Vol 36 No 2

About us




Sonia Wagner SGS

Richard Lennan

Bronwyn Dekker, Julie McCoy, Duke Badger, Cathie Stone, Damien Murtagh

Ruth Connelly

Graham Neist FMS

Terence Kennedy CSsR

Gerard Moore SM

Michael Trainor



Matthew's Passion Narrative:
The physical and sexual abuse of Jesus (Part One)


In recent months, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Australia has been confronted with the most serious pastoral issue in its history: the pastoral care of victims of sex abuse from within the Church. Many of the stories of those abused, some which go back decades, have only now become public. These stories reveal the extent of the abuse, the attempts at secrecy by the leadership, and the inadequate pastoral care shown to victims. At the heart of what has happened lie deeper issues that touch the core of Catholic life: the exercise of power, approaches to ministry and the theology of reconciliation. The Catholic Church is a community of saints and sinners. It has the uniquely sacred mandate to offer healing and forgiveness, and is always in need of reformation and reconciliation.

This is a precious moment for the Australian Catholic community. So much of the future depends on how we deal with it. We cannot respond with denial, forgetfulness, or silent conspiracy. It is necessary to acknowledge people’s hurts and name the sexual abuse that has happened. Apologies, no matter how belated they may seem to be, are also part of the process of healing. This process is painful for all-but most especially for victims of sexual abuse who have been betrayed by the leadership of the Church, and their experiences have not been listened to. At the heart of the journey to healing people must be encouraged to tell their stories. And these stories must be listened to respectfully and sympathetically.

Placing what has happened in a broader context, the present tragic situation clearly raises the need for further reflection and discussion on all aspects of Catholic life, especially the exercise of episcopal authority and leadership, Church governance, and formation for pastoral ministry. These ecclesiological aspects, though, are intimately linked to the story of Jesus. This focus is fundamental for the Catholic Church as it seeks to discern its future in the light of difficult circumstances. The voices and stories of those who have been victims of abuse must be heard. This is a moment that also invites a deeper listening to the story of Jesus from a perspective which can add fresh insight into victim’s experience of sexual abuse.

The Passion Narrative as a Site of Contemporary Reflection

As I reflect on this sad moment in our history and seek to find some meaning in what is happening, I would like to sound a note of hesitancy in what I am seeking to do. I am conscious that I, personally, am not a victim of sexual abuse. I therefore do not presume to speak on behalf of those who are. But from a perspective of one who has studied and taught the Gospels, I would like to focus on one of the important sections of the Gospel of Matthew, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death (Mt 26-28). Matthew’s Gospel is the focus of our liturgical life over this year. In this narrative of Jesus’ ‘passion’ we hear the story of a victim of abuse, whose torture and execution results from a conspiracy between religious and civil leadership. Jesus experiences physical and emotional cruelty that comes from an abuse of power, exercised by those in positions of religious and political leadership. The narrative does not focus on the physical nature of this abuse per se, but on the theological significance of this abuse that acts as an undercurrent throughout the narrative.

Until the past two decades, there has been a resistance to reading Matthew’s passion story in this way. This comes from a history in which the passion narrative was interpreted against the background of a christology determined by a particular interpretation of the resurrection story. From this standpoint, what happened to Jesus in the resurrection led to his divine exaltation and significantly altered the way the story of his suffering and death was read. Jesus’ exaltation was anticipated and read back into the passion narrative. This had the effect of creating a quasi-docetic reading of Jesus’suffering and death: He only appeared to suffer and die because his resurrection from death was assured. From this reading perspective the body was irrelevant; only the spirit evident in Jesus’ resurrection was important.

A reading stance that exalted the spirit at the expense of the body was very familiar to the first generation of Christian disciples. The tendency to exalt the spirit at the expense of the matter or the human body was a theological error that created serious pastoral problems in the New Testament era. Evidence of this concern can be found especially in the post-Easter story in Luke’s Gospel, the letters of John and in Paul’s letters. Spirit exaltation-body deprecation also has a long history. It was born in the Greek philosophical tradition of Plato (428-327 BCE), boosted by the rationalistic centrism of René Descartes (1596-1650) and the Enlightenment, confirmed in the scientific and technological preoccupation in the modern period. A fresh reading of the passion narrative is sensitive to the corporeal dimensions evident in the text. It allows the physical dimensions of the characters’ bodies to be read as important for understanding the story. Such a reading redresses this imbalance of the exaltation of the spirit at the expense of an appreciation of the physical body. This reading must therefore pay attention to the narrative clue of what happens to Jesus in his body to unpack the theological meaning that the evangelist seeks to communicate in the passion narrative.

