Matthew's Passion narrative: The physical and sexual abuse of Jesus - Part 2
IN A PREVIOUS essay I suggested that the most serious pastoral issue confronting the Australian Catholic Church in its history is the revelation that many have been victims of sex abuse by those who have been pastoral leaders. This situation has been exacerbated by the way that some in the Church have tried to deal with the situation. If possible, victims must be encouraged to tell their stories and experiences.
But I also indicated in the previous essay that one of the stories that needs re-telling is the story of Jesus. To prepare for that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, I looked at the ancient appreciation of honour-shame as a core social value. This provided us with an insight into how Matthew understood honour and worked it into the Gospel story of Jesus.
In my previous essay I set up a way of reading the climactic story of Jesus’ shaming and abuse in the Passion Narrative (Mt 26-28). The way Jesus acted in his body, especially in his healing ministry of touch, revealed the sacred honour shown through God’s agent to the physically devalued. Jesus was also physically shown honour. But he was also shamed in the chapters leading up to the Passion Narrative.
What now happens in this narrative is consistent with how Jesus has acted in the lead-up to this important part of Matthew’s Gospel. He acts faithfully and with honour. But now Matthew emphasises the way Jesus is shamed by his antagonists.
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The Passion Narrative of Jesus’ Abuse
How Jesus acts bodily throughout the Gospel is consistent in this narrative. His conduct is honourable and reveals God’s basileia tangible in his being. Jesus is conclusively demonstrated to be prophet, ‘King of the Judeans’, and God’s anointed one. The christological images are presented is in an ironic fashion, subtly reflected in a narrative that presents Jesus as the quintessentially abused one. In the narrative proper, while in some sense Jesus inaugurates and controls what happens, he is the recipient of action; his body the object of the demeanour of others. The one whose healing touch up until this point has liberated others now experiences both honour and shame in the manner he is touched, handled, dressed and addressed.
As the narrative moves sequentially towards the Gospel’s climax in Jesus’ death, it falls into three main parts, with the second the centrepiece.
After a brief but important introduction (23:1-2), the first part presents Jesus as God’s honoured and faithful one (26:3-46). This section has three key stories.
(A) Jesus is anointed for burial. This act is also a reinforcement of his exalted status already evident throughout the Gospel. (B) In a final Passover meal with his disciples he invites them into communion with him. This leads to (C) his prayer in the garden where he declares, through his bodily posture, his total commitment to God’s will despite the shame and dishonour that he will experience. Themes of betrayal and discipleship failure weave themselves throughout, as Jesus acts and initiates what is about to unfold. This first section establishes the authentic perspective for reading/hearing and interpreting the whole narrative.
In the second, Jesus’ antagonists move to centre stage; Jesus the initiator now becomes more clearly the victim. He is arrested and subjected to two trials, a religious interrogation and a political trial. The heart of this centrepiece of the passion narrative is Jesus’ shaming. Two scenes of his physical abuse become the ironic context for Matthew’s christological summary. The abused one is the victim to an oppressive regime of religion and politics. He is also the one who reveals the divine perspective of what is happening—God is the ultimate authority. Though God’s prophetic and anointed agent can be publicly humiliated and abused, the callousness that leads to his execution is not the final word. Jesus is revealed as royal leader and universal ruler.
In the third and final section of the narrative to which all the others have been leading, the condemned are led away to execution. Jesus is crucified. Afterwards his body is taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb, awaiting Easter day. Space prevents us from analysing these stories of this final section.
The opening verses of the narrative spell out the overarching theme that the rest of the narrative will unfold: Jesus will be ‘delivered up’ and ‘crucified’ in the context of the Passover event (26:1-2). What is about to take place will bring about liberation and redemption for others signified in the Passover feast, but this will occur as the result of Jesus’ deliverance and crucifixion. Freedom will come about because Jesus will undergo the most extreme form of physical abuse possible, torture and death through crucifixion. An important note concerns the use of the passive voice in the verbs (Jesus will be…), suggesting the presence of God in all that unfolds.
