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"His Blood Be Upon Us": Understanding What We See in the Passion of the Christ

“His Blood Be Upon Us”:
Understanding What We See in The Passion of the Christ

By the Rev. Dr. Joseph Murphy

In Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion of the Christ, the Aramaic text of the account from the Gospel of Matthew is provided in English subtitles, except for Matthew 27:25. That verse is not included because of the potential for misunderstanding given the history of Jewish-Christian relations.

The passage reads, "And all the people said, "His blood shall be on us and on our children!"(NASV). In one sense, its meaning is simple enough. Using a common biblical idiom, the crowd was taking responsibility for the execution of Jesus, just as a jury and a judge today take responsibility for the execution of a criminal guilty of capital offense. It is no trivial matter, in either case.

What compounds the problem, of course, is that Jesus was no ordinary criminal; in fact, no ordinary man, and no criminal at all. At least, that is what we Christians believe. What's more, we believe it passionately, because the message of salvation through Christ goes deeper in us than any passion we have. "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free," Jesus said (John 8:32). His hearers, "the Jews" according to the Gospel of John, were incredulous at this statement, because they did not consider themselves anyone's slaves. Indeed, they were not.

From the days of Judas Maccabeus, the Jews were a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire, a people most difficult to force into subjection. Freedom is dear to the heart of the Jews. It is part of their heritage. The freedom Jesus spoke of, though, was freedom from sin, freedom to live before God without being controlled by our passions, our hatreds, our vices--an inner freedom in and of the Spirit of God allowing us to love and serve others.

In Jesus' ministry recounted in the four Gospels, we see again and again Jesus being misunderstood and the conflict it caused, as He spoke about a kingdom which is not of this world, in the midst of a kingdom very much in this world, which was very disagreeably held under the cruel thumb of Rome. In the account of Jesus' Passion, we see it come to a head as He stands before Pilate, the Roman ruler of the Jewish state whose ignorance of Jesus' true Kingship is complete, though he acts in effect as Jesus’ judge. It is Pilate's authority that executes Jesus, since the Jews had no authority to do so apart from Rome.

Who then is "all the people" who, in effect, comprise the jury that takes the responsibility for Pilate to kill Jesus? Through the history of the Church, it has been interpreted variously as being all the Jews at all times since that day, all the Jews alive at the time of Christ's death except those who believed, or all of that generation of Jews except those who believed in Jesus, since the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by Rome would have fulfilled the reference to Jesus' blood coming upon "our children," the following generation.

In the limited context of the meaning of Matthew’s Gospel, the latter is probable: only those people capable of hearing and responding to Jesus during His life and ministry. But in the context of the entire message of the New Testament, to identify who is responsible for Jesus’ death, the question we must first answer is, who speaks for us when we are identified corporately?

Identity politics is the order of the day in these postmodern times. The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf in Exclusion & Embrace describes the particularities of our human identity and the resulting differences between us, behind the current global problems of race, ethnicity, and culture, which are “tribal realities” brought to the foreground by the new global economy and technology. The question of who speaks for “us,” as we are so identified, is, therefore, of the greatest importance.

If you are “white,” or “Christian,” did Hitler speak for you? The question is germane, since it is exactly this kind of authority to speak for “all” by perpetrators of evil that is brought into question by Matthew’s passage. Did those people there present at the crucifixion speak for all Jews when they took responsibility for Pilate to execute?

It is the attribution of the murder of Jesus to "all the Jews" by Christians historically that has rightly concerned many Jews today in respect to Mel Gibson's movie. They fear fresh anti-Semitism, and history shows their fears to be rational. Hitler’s unspeakable atrocities came at the end of centuries of mistreatment of the Jews in Christian Europe.

Christians today who dismiss those fears do not serve the Jewish community well. And, for the Church now finally shorn of the corrupting power of rulership in this world, the only thing that demonstrates the love of Christ our King, if we listen to Jesus at the time of His Passion (John 13:1-17) and follow Him, is humble service.

Had the Church been serving the Jewish community in the freedom of Christ all these years, refusing to do violence to them and seeking their well-being, we would hear no such fears expressed today. At one time, in the days of Jesus and His disciples, it was possible for believers in Christ, Jew or Gentile, and Jewish non-believers