Blogger’s note: I wrote this last year during the height of the controversy over The Passion of the Christ. However, I believe it still has relevance, particularly for this time of year.
“Oh no,” the reader might say. “Not another column on Mel Gibson’s, ‘The Passion of the Christ’!”
Well, yes, and I offer my apologies up front for inflicting this upon you. But I think there’s something very important that’s been missing in the discussion (well, I suppose you could call it an argument) about one line in particular.
It’s that famous, or, depending on your perspective, perhaps infamous, passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man's blood,’ he said. ‘See to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (Matt. 27:24-25)
Now this sounds rather nasty, right? Yes, and there are some Old Testament texts to demonstrate just how nasty it could be.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand’” (Gen. 4.9-11).
In the beginning of Solomon’s reign, David instructed him to do certain things to consolidate his power since Solomon’s half-brother, Adonijah, had claimed the throne. One of those was to kill Joab, who had been David’s army commander because Joab had killed Abner, one of Saul’s top commanders, just when Abner was about to help David overthrow Saul. Joab did this because Abner had killed Joab’s brother – and because he didn’t want a rival for his position. So in 1 Kings 2:33, Solomon says of Joab, “May the guilt of their blood rest on the head of Joab and his descendants forever. But on David and his descendants, his house and his throne, may there be the Lord's peace forever."
Jeremiah places these words in the mouth of Israel during the exile: “King Nebuchadrezzer of Babylon has devoured me, he has crushed me; he has made me an empty vessel, he has swallowed me like a monster; he has filled his belly with my delicacies, he has spewed me out. ‘May the violence done to our flesh be upon Babylon,’ let the inhabitant of Zion say. ‘My blood be upon the inhabitants of Chaldea,’ let Jerusalem say” (Jer. 51:34-35).
And the prophet Ezekiel says, “If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though his father does none of them), who eats upon the mountain, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore pledges, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, lends at usury and takes excessive interest, will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head” (Ez. 18:12-14).
So if we follow this idea, what those in the crowd that day said to Pilate is indeed a curse and those who claim the film is anti-Semitic would be right to say this curse should be expunged.
But there’s a problem with this interpretation – it’s taken out of context. What’s the context? It’s the Passion of the Lord, the greatest act of love the world has ever known, as the great Scripture scholar, Father Francis Martin, used to tell his students. A key part of the Passion is the Last Supper (obviously), which St. Matthew describes in chapter 26:26-28: “Now, as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (my emphasis)
It is significant that the other two Gospels that describe the same scene, St. Mark and St. Luke, and St. Paul’s description of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, which is read at the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, do not include the part about the forgiveness of sins. It is also interesting that when Pope Paul VI had the liturgy revised, he specifically instructed that the words of institution for the Eucharist should be taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel and not the other sources in order that the faithful would be reminded every time we hear the Eucharistic Prayer that the blood of Christ is shed for the forgiveness of sins.
St. Matthew, by having Jesus say, “this is my blood of the covenant” makes a direct connection between Christ’s blood and the blood of bulls and goats which was placed on the horns of the altar in the Temple every year on the Day of Atonement. The Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that Christ’s blood is far superior to the blood of animals because Christ’s blood cleanses from sin so we can worship the living God, while the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sin.
This now places the people’s cry, “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” in a very different light. Though the people who said it may have meant it in the Old Testament context, that is not necessarily what St. Matthew meant. It is said after the Lord has given his blood as the blood of the new covenant which, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel,” and, as St. Matthew’s Gospel says, is shed “for the forgiveness of sins.”
That blood, then, which the people call upon themselves and their children, is not blood that cries out for vengeance, as Abel’s did; rather it is the blood of the Son of God that cries out for mercy. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do" (Luke 24:34).
Indeed, in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, we pray, “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and the sins of the whole world.” We then say, “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, takes three chapters to talk about the Jews and their relationship with Christ. He did not condemn them to everlasting punishment, and if there was anyone who would or could do it, it would be him. Instead, he maintained that their obstinacy in not seeing the Messiah was God’s plan at work for the salvation of the Gentiles. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” he says in chapter 11, verse 13. “Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”
All of this makes it obvious that there is no room for accusing Jews of deicide. And neither is there room for saying that St. Matthew, or any of the New Testament writers, was anti-Semitic. If either one was the case, Jew and Gentile both would be left out of receiving any mercy from God at all. How could those who killed God expect mercy? Or how could those who believe God's chosen people are sub-human receive God's mercy? But St. Paul utterly rejects these thoughts because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are now freely justified by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25).
St. Paul, the Jew who once persecuted the Church and then became the Apostle to the Gentiles, makes clear God’s purpose of what should happen between Jew and Gentile when he wrote to the Ephesians: “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off [the Gentiles] have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both [Jews and Gentiles] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (2:14-16).