In the opening three scenes Matthew, following Mark’s lead, contrasts the plot to arrest and betray Jesus by the male religious leaders and one of his closest disciples (26:3-5, 14-15) with the act of fidelity from an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus (26:6-13). The act of anointing is framed by the acts of betrayal and it is the first story in the passion narrative in which Jesus’ body is the object of action. Jesus is anointed on the head reminding the audience of other acts of head anointing in the Scriptures, of prophets and kings. Jesus is declared from the beginning of the passion narrative as God’s anointed one.
This anointing looks back and forward. It echoes earlier chapters of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is portrayed as God’s anointed agent; it looks forward to his death and explicitly to the burial. Jesus responds to his disciples indignant at the apparent waste of ointment, ‘In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial…what she has done will be told in memory of her’ (26:12-13).
The anointing story is important. It is a story that honours Jesus. The woman’s act reminds the Gospel’s auditors of Jesus’ true identity as prophet, priest, king and Messiah (‘the anointed one’). This act towards Jesus’ head is one of care and identity. More importantly, it establishes the central christological perspective for contemplating the narrative. Jesus is God’s honoured one recognised with royal status. Whatever happens in the story after this must be read from this initial insight.
The place of anointing, the head of Jesus, is also symbolic. As a representative part of the macroscopic social map for Matthew’s Christian community, the anointing of Jesus’ head would also affirm that their community aligned to him as its leader is also valued, honoured and participative of the royal, priestly and prophetic status.
In looking forward to what awaits, the act explicitly anticipates Jesus’ burial, the precursor to his resurrection and God’s ultimate act of benefaction of Jesus. In the face of Jesus’ affirmed status, and symbolically and indirectly of the status and regard in which Matthew’s audience is held by God, the rest of the passion drama can now unfold and be judged.
After the disciples prepare the room for the evening Passover meal (26:17-19) Jesus gathers with the twelve. The central event in this Passover setting is the meal. But testimonies of betrayal and failure frame this, like the anointed story in the previous section. Before the meal proper, Jesus declares that one of the twelve will betray him (26:21-25); after the meal, Jesus announces that the disciples will scatter and fall away from him, including Peter (26:31-35). Between these two declarations, Jesus celebrates his final meal, communicated in very bodily language.
In the meal, Jesus blesses and breaks bread, handing it to his disciples with the words ‘Take, eat; this is my body’ (26:26) The bread is symbolic of Jesus’ own body. Through their eating of this blessed bread, the disciples are invited to participate in Jesus’ own body and all that this represents. Through this eucharistic communion, they will share in the life and ministry already exercised through his body. It also means that they will be caught up in what is done to Jesus’ body in the events about to unfold. They too will be honoured with a royal status that is of God; they will also experience shame or abuse from those not aligned with God’s point of view.
Jesus’ invitation to drink from the cup is a further extension and deepening of the disciples’ symbolic participation in the life, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus. The blood that the cup symbolises is a participation of God’s covenantal communion with humanity that brings about forgiveness and reconciliation.
The disciples’ communion with Jesus’ very physical being, graphically enacted in their act of eating and drinking, has its parallel in the story of the anointing. Both stories are framed by themes of discipleship failure, focus on Jesus’ body, and involve the disciples. The first reveals the fidelity of an unnamed female disciple who through her act honours Jesus’ body. She reminds Gospel auditors of Jesus’ true identity and the proper perspective from which to understand the rest of the passion narrative. The second story invites the disciples to align themselves with Jesus and to identify with what has happened and will happen in and through Jesus’ body. Both scenes acknowledge Jesus as the honoured one of God; both prepare for the shame and abuse that await.
After the interpretative perspective for the passion narrative is announced in 26:1-2, the relationship between the stories that compose 26:3-35 can be illustrated thus:
Body Focus: Prayer in the midst of sorrow (26:39)
Peter and Disciples fail to watch and pray (26:40-46)
Like the anointing story, the scene involves a gesture focused on Jesus’ head. His physical posture, ‘falling on his face’ is linked to the prayer ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’ (26:39). In the midst of his struggle and passion, Jesus seeks out God. The posture of humility, typical of a faithful Jew, with head bowed is a gesture of respect and fidelity to his God. The honour accorded Jesus in the anointing scene, the beginning of this first section of the passion narrative, is now, in this concluding scene, directed to the true source and focus of Jesus’ life—God.
