An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, Year A, Matthew 26:14-27:66
April 17, 2011
Probably few people are as fortunate as former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. It may be recalled that during his Impeachment Trial, it was denied by the defense that he signed a PCI Bank document as Jose Velarde; but Clarissa Ocampo, former Equitable PCI Bank vice-president, testified in court that she was one foot away when Estrada did so in Malacañang on 4 February 2000. According to Prosecutors, an account of his with the Equitable PCI bank at one point contained P3.2 billion, when his declared not worth was only P35 million. But on 25 February 2002, he admitted on television that he had signed bank documents as Jose Velarde, bolstering credibility of the star witness Ocampo. Of course, by the looks of it, Estrada’s confession during an interview aired by ANC News Channel strengthened the plunder case, and that blunder in an ordinary mortal would have sent supporters away from him. But not so with Estrada. In fact, later, Jesus Remulla, spokesman of Partido ng Masang Filipino claimed, for example, that it was Ocampo who made Estrada sign documents using a false name. The Union of Masses for Democracy and Justice (UMDJ) spoke against the Impeachment Trial, calling it the “kangaroo trial of the century.” When finally, he ran once more for President against Manuel Villar and Noynoy Aquino, a good number, even millions, of Filipinos supported his candidacy, and the election results placed him not far removed from President Aquino.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly not as fortunate as Estrada, even though, unlike him, he did not commit any blunder. Like other synoptic writers, Matthew portrays Jesus as the bringer of the Kingdom of God. By Kingdom of God he does not mean a religio-political theocracy in which God is represented by the high priest, or a community in which only the good and perfect people form part. By Kingdom he means God’s rule in a community in which the poor are not discriminated against, sinners are accepted, and the humble, the suffering and the oppressed come into their own. It is a community in which people experience acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation, unity and love. In other words, it is the fulfillment of God’s promise to the prophets that he will live among his people. As a bringer of the Kingdom, he actualized it in his dealings with the people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged. In particular, his parables and miracles were meant to indicate God’s forgiving and healing word and action are now touching the very lives of his people. His fellowship with sinners was a living parable of salvation and forgiveness. In Jesus God was sharing his very life with Israel.
This was not the way Jesus’ contemporaries saw him, however. The Jewish leaders refused to see him as God’s eschatological messenger. Judging him on the basis of their understanding of the Law, the Jewish leaders, according to the Gospels, regarded him as one who claimed authority that was more than human. For example, he set his interpretation of the Law against the prevailing one in the community; he is portrayed as violating the Sabbath, and he even challenged the tradition of the Jewish Elders. In the Jewish perspective of the Law, Jesus was seen as a false prophet, and in cahoots with the prince of demons. And when he said something about the Temple that was unacceptable to the leaders of the nation, they viewed his action not as something linked with the Kingdom of God, which it was, but as an assault on their authority. But those who were against him were not only the Jewish leaders and their cronies. The leaders themselves found allies among the political leaders. In particular, they had the Governor on their side, and considering that they themselves had no power to put someone to death, they found in Pilate a perfect partner.
Since the Jewish leaders could not accuse Jesus of being a false prophet before Pilate, since this would not make sense to him, they denounced him as a pretender to the throne. Which explains the charge that was written on the cross and the capital punishment. The charge, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” was something a Roman governor could understand, and the fact that Jesus was crucified clearly indicates that Pilate considered him a rebel, crucifixion being a Roman punishment for insurgents. One can see, therefore, that the religious and the political leaders saw him as dangerous, and therefore had to be eliminated. It is not surprising that in some gospel passages, it can be noticed that Jesus recognized how precarious his life was. Clearly, he had no one powerful enough either in the government or in the state religion to support him. He could not even walk openly. And one could just imagine the psychological effect these had on Jesus. To bring home the point, one may just make a mental picture of himself being hunted down not only by the executive department with the military, but also by the judiciary and the institutional religion—where could one go to? He could only live the life of a fugitive, and that is note easy. Of course, a fugitive from the law can still hide, if he has supporters to shelter him. But even this was denied him. On the contrary, one from his own group betrayed him. And even those who promised to die for him eventually ran when the authorities caught up with him. Jesus, in other words, was abandoned not only by those who represented his own people, but even by those who were supposed to protect him. No life could be more painful than this. Men abandoned him.
Of course, the abandonment of him by his own men and the institutions of the country, not to say the scourging, the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion, could still be borne if he had someone to cling to. After all, we are often told that when one knows someone understands him, loves him, clings to him and accepts him for what he is and without condition, he can bear almost any kind of pain. That this is true—this is easily verified when we hear the stories of people who have been imprisoned, or tortured, or who are separated from their wives either as sailors or as contract workers abroad. The certainty, the assurance that someone loves us is sufficient ground to survive and bear all the difficulties. In the life of Jesus, one easily identifies his ground of existence with his Father. People may not have understood him, but he was certain that his Father did. After all, in the gospels he claims that no one knows the Father except the Son and no one knows the Son except the Father, and those he has chosen to reveal him. In the end, however, he was unsupported in his sufferings, the Father never freed him from it. This is probably the meaning of his scream at death, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). That kind of suffering is obviously unspeakable. At any rate, that is how Matthew’s passion narrative portrays the death of Jesus—he dies as an abandoned Son of God, the Crucified Messiah.*