Such a reading is further supported by the insights of cultural anthropology and social psychology. The first offers a way of reading the passion narratives that is sensitive to core social values of Mediterranean society, especially honour. The second identifies the role the physical body plays in relationship to these values. A summary of the first will provide the framework for a much fuller treatment of the second. This exploration of the symbolic importance of the human physical body as an expression of the core social value of honour will establish the scenario for reading Matthew’s passion narrative-a story in which Jesus is dishonoured and abused. Of all the stories in the Gospel, it is his narrative which provides an opportunity to explore how one evangelist deals with the physical abuse of the Gospel’s main protagonist. This in turn might offer a way of reflecting more adequately on the present situation.

I have divided this exploration into two parts. In this first, I offer some background to the way Matthew’s readers (or ‘auditors’- presuming that the majority of the Gospel’s audience were illiterate in our sense, and did not read) understood one of the most basic values in the Mediterranean world: honour. This appreciation is found in Matthew’s Gospel and applied to Jesus. Honour was expressed in the way the body was treated. This is true of the way Matthew narrates the honour shown to Jesus’ body throughout the Gospel. In the second part, I will focus specifically on Matthew’s passion narrative. There we shall see that Jesus’ body is initially honoured. but gradually dishonoured, shamed or-what I will argue-abused. The height of this abuse is expressed sexually.

Honour-Consciousness in the Ancient World

Gospel scholars have long recognised that honour played an important role in the world of the first Christians. Honour was a core social value that enabled people to recognise their worth in the eyes of their kinship group and their status in the wider society. Personal identity and self-actualisation, about which contemporary Westerners obsess, were not the preoccupations of first-century Mediterraneans. The group (the ‘dyad’) shaped their identity and the positive value of social and self-estimation was honour. To be recognised as important or valued, to save face and maintain one’s position or regard in the social group, was all-important and covered by the value of honour.
Honour-consciousness enabled Mediterranean people to construct social boundaries and map their world. It was essential for identifying the social location and relationship of persons, things and events. As honour was regarded as a limited commodity and determined a person’s or group’s social status, the representative of the kinship group (the male household head) constantly strived to grow in honour. What was already ascribed to a person through birth could be enhanced through challenging the honour of the same social equal (‘shaming’). To successfully shame one regarded as a social equal, what I will be calling ‘abuse,’ was to achieve growth in status and honour. Through the agonistic wrestle (called ‘challenge-riposte’) in the honour-shame interchange, people’s value in the eyes of the group grew or lessened. The interpretation of whether a person is honoured are shamed in the interchange is dependent on the social stance, interests and personal alignment of the interpreter.

Jesus’ Honour

An awareness of the centrality and all-pervading nature of honour-shame has helped scholars sensitive to the point of view of the original audience to read the Gospel’s character exchanges. In the early part of the Gospel story, Jesus is ascribed with honour and declared honourable by God (especially in the infancy stories, and at his baptism). This divine estimation permeates the rest of the Gospel. Though his honour is challenged by the religious leaders and civil officials, he grows in honour in the eyes of the disciples and the crowds. In their estimation, he is worthy of honour because he has status as God’s agent. Through his words and deeds, Jesus reveals a God seeking to bring honour to those judged by the social and religious elite as dishonourable. This clash of honour judgement or estimation drives the Gospel towards its dénouement in the passion narrative. Here the tension between Jesus and his antagonists reaches flashpoint in his arrest, trials, conviction and execution. Through the narrative, the Gospel’s reader or auditor is invited to participate in the events and to recognise and identify with the person of true honour, Jesus.
The way this story reads is not the way it was first put together. The passion story, for obvious reasons, was the first that received an early, established shape before any of the other memories of Jesus’ words and deeds came into the Gospel written form. The passion and resurrection narratives shaped the way the preceding stories were structured, written and ordered to final Gospel form. This conviction led the German scholar, Martin Kähler, to declare in 1896 that ‘the Gospels were passion narratives with lengthy introductions.’ In time, this famous description became applied only to Mark’s Gospel, but in fact it is true of all the Gospels, as Kähler first noted. Thus, the Gospel’s portrait of Jesus revealed in the earlier chapters comes to its final, climactic expression in the final chapters. In the opinion of the social elite, Jesus has constantly shamed them and acts dishonourably. The passion narrative becomes the moment when those shamed seek revenge and restore their fallen honour. From their social, elitist perspective, they apparently succeed in various ways to shame Jesus so brutally that they grow in further status and honour.

The auditors of the Gospel, however, hear the story from another angle. While Jesus is physically degraded, abused and verbally assaulted-and so shamed-they hear the rhetorical cues of narrative irony. Irony is the literary undercurrent which signals another value system operating, subverting the social norms that have determined who is the shamed one. In their ears, they hear that Jesus is the true King of the Judeans, ironically invested with the instruments of office, enthroned on a cross between two criminal attendants. For the auditor, more is happening in the narrative than what seems to be apparent. This recognition of narrative irony as an important rhetorical device in the storytelling that subverts conventional honour-shame estimation is not meant to detract from what the writer considers the physical barbarity of what happens to Jesus. Irony is not a narrative device designed to soft-peddle, suppress or camouflage what happens to Jesus physically, as though it doesn’t really or ultimately matter. For the writer and the Gospel’s audience, what Jesus physically endured does matter. Jesus’ physical abuse invites identity from those in the Christian community who have experienced likewise. Here the insights of social psychology and its appreciation of the highly symbolic, communal dimension of the human body are helpful.