This completes the perspective for interpreting what follows. Despite what will now unfold and how Jesus is maltreated, the reader has been reminded that he is God’s honoured and faithful one, of royal status. And behind all the events that will now transpire, no matter how humiliating and abusive, God’s power to redeem and liberate—to bring about Passover—will not be frustrated.
It is under the guise of intimacy and friendship that Judas signals the seizing of Jesus by the armed crowd sent by the religious elite (26:47-50). This also indicates a new moment in the passion narrative. What takes place happens with Jesus’ consent and foreknowledge and he allows the events to unfold around him, fully committed to God’s plan revealed in Scripture (26:46-47a, 53-56). But he is now victim rather than actor. It is in this context that I wish to focus on the two parallel scenes of Jesus’ physical abuse that occur. The first after Jesus’ interrogation from the Judean religious leaders (26:67-68); the second at the conclusion of the civil trial before Pilate (27:26b-31).
Jesus is taken to a gathering of the religious leaders: the high priest Caiaphas, the scribes and elders. In a preliminary consultation before the Judean religious leadership, Matthew summarises key aspects of the Gospel’s christology through the accusations and questions directed to Jesus by the religious authorities. In the language of his accusers, Matthew declares that Jesus is the Temple, the Christ, and the Son of God (26:61-63). This is filled out by Jesus’ declaration that he is also the Human One of power and judgement (26:64).
After this comes the most severe and solemn judgement from the religious leader. Jesus is judged a blasphemer, religious renegade and heretic who deserves death (26:65-66). This religious trial, as the civil trial in the next scene, ends with Jesus’ physical humiliation and abuse in a ritual of status degradation. In this ritual Jesus is abused as a (false) prophet.
Then they spat into his face, pummelled him, and they slapped him saying, ‘Prophesy to us, Christ, who is it that struck you?’ (26:68)
Matthew uses four different verbs to describe what is done to Jesus. The ‘pummelling’, ‘slapping’, and ‘striking’, while physically more painful, only come after the culturally most repugnant act of contempt is performed. He is ‘spat’ in the face. This most shaming act is intended to obliterate any sense of honour that Jesus may have been accorded and to indicate his total social rejection.
The cultural significance of ‘spitting’ has a long history dating from the earliest writings of the Jewish people. It is found in Num 12:14 and Dt 25:5-10 where spitting is clearly an act of kinship rejection and social exclusion of one who does not act ethically or meet the purity standards of the Israelite community.
In this point of the passion narrative in Mt, it is a deed performed by the highest religious authorities in the land and has social and religious/theological implications that enforce the judgement already enacted by the High Priest. Jesus is a blasphemer and religious renegade who must be socially disgraced. He is to be cut off from any honour from others in a ritual of degradation.
That the spitting occurs to Jesus’ face suggests something further. It is an act done to Jesus’ spatial front, the focus of recognition, attention and consciousness. It is the bodily feature that is in communication with the world and to which the kinship group responds. Through spitting upon him, Jesus’ religious judges consider him evil, worthy of abuse. They consider him evil because he has the power to corrupt others, to be a source of contamination to others. He is worthy of repudiation, even annihilation.
The physically abusive acts which follow stem from this initial, profound enacted judgement: Jesus is to be abused at every level of his humanity because he is an impure source of social corruption.
Matthew’s clue for interpreting this scene is found back in 5:39 in the context of Jesus teaching about retaliation, where the same act of striking occurs:
I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to that person the other also…
Here Matthew’s Jesus teaches about the disciple’s response to the one who does an act that is evil, insulting and which treats the one slapped as a heretic. Resistance to evil itself is taken for granted (6:13). The tendency, in the cultural world of the evangelist, would be to defend honour and return the physical insult with equal or more force.
In Jesus’ teaching, such a retaliatory process of revenge is subverted by responding to abuse with a form of wholeness that reflects the goodness of God (5:43-48). Such a response disempowers hierarchical oppression and reflects God’s all-encompassing love irrespective of the perpetrator’s lack of moral goodness or integrity. Matthew’s community are invited to practice generalised reciprocity to all, no matter their moral status, rather than the conventional quid-pro-quo exchange of challenge—riposte.
The standard of divine largesse is determined not by the individual but by God. It is reflected in the victim who, while resisting the evil perpetrated, does not reject the person or cooperate in perpetuating revenge or violence. This is very different from encouraging the victim of abuse to receive the violence with resignation or silence. Matthew’s picture presented in 5:39 and modelled in the abused figure of the condemned Jesus in 26:68 is to resist violence but not reject those who are committing the offence.
Behind this ritual desecration of Jesus is an ironic recognition of him as prophet and Messiah. It is at this deeper level of interpretation that the reader recognises what goes on. While the ritual seeks to destroy whatever honour Jesus may hold in the eyes of others, in the ears of the story’s auditors, the ritual serves only to increase Jesus’ honour. He remains faithful to God while he is paradoxically acclaimed with key religious titles.
Jesus’ attitude contrasts to Peter’s in a second ritual of status degradation (26:69-75). Peter denies his allegiance to Jesus or his solidarity with Jesus’ disciples. As Jesus affirms the very things he is accused of, Peter denies all. The scene poignantly ends with Peter’s ‘bitter’ weeping born from a deep sense of failure and desire for forgiveness.
Peter’s denial and Judas’ betrayal anticipated in the earlier parts of the Gospel and now realised in the passion narrative, are a sad, embarrassing but sober memory for the evangelist and the Gospel’s auditors. The seriousness of Peter and Judas’ involvement in acts which eventually lead to Jesus’ abuse and death cannot be stressed highly enough. It is the betrayal by one of Jesus’ closest disciples, and denial by another close disciple that either inaugurates or cements what eventually leads to Jesus’ physical abuse.
Jesus’ abuse at the conclusion of his religious interrogation before the religious leaders parallels what happens to him at the end of the civil Roman trial before Pilate. To set the context, Jesus is taken, bound and led to Pilate, whom Matthew typically describes throughout this trial as the ‘governor.’ This heightens the civil, Roman and universal implications of what is about to be revealed. After Judas realises his wrongdoing and commits suicide (27:1-10), a scene that dramatically contrasts to Peter’s remorse, Jesus’ civil trial takes place.
Like the Judean interrogation, the Roman trial is filled with several christological assertions, ironically subsumed in the narrative. Jesus is recognised as the Messiah (27:17,22), consistently presented by Pilate as ‘Judea’s King,’ and declared by Pilate’s wife as ‘righteous’ (27:19). But the key assertion from Pilate (and from Matthew) is that Jesus is Judea’s King.
At the end of this trial, while Pilate declares his desire to be free of the spilling of innocent blood, he eventually gives in to the demands of the religious leaders. He hands Jesus over for crucifixion, but not without introducing the second instance of Jesus’ public abuse that parallels the earlier scene with the religious authorities. It culminates in Jesus’ death through crucifixion.
Jesus’ stripping is Matthew’s way of emphasising that this is the pinnacle of abuse. It makes the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion and death an extension and ultimately inevitable. Jesus’ nudity is derisively covered by a centurion’s scarlet robe, but it does not hide the powerful significance of this involuntary stripping. Symbolically, Matthew’s Jesus is not only a victim of physical abuse, falsely accused and condemned by the machinations of political and religious officialdom. He is now a victim of sexual abuse. The exposure of Jesus’ penis, the symbol of sexual power and identity, is the ultimate act of shaming and abuse. The forced removal of his clothes is an act that erases his social identity. He is now without any cultural, social, religious, political and sexual identity.
With Jesus’ shaming and abuse complete, the crucifixion proper takes place. Previous acts of humiliation are repeated: He is verbally abused, ridiculed for being a royal pretender and alleged chosen one of God. He is publicly scorned, humiliated between two criminal attendants, and finally crucified naked.
Although Matthew softens the dire agony and desolation portrayed in Mark’s Jesus, the death moment is climactic. Jesus dies, as in Mark’s Gospel, with a cry of divine abandonment on his lips. But unlike Mark’s death scene, he dies ‘releasing his spirit’. There is a flash of majesty in this abysmally abused and solitary figure.
What implications might Mathew’s Gospel story of Jesus’ passion and death have for us in the Catholic Australian Church as we face issues related to sexual abuse? Can the story of the debasement and abuse of Jesus be good news for those who have been abused? Can it be good news for a Church and its leadership that has perpetuated—sometimes consensually, other times unwittingly—this abuse?
Within the cultural mindset of the Gospel narrator, Jesus was a victim of abuse. He was abused, tortured, stripped naked and then publicly executed. Given the Mediterranean perception of holistic interconnectivity of the human body, this physical abuse would also have been regarded as sexual. At the heart of abuse, whether physical or sexual, lay the intent to completely dishonour, discredit and socially humiliate, if not annihilate, the identity of its victim. All this is present in Matthew’s passion narrative. Heard from the perspective of the Gospel’s auditors of Christian Jews, the narrative would be filled with meaning.
Care must to be taken in interpreting Matthew’s passion narrative—indeed all the Gospel passion narratives—in a way that overemphasises the virtue of Jesus as victim. In the past this approach to gospel christology has helped to reinforce submission and passiveness among members of the Christian community.
Matthew prepares the reader for those scenes isolated above, in which Jesus is abused. The reader knows in the first section of the passion narrative how to read the story and from what perspective to interpret what is happening. It is not a literal story that reports factually what happens. Matthew writes theologically, dovetailing community memory that has reshaped historical events in the light of present situations facing a Judeo-Christian community in the late first century CE. Matthew’s intent is not to present the portrait of the abused Jesus as the solitary focus of community contemplation. The story of his abuse becomes the ironic and subtle means by which the main features of Matthew’s christology are revealed: Jesus is the King, the prophet, God’s Holy Temple and anointed one.
However, Matthew’s story is about the abuse of Jesus. The victim’s story is told and listened to in the Christian community. From this perspective, the focus is on the abused one. The narrator constructs the story in such a way that the reader/auditor is invited to identify with the victim. It is a story with which those abused in Matthew’s community, and those abused in all of history, could and can identify. The act of writing this story to a late first century Christian community prevents it from being a silent, unspoken experience. The story of Jesus’ passion, abuse and death has always been important and one that early Christians wanted to remember.
Matthew’s passion narrative thus becomes a powerful witness against the tendency to forget or be silent about the embarrassing and scandalous. This is particularly evident in the stories surrounding Judas and Peter. The fact that these stories are consistent across all Gospel traditions suggest to their historical reliability. No matter how embarrassing the memory was, that those closest to Jesus were actually instrumental in his abuse and execution, the temptation would have existed for the Christian community to expunge, soften or remove any trace of these acts from the passion narrative. Betrayal and denial have been part of the Christian community since its origins. The challenge remains: how to incorporate these painful memories and experiences into the story of the Christian community now.
Matthew’s story of the abused Jesus further underscores the role of those who hold power. The religious officialdom is party to and participates in what happens to the abused. This is a powerful metaphor for what could happen in a community where religious leadership becomes blind to the possibility of unwittingly cooperating with evil, under the guise of acting out a divine mandate. Again, Judas and Peter represent the range in the face of what has happened: cooperation—participation—recognition—remorse, and even suicide.
We are not used to considering Jesus as a victim of abuse by a religious and political leadership seeking to silence his message and ministry. Our usual crucifix iconography displays a clothed figure, generally serene and apparently disconnected from the barbarity of the event that brought him to the cross. This type of iconography, like any religious art, is not intended as a literal description of the event, but it does express a firm theological conviction: Matthew’s passion narrative states clearly that the experience of the victim is not all that there is, nor all that seems to be. Jesus dies in Matthew, as in Mark, with a sense of being abandoned, even by God. But that is not the final word. Though he seems abandoned, estranged, cut off, defiled, dishonoured and ridiculed, that is not the final reality. Ultimately, God vindicates the abused Jesus.
This final statement must not be misconstrued as a subtle endorsement of the abuse of people—that ultimately the abused will, like Jesus, be vindicated by God. What I have been arguing throughout this essay is that sexual abuse is wrong; that, from the beginning, the abused one has been victimised, and that political and religious leadership has cooperated in this act. The story of physical and sexual abuse in the Christian community needs to be retold, so that we will not forget and that we will, like Peter in Matthew’s Gospel, come to ‘weep bitterly.’
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