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An Unlikely Cast of Characters

April 3, 2017

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Passion—the last week of Jesus’ life, starting with his entry into Jerusalem and ending in his Crucifixion. The events of the week are filled with high drama. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed by joyous people who lined the road greeting him with joy and enthusiasm.   It was just as the ancient texts described the Messiah’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9). Then, after his final teachings came the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ arrest, the kangaroo court trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, and finally, Jesus’ Crucifixion between two criminals.

This week’s gospel lesson picks up the story with the events that occurred while Jesus was on the cross.[1]  In those 28 verses (Matthew 27-38-66), Jesus is mocked before he dies, several people are converted, miracles occur, one person outs himself, and enforcers were assigned to secure the tomb to prevent a “last fraud” (v. 64). We will examine this unlikely cast of characters as they appear in Matthew’s narrative.

The Mockers

Passersby mocked Jesus; those who had welcomed him into Jerusalem as their great hope a few days before were now bitterly disillusioned and disappointed: “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself. Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 27: 39-40). Similarly, the head priests and elders mocked him; the robbers who were crucified with him also insulted him.

Like mockers of our day, these people hadn’t grasped who Jesus was, despite what he had told them, and despite the miracles he had performed.  Instead of viewing the big picture from an eternal point of view, these folks expected the Messiah to be a great military leader who would immediately lead Israel to victory.  They expected the Messiah to overthrow the Roman emperor, and when he didn’t even try, they rejected him as their long-awaited Messiah.

The Messiah

Jesus, who was fully man, as well as fully God, expressed his extreme anguish just prior to his death, when he felt the full force of taking on the sins of the world, and the consequential separation from his Father: “‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabach-thani?”—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27: 46). He had been on the cross for some six hours, from approximately 9:00 a.m. until his death at approximately 3:00 p.m.  Jesus wasn’t questioning the Father in his statement.  He was expressing the pain of his separation from the Father. The physical pain was overwhelming, but the spiritual pain of separation from his Father was worse.  Jesus experienced this separation from the Father on the cross so that we will never have to endure it.   If you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior, you will never be separated from God. Jesus did it all for us.

The Newly Converted

Some of the mockers were paying attention to what was unfolding before their eyes, and became unlikely converts.  Four miracles are historically attributed to Jesus’ crucifixion. The darkening of the sky from noon until his death at 3:00 pm was the first extraordinary event.  The earthquake was another extraordinary event that put into motion two other events.  The tearing of the curtain separating the Holy place from the Most Holy place in the temple symbolized the removal of the barrier between God and the people.  People are free to approach God directly.  The opening of the tombs may have also resulted from the earthquake.

The centurion and the other soldiers standing watch who had mocked Jesus just a few hours before, were aghast at these miracles and said “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54b).  Also, before Jesus died, one of the robbers repented, and Jesus promised the thief that he would join him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).

 The Women

While all of the male followers of Jesus fled at the first sign of trouble (Matthew 26: 56b), the women stayed with Jesus: “There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (Matthew 27: 55-56).  These women were undoubtedly the ones who gave the gospel writers their eyewitness accounts of what transpired during the hours that Jesus was on the cross.  The fact that women were the key eyewitnesses not only to his death, but were also the first witnesses on the scene after the Resurrection was remarkable. Women in Jesus’ day couldn’t even testify in court because they were considered unreliable witnesses.  Yet God chose women to witness the most important events in human history.  That women were chosen as the key witnesses is a very strong proof of  the truth of the gospel accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  Anyone making up such a story would never have chosen women to report it.

The Outed

One man had been a secret follower of Jesus—a secret servant.  After Jesus’ death, he was even more convinced of his authenticity, and threw caution to the wind.  He outed himself.  He was Joseph of Arimathea, a highly respected member of the Sanhedrin who had been afraid to speak up against the religious leaders who condemned Jesus.  All of Jesus’ followers (except the women) had fled, but this brave Jewish leader went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body so that he could bury it.  In doing so he identified himself as a follower of Jesus—a very dangerous position to be in at that time.  It is highly unlikely that Joseph would have exposed himself in this manner if he didn’t truly believe Jesus to be God.

 The Enforcers

The religious leaders remembered Jesus’ teaching about his Resurrection, and were afraid of what would happen if it occurred, or if the disciples stole his body to make it appear that he was resurrected.  As they put it: “The last fraud will be worse than the first.” (Matthew 27: 64).  To avoid “this last fraud,” Pilate told them to make the tomb as secure as possible. “So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Matthew 27: 66).  Despite the best efforts of these guards, the tomb was opened, and Jesus’ body was gone on Sunday morning, providing more proof of the Resurrection.

Where do you see yourself in this line-up? Are you a mocker, a loyal follower, a new convert, or blind enforcer of unbelief?  Wherever you are, the truth is that mockers became converts, followers were eyewitnesses, and we still have the naysayers among us.

We know the end of the story—that the death of Jesus on the cross was the beginning of our salvation, and a joyous event was to follow on Sunday morning.  As one preacher put it: “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”[2] But even during the Passion, we see hope in the completion of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and in the conversion of the robber and the soldiers upon Jesus’ death.  These are people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah before the Resurrection.  We who have the benefit of all of the historical accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection have no excuse for unbelief.  Take a step toward Jesus this week.  Walk with him to the cross.  Stay for the Resurrection, and you will never be the same.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan






[1] The Scripture texts for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion are Psalm 31:9-16; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2: 5-11; Matthew 27:38-66.

[2] Tony Campolo

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