The words might have caught in your throat during the reading of the Passion Gospel. Maybe the words should have caught in all of our throats, because we did speak them in unison: “His blood be on us and on our children.” In Matthew’s telling, though Pilate believes that the temple leaders are acting out of jealousy in pressing for Jesus’ execution, he has found himself pushed into a corner by a crowd increasingly out of control. “A riot was beginning,” Matthew writes, and so Pilate “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!’” Hard to imagine that such a statement could be spontaneously uttered in unison, and I suspect Matthew meant simply that the crowd had become a mob, and that the mob had turned against Jesus. Someone may well have said those words, and maybe as soon as they were uttered—shouted—the mob felt them. Mobs are capable of feeling and doing the most horrific things. If everyone participates, no one person is responsible.
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There is, though, an equally horrific legacy connected to that one verse. David Lose goes so far as to suggest that, “The Roman Empire executed Jesus for political treason, yet in reading Matthew’s Passion… it seems that Rome is merely the puppet of manipulative Jewish religious authorities determined to get rid of Jesus, a depiction that has fed anti-Semitism over the ages.” His blood be on us and on our children. One of the great tragedies of our history is how this one sentence has been used to label the Jews as “Christ killers,” justifying some 2000 years of persecutions and pogroms. Some of that shameful story can be counted as uninformed and reactionary, fueled by the same sort of mob mentality we see here in the Passion story. But not all of it. By no means all of it.
Consider the “Eight Homilies against the Jews” written by John Chrysostom, one of the most important theologians of the ancient Christian tradition. Writing in the 4th century, after Christianity had become a legal and recognized religion within the Roman Empire, Chrysostom declared, “You [Jews] did slay Christ, you did lift violent hands against the Master, you did spill his precious blood. This is why you have no chance for atonement, excuse, or defense.”
Consider too, that Martin Luther—one of the great and influential minds of the Reformation—authored a book titled On the Jews and their Lies (1543), in which he called them the “damned, rejected race” on account of their actions in the murder of Jesus, and called for the destruction of their synagogues. We should not be surprised that Luther’s book was particularly prized by Adolph Hitler.
Yet maybe what ultimately concerns Matthew—and what should concern us—has less to do with it being a Jewish crowd, and more with it being a crowd fast becoming a mob. Mobs truly are capable of feeling and doing the most horrific things, but trying to place all of the responsibility on that crowd, all the while letting Pilate play innocent; that is a blind alley. His act of dipping his hands into a bowl of water and proclaiming himself unstained of all responsibility for the death of this innocent man is hollow, for Pilate is not innocent; not at all. His act is one of acquiescence to the brute desires of that mob, a calculated sacrifice of an innocent for the sake of maintaining order. And remember, right after proclaiming his innocence, Pilate has Jesus flogged and handed over to the soldiers to do with him what they will. It is another mob action, this one more calculated and carried out, Matthew tells us, by the whole cohort; a unit of 480 soldiers.
They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Pilate knows the sort of sport his soldiers enjoy when given a victim to execute. There’s no kindness, no justice, no mercy implied in his ritual pronouncement of his own innocence. Pilate, too, is complicit.
Mobs take the unspeakable and unthinkable and make them into the actual. That’s true when the mob action arises from a more or less spontaneous frenzy—a crowd crying out, “crucify him!”—but also when it is something more calculated, more organized, like the actions of these soldiers. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the theologian James Cone explores how the crucifixion of Jesus can illumine the awful history of the lynchings of African-Americans in post Civil War America, offering a most disturbing picture of what people are capable of doing to one another. In this case, it is what white lynch mobs were prepared to do to blacks, often targeted for no other reason than that they were accused of some infraction of the accepted social conventions defined by Jim Crow racism.
Lynching became a white media spectacle, in which prominent newspapers, like the Atlanta Constitution, announced to the public the place, date, and time of the expected hangings and burnings of black victims. Often as many as ten to twenty thousand men, woman, and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims… Postcards were made from the photographs taken of black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera. (James Cone, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”)
We hear such descriptions and wonder how that was even possible. These so-called spectacle lynchings were advertized in the newspapers, and attended by thousands? “A family affair,” Cone calls them, in which even the children are encouraged to take part. Postcards and souvenirs. How could people possibly do such things?
But then think again about the crowds shouting out “crucify him,” the soldiers beating and humiliating him, the chief priest, scribes and elders standing at Golgotha and mocking this dying man, saying, “He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.”
The members of that Jewish crowd and their descendants have no more of his blood on their hands than do all of these other characters in the story. The disciples killed him by deserting him, Judas by betraying him. The leaders of Israel killed him by their intrigue, and the crowds by getting swept up in mob blood lust. Pilate killed him by making what seemed to him a prudent administrative decision, and the soldiers by their violence. All are complicit in the death of a man whose life challenged the status quo simply by virtue of its truthfulness and authenticity.
But know that we too are complicit. When we read this Passion Gospel aloud on this day, we gave voice to that complicity. “Crucify him!” we cried. “His blood be on us and on our children!” That’s not simply a dramatic device. It is a confession that we are all implicated. We are all implicated in this death in a very particular way, but also in each and every violence done to other human beings, and to creation as a whole. In his song, “Broken Wheel,” Bruce Cockburn writes of how in our all too human hands, “The gifts of the Lord lie torn / Into whose charge the gifts were given / Have made it a curse for so many to be born.” “You and me,” Cockburn sings,
You and me—we are the break in the broken wheel
Bleeding wound that will not heal
Lord, spit on our eyes so we can see
How to wake up from this tragedy
This is my trouble—
Can’t be an innocent bystander
In a world of pain and fire and steel
Way out on the rim of the broken wheel
(Bruce Cockburn, “Broken Wheel,” Inner City Front, 1981)
That is our confession this day. We can’t be innocent bystanders in this world into which we have been born, and in which—to quote Terry Eagleton—we discover, sometimes to our horror, “The past is what we are made of.” And note that here the Marxist literary critic Eagleton is actually reflecting on the insights held in the Christian doctrine of original sin. At birth, he says, “we enter into the preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires—an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of our existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core.”
There are, though, signs of life already visible in this story of death. There are those verses near the end of the story, unique to Matthew’s gospel, that record what N.T. Wright calls, “one of the oddest tales anywhere in the New Testament.” At the moment of Jesus’ death, the earth shakes and splits, and “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” Whatever else we might think of this strange piece of the story, in Matthew’s hands it seems to mean at least this: in Jesus’ very death, death itself is already unveiled as a defeated and spent force.
The other sign of life embedded in this story is the enduring presence of the women. Not just the women followers who, unlike the disciples, had dared to stay and bear witness to their master’s death, but also Pilate’s own wife, who during the trial had sent a message to her husband, saying, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” She, in her troubled dreaming, is also a sign of life.
And, Matthew tells us, as Jesus’ broken body is laid to rest, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” At that moment, their presence is little more than an expression of their loyalty and steadfastness to the man who had offered them healing and hope, and treated them with dignity and respect. It is these same two women who will wait through the day of Sabbath rest and then on the third day return to visit that burial place, but at that moment Jesus’ death was yet an unreadable act; a broken, battered body lying dead in a tomb. And though we well know what will be celebrated here on the third day, for now we need to set the story aside. This side of the third day, there is much to be learned about ourselves, our world, our complicity, and our own “bleeding wound that will not heal.” For today and tomorrow at least, let this story remain written in black ink on black paper; a broken, battered body placed in a tomb.
And then aware of the depths of the loss and the cost, pray…
Lord, spit on our eyes so we can see
How to wake up from this tragedy