown over the heads of the people was God’s covenant with them sealed.
It seems to me, in the light of that story, that the words the people say to Pilate have a double meaning of dreadful irony. Their rejection of Jesus is (despite themselves) an unwitting acceptance of the renewal of God’s covenant with them. Only when they have taken the blood on themselves, can the renewed covenant be shared with the nations. These words, with their dreadful history of interpretation, are intended by Matthew to signify the blood of the new covenant, the one that Jesus promised is for the forgiveness of sins.
The text, I suggest, is not the one the church has usually taken it to be, and the guilt of anti-Semitism lies in subsequent Christian interpretation rather than Matthew’s intention.