We preachers go through a humbling process every year when Palm/Passion Sunday comes round. This lengthy Gospel reading of Jesus's cruel suffering and death contains the most powerful story of the Bible. It really does speak for itself--that's why some preachers prefer not to preach a sermon on this Sunday. After all, what more can the preacher's words say than what is already said so profoundly in the Gospel reading itself?
Those preachers who are foolish enough--myself included!--to insist on preaching a sermon for Palm/ Passion Sunday, are always left with the extremely difficult situation of deciding on what portion of the Passion story to focus on--since the Passion story is too long and far too rich to preach on it in its entirety in one sermon. So, my decision this time round is to zoom in on only one verse of the Gospel, verse 25; which contains the peoples' answer to Pilate after he washes his hands in water, and thereby tries to get himself off the hook by declaring himself innocent.
Matthew tells us: "Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"
This short answer to the people has, tragically, been misunderstood, misused, and abused by many Christians down through the ages. New Testament scholar, Professor Raymond Brown, in his book, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, makes the following comment: "No line in the passion narratives has done more to embitter Jewish and Christian relations than this." Another New Testament scholar, Benedict Green, makes a similar point in his book, The Gospel according to Matthew, when he states: "It is this passage that was used by Christians down the centuries to fix the guilt for the crucifixion of Christ on the Jewish people." What went wrong here? Why or how did Christians use this verse of Matthew's Gospel in such negative, destructive, abusive ways?
The most basic answer to these questions is: that since earliest times, there have been some Christians who were simply wrong in their interpretations of this verse. For one reason or another, they nursed a personal hatred of the Jewish people and their faith. This personal hatred of Jews and Judaism became so distorted and perverted, that some Christians actually believed it was a requirement of Christianity, thus they made it into a virtue!
Out of this tragic hatred, several church leaders misused and misinterpreted the Bible to promote theological justification for Christians to hate Jews and Judaism. Christians like Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, and yes, even Martin Luther, used this verse from Matthew to accuse ALL JEWS OF ALL TIMES AND PLACES OF BEING CHRIST-HATERS AND CHRIST-KILLERS. This horrible accusation led Christians to go so far as to persecute and kill countless innocent Jews down through the centuries--ALL TRAGICALLY IN THE NAME OF AND FOR THE CAUSE OF CHRIST AND CHRISTIANITY! However, a careful reading of Matthew 27:25 DOES NOT JUSTIFY CHRISTIAN HATRED OF JEWS AND JUDAISM.
Matthew himself--most scholars believe--was a Jew who also happened to be a Christian. In light of this detail, it seems HIGHLY UNLIKELY that Matthew would be promoting the condemnation of all Jews in all times and places--INCLUDING HIMSELF. In fact, Matthew is not even blaming all Jews who lived during his time for the death of Christ. What he is saying refers only to the Jews who happened to be in the crowd at Jerusalem on that particular day--along with their children.
We cannot forget that there were other Jews who were not in that crowd; who did not speak those words; WHO DID NOT WANT JESUS CRUCIFIED. Thus, it is extremely unfair and incorrect for Christians to hold all Jews of every time and place guilty of Christ's crucifixion. Matthew is speaking only of SOME JEWS in Jerusalem who spoke those words to Pilate.
Even those Jews and their children who spoke those words, who accepted their responsibility for the crucifixion, should not be judged too harshly. It appears that they were coerced and led into it by SOME of the Jewish leaders and possibly some Roman authorities too, who found them to be easy scapegoats.
Also, there is at work here, the dynamic of "group think" and group pressure--we all know that good people are capable of doing horrible things because they crave the acceptance of the "in-group." I wonder how we would have responded, had we been in that Jerusalem crowd. What would we have said or done? Would we have sided with the Jewish leaders and crowd? or the Romans? or would we have defended Jesus? Or, would we, like his disciples have fled to safety to save our own skin?
When we look at those words again, and ponder them more deeply, is it possible that we have a far larger picture than we might want to see? When we think of the shedding of innocent human blood, Christ's blood, we can't help but think of sacrifice. We note that the words: "His blood be on us and on our children!" ends with an exclamation mark. This exclamation mark may very well stress the divine necessity of Christ's passion and death.
In the larger picture, there is the sense that it is Christ's blood which makes us all guilty, and, at the same time, all forgiven and reconciled before God. We, along with all of humankind, are guilty and sinful. In our betrayals and denials, in our participation with the hostile crowd, in our hatred, in our failure to love, when we compromise ourselves by caving in to "group think" and peer pressure, when we do or say horrible things to be accepted by the "in-group," we, too, are all guilty of crucifying Christ.
However, our guilt and sin does not condemn us forever. Christ's blood is our sacrifice, it makes us a forgiven people before God. Christ died in our place, for our guilt and sin, which were nailed to the cross and atoned for. We are given a new freedom, rooted in his all-inclusive love, to serve him with the utmost gratitude. As Christians reconciled with God through Christ and his cross; we, too are free to seek reconciliation with the Jewish people--who suffered their own crucifixion at the hands of many Christians down through the ages. Thanks be to Christ for this all-sufficient gift of forgiveness and reconciliation!