Honour and the Body

In the ancient world, honour was tangibly and concretely shown. A person’s physical body was the point of reference and it became the symbolic personal map or microcosm of the body politic. What happened to the human body was representative of the wider social world in which this conduct occurred. The value placed on the human body, revealed in the treatment shown to the person’s body through touch, action, clothing or speech, symbolised the value assigned to the community to which this body was referred. The symbolic interconnectivity of the physical body with the wider social and religious environment is one of the themes prominent in Paul’s writings, especially in dealing with the sexual misconduct of the Corinthian Christians. For Paul, unlike some spirit-inspired, body-devaluing Corinthian Christians, what happened in the body was important and had consequences for the Christian body, the community of believers. This in turn had implications for the celebration of the Eucharist and the discernment of the ‘body’. Paul’s insights affirm the importance of the body. A similar appreciation is present in Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus’ Body in Matthew’s Gospel

In the Gospel, the way Jesus’ body acts and is treated is highly symbolic and significant. Jesus’ bodily treatment and what his body does reveal the status in which the various characters of the Gospel hold him. As a microcosmic social map, Jesus’ body also reveals in its actions and treatment the status and honour in which Matthew’s auditors are held by the wider Mediterranean world. What is done to Jesus’ body and how it acts, with its clothing and speech, reveal at a deeper level how members of Matthew’s community are regarded.

In the chapters leading up to the passion narrative, the reader of Matthew’s Gospel is aware of Jesus’ actions and speech. These are central to the narrative. His healing deeds breach the barrier that separates those regarded as unclean and unwholesome from participation in community. His authoritative speech and action reveal the presence of God’s basileia (‘reign’) is being revealed. Jesus’ words and deeds materialise this basileia. As Matthew anticipates and prepares for the passion, what Jesus does in his body is more emphasised than what is done to him. Besides walking (4:18; 14:25) and speaking (9:18), Jesus is described more consistently as teaching (4:23; 7:29), preaching (4:23; 9:35; 11:1), exorcising (8:16) and especially healing (4:23; 8:16; 12:15, 22; 14:14; 15:30; 19:2; 21:14). Sometimes this healing activity involves Jesus touching the one to be healed (8:3, 15; 9:29; 20:34). It is this act more than any other that graphically typifies Jesus’ bodily involvement in a healing ministry that redefines the boundaries of purity socially created and reinforced by the religious elite.

When we turn to look at what is done to Jesus and note how Jesus’ body is the object of activity, these actions appear to be more honorific, acknowledging his status. Jesus is the object of kneeling and homage (2:11; 8:2; 9:19, 27; 15:25), baptism (3:16-17), following (4:20-22; 8:1,18-23; 9:9; 12:15; 14:13), ministration (4:11) and touching. Jesus is touched on two occasions: in the story of the haemorrhaging woman who initiates her healing (9:20-22) and in the summary of Jesus’ healing at Genesaret, when the sick request to touch the fringe of his garment (14:34-35). But as in the previous stories where touching is involved, the socially constructed boundaries of gender and purity exclusion become redefined. Matthew’s Jesus affirms the woman’s conduct and authenticates her restoration to wholeness and community (9:22). His bodily response to the woman, as in the summary of ch. 14 and throughout the other chapters of the Gospel which lead to the passion narrative, reinforces the presence of God’s basileia active in his being.

Some actions attempt to shame Jesus. He is ‘led’ by Satan to be tested. This testing occurs early in the Gospel (4:1,3). The same act, with the same Greek verb (peira/zw) reappears in the middle of the Gospel (16:1; 19:3) when the religious authorities seek to discredit Jesus’ teaching authority. It recurs also towards the end of the Gospel before the passion narrative (22:18, 35). This ‘testing’ or shaming of Jesus at the Gospel’s beginning, middle and the end prepare for the ultimate shaming that will happen to Jesus in the passion narrative. It is to this story that we will turn in the second part, and focus particularly on the way Jesus is touched and handled. Here we will see how Jesus’ abuse is central to the interrogation with the religious leaders and how it completes Jesus’ trial before the Roman authorities. I will show that this final act of abuse is physical and sexual. This has enormous implications for our reflection on the present situation being experienced in the Australian Catholic Church.


Michael Trainor is a priest of the Archdiocese of Adelaide, minister in the parish of Salisbury and teacher at the Adelaide College of Divinity, with the School of Theology of Flinders University. This is the second of a series of reflections on Scripture that he is writing for us.