The Passion: Introduction and Context

On the sixth Sunday during Lent we have a unique liturgical feature: two gospels. At the start of the Mass, there is a gospel proclaimed that recalls Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the event we remember as “Palm Sunday.” What follows the reading of that gospel is a procession which serves as the entry of the priest celebrant into the sanctuary. The celebration of the Mass continues. Then, as part of the Liturgy of the Word, there is a second gospel proclaimed: the Passion narrative.  It is the proclamation of the two gospels that gives the Sunday its formal name. While we often refer to it as Palm Sunday, the correct title of the celebration is “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.”

In year A of the Lectionary cycle, the Palm Sunday reading is taken from Matthew 21:1-11. The Passion reading is taken from Matthew 26:14—27:66 (there is a shorter form available: Mt 27:11-54). There are many events that are recorded between the entrance into Jerusalem (Mt 21) and the events described in the Passion (Mt 26-27). Many of the passages will be quite familiar:

  • Cleansing of the Temple
  • Cursing of the Fig Tree
  • Dialogues and controversies with the Pharisee and Scribes
  • Parables: Two Sons, the Tenants, and the Wedding Feast of the King’s Son
  • The question of paying taxes
  • Questions about Resurrection
  • Which is the greatest commandment?
  • Denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees
  • Destruction of the Temple foretold and Signs of the Calamity
  • The Great Tribulation
  • Lessons of the Fig Tree
  • The Faithful or Unfaithful Steward
  • Parables: the 10 Virgins and the Talents
  • The Great Judgment (Mt 25)
  • The Conspiracy against Jesus
  • The Anointing at Bethany
  • This brings us to the events described in the Passion Narrative
  • The Betrayal by Judas
  • Preparations for the Passover
  • The Events of the Last Supper
    …and then the events of the Passion.

The Gospel narratives of events from Palm Sunday to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry take up Matthew 21–28, (with parallels in Mark 11–16; Luke 19–24, and John 12–21); the last week of Jesus’ life occupies roughly one third of the total Gospel materials. It has been said that the Gospels are passion narratives with extended introductions, and this is only a slight exaggeration.

The entire time of Jesus’ public ministry has seen various forces begin to array and conspire against him, yet he did not resist doing the will of the Father despite the suffering that would be involved. Ironically, the very religious leaders who opposed and sought to destroy Jesus were the unwitting instruments God used to fulfill his plan to exalt Jesus.

Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ suffering is prefaced with the stories of the Temple conflicts with the religious leaders (chs 21–23) and the Olivet discourse (chs 24–25). In both of these sections, Matthew’s material is more extensive than either Mark’s or Luke’s. When it comes to the passion narrative proper (chs 26–28), Matthew and Mark are parallel for the most part, with Luke and John, especially, contributing unique material. The general flow of Matthew’s material is as follows:

Preparation of the disciples (26:1–46)
Arrest at Gethsemane (26:47–56)
Trial before Caiaphas (26:57–68)
Peter’s three denials (26:69–75)
Trial before Pilate (27:1–2; 11–26) with interwoven account of Judas’ suicide (27:3–10)
Jesus mocked and crucified (27:27–56)
Jesus buried by Joseph of Arimathea (27:57–61)
Jesus’ resurrection and its denial (27:62–28:15)

Turner and Bock (p.234) note several events and elements in Matthew’s passion narrative (some form entire portions) that are unique to his Gospel and that presumably indicate his special literary and theological emphases:

  1. Jesus reminds the disciples of his impending death (26:1–2)
  2. The amount of money paid Judas is specified as thirty pieces of silver (26:15; cf. Exod 21:32; Zech 11:12)
  3. Judas asks Jesus if he is the betrayer (26:25)
  4. Jesus’ blood is presented as being poured out for the forgiveness of sins (26:28)
  5. The second prayer in Gethsemane is presented as a direct quotation (26:42)
  6. Jesus’ words to Judas after the kiss (26:50)
  7. Jesus’ comments after the high priest’s servant’s ear is cut off about violence, the availability of angelic help, and scriptural fulfillment (26:52–54)
  8. The high priest’s demand before God that Jesus speak (26:63)
  9. Sarcastic reference to Jesus as Messiah (26:68)
  10. Jesus is described as a Galilean (26:69)
  11. Peter’s second denial includes an oath (26:72)
  12. The purpose of the morning consultation is already decided: execute Jesus (27:1)
  13. Pilate describes Jesus as the one who is called the Messiah (27:17, 22)
  14. Pilate’s wife recounts a dream and calls Jesus innocent (27:19)
  15. Pilate washes his hands and the crowd took responsibility for Jesus’ death (27:24–25)
  16. The sign at the cross specifies the name of Jesus (27:37)
  17. Emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God (27:40, 43)
  18. Allusion to Psalm 22:8 (27:43)
  19. Account of the earthquake and opening of the tombs (27:51–53)
  20. Joseph of Arimathea is called a disciple (27:57)
  21. The Jewish religious leaders get Pilate to guard Jesus’ tomb (27:62–66)

There is a lot going on. And as you have read the preceding lists you will have, no doubt, wondered “where are the two thieves” or other familiar vignettes? They are parts of the Passion account that are unique to Mark, Luke or John. As Christians familiar with all four accounts, we do have a tendency to compile them into one narrative.

With all that in mind, let us move to looking at the details of the text itself

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