Passion Sunday: betrayer and betrayed

Entry_Into_Jerusalem1The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is quite lengthy and so will not be included here. It can be found at the USCCB website:

Commentary. This very long narrative will be broken into small passages that may help the reader to focus and reflect on specific sections. The general outline listed in the previous post is provided for you to locate these smaller passages within the larger framework. The narrow framework is taken from Boring’s outline of the Matthean Passion narrative.

Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus (26:14-16) There has been only one previous reference to Judas (10:4) – even there we were informed that Judas betrayed Jesus. It these few verses we discover the nature of that betrayal: (a) it is at Judas’ initiative, and (b) Judas asks for money. The text gives no reason for the betrayal, but the actions stand in stark contrast to the woman (26:6-13) who has just anointed Jesus’ head – something Jesus identifies as a preparation for burial – which Judas is seemingly arranging.
R.T. France (1989, 267-8) notes that Judas’ actions are a “cold business proposition. The reason for his action can only be guessed. John 12:6 tells us that he had an eye for financial gain, and the sum involved (equal to 120 denarii) was not inconsiderable, but few have been able to believe that this was enough to cause such a radical volte-face. If he was the only Judean in the group he may have resented the leadership of the Galilean fishermen, but even cultural pride would hardly turn him against one whom he still believed in. More likely he was disillusioned that Jesus’ idea of Messiahship (just graphically confirmed in v. 12) was not that for which he had joined the movement; with the threat of imminent official reprisals instead of the triumphant leadership of Israel he may have been hoping for (cf. 19:28), it was time to get out before it was too late. He may even have concluded sincerely (as did Saul of Tarsus) that Jesus was after all a false prophet, who must be destroyed. Whatever the reason, Matthew does not present him as a reluctant informer.”

The Disciples Prepare Passover (26:17-19) Despite the intrigue, these verses show us Jesus in charge of the situation. He knew the priests’ purpose before they had formulated it (v. 2), and he is already well aware of Judas’ role (vv. 21–25). He now initiates the process which will lead without interruption to its climax on the cross. Its context, we are not allowed to forget, is the Passover, and it is with Jesus’ ‘Passover’ meal, giving startling new meaning to a familiar ritual, that the process begins. See the notes for a discussion on dating of the meal.

Jesus possibly has already made an arrangement with the owner of the house for the use of a large room as such a room was unlikely to be available in Jerusalem at Passover time without prior arrangement. In any event, Jesus announces that “My appointed time [karios] draws near.” In Matthew kairos often refers to an appointed, climactic moment, the time of fulfillment or consummation (e.g. 8:29; 13:30; 21:34). Like the Johannine references to Jesus’ ‘hour’ (John 2:4; 7:30; 12:23; 13:1; etc.) it shows Jesus’ conscious fulfillment of a predetermined plan.

Jesus Predicts the Betrayal (26:20-25) Matthew’s description of the entire Last Supper is sparse and to the point. There are but two conversation: (a) one about the betrayer and (b) the other institutes the Eucharist. The reader already knows that Judas will betray Jesus – but this is the first time that the inner circle becomes aware that the traitor is in their midst. Many see an allusion to Psalm 41:10 (Even the friend who had my trust, who shared my table, has scorned me) where the righteous and just man is betrayed. In any case, the disciples’ reaction is immediate. The reaction seems to be, not one of outrage, but a confident rejection of Jesus’ statement, yet they also seem to need reassurance. But none is forthcoming from Jesus. He simply mentions that one who has dipped his hand (v.22) is the betrayer. Since the meal was eaten from a common dish into which all those present would frequently dip their hands, this is no more specific an identification than v. 21. It is hard to imagine that, if Judas had been openly identified as the traitor, he would have been allowed to leave the room unhindered. Matthew’s intent here seems to be christological, i.e., Jesus’ announcement serves to let the reader know that Jesus is aware of events and his own fate.

There have been recent works that have leveraged the expression “as it was written” to indicate that Judas’ role is fated and that he was divinely predestined to this role. But the phrase refers not to Judas but to the Son of Man – and indeed it is the divine will that this unique person, Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man, would be betrayed as a prelude to his redemptive death.

Matthew 26:15 thirty pieces of silver: the sum laid down as compensation paid to an owner for the loss of a slave (Exod. 21:32); but Matthew’s mention of the specific sum is clearly intended to echo Zechariah 11:12, where that same sum is ‘weighed out’ (the same word in LXX as paid here) as the derisory ‘wages’ of the rejected shepherd, who was a Messianic figure. That Matthew intends this allusion is clear from his deliberate citation of it when the money goes to the “potter” in 27:9–10 (Zech 11:13).

Matthew 26:16 from that time on: is the same phrase as was used in the formula of 4:17; 16:21 to mark a new beginning. It implies that the ball has now been set rolling, and all that now remains is to find an opportunity.

Matthew 26:17 the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread: Properly speaking the feast of Unleavened Bread ran from the 15th day of Nisan until the 21st, but Passover day itself was loosely included in that period (in fact it was on the evening which began Nisan 14 that leaven began to be removed from the houses: m. Pesaḥim 1:1–3), and so it is referred to here as the first day of Unleavened Bread

to eat the Passover: This unambiguously points to the Passover meal, which was officially eaten on the evening which began Nisan 15 (remember that the Jewish day began at sunset and not, like ours, at midnight). But the Gospel of John (John 13:1; 18:28; 19:14) plainly dates the Last Supper on the night which began the 14th of Nisan (i.e. the night before the regular Passover meal), by which account Jesus died on the afternoon at the end of Nisan 14, the time when the Passover lambs were killed. This date is also suggested by Paul’s language about Christ being ‘sacrificed as our Passover’ (1 Cor. 5:7), and is supported by the independent Jewish tradition that Jesus was executed ‘on the eve of the Passover’ (Sanhedrin 43a; so also the 2nd-century non-canonical Gospel of Peter 2:5) as well as by the fact that according to astronomical calculations the 15th of Nisan never fell on a Friday between AD 27 and 34. Is Matthew (following Mark) then wrong in describing this as a Passover meal and in dating its preparation on Nisan 14? The matter is too complex for full discussion here, and has given rise to innumerable theories, many of which depend on an assumption that Jesus operated on a different calendar from that of official Judaism. The simplest solution, and the one assumed in this commentary – and held by the eminent Catholic biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown – is that Jesus, knowing that he would be dead before the regular time for the meal, deliberately held it in secret one day early. Luke 22:15–16 indicates Jesus’ strong desire for such a meal with his disciples before his death, and his awareness that the time was short. Of course it was strictly incorrect to hold a ‘Passover’ at any time other than the evening of Nisan 14/15, but Jesus was not one to be bound by formal regulations in an emergency situation! This would also explain the lack of any mention of a lamb, the central feature of the Passover meal; the lambs had to be ritually slaughtered in the temple, and this could not be done until the next day. It was therefore a Passover meal in intention, but without the expected lamb. In its place was the Lamb of God.

Passover excursus: The order of the Passover meal in New Testament times is not known with certainty. Mishnah Pesahim 10 is the earliest source for the seder liturgy, but the Mishnah was not compiled until around AD 200. Christians tend to identify the bread of the Lord’s Supper with m. Pesahim 10:3 and the cup with the third cup, over which a benediction was said (m. Pesahim 10:7; m. Berakhot 6:1). But there is no mention of the roasted lamb, the four cups, or the traditional Jewish interpretation of these things. Also, it is not certain that the Mishnah preserves the same liturgy as that practiced by Jesus over one hundred and fifty years earlier.

Matthew 26:20 evening: The new Jewish day began at sundown – thus everything that follows in the Matthean passion narrative occurs on this one day.

Matthew 26:21 betray: Given the context of the on-going and escalating conflict with the religious authorities, betray is easily understood by the disciples. The word used is paradidōmi which literally means to “hand over, pass on, deliver up” [EDNT 3:18]. Even in this betrayal, one should remember that Jesus has repeatedly said that he will be “delivered up” with the context being God’s “delivering up” Jesus for the sins of humanity. Paradoxically, the evil intent of Judas’ action unknowingly accomplishes the divine intent of redemption of all humanity.

Matthew 26:22 Surely it is not I, Lord?: The Greek construction of the sentence used an interrogative particle mēti that implies a negative response is expected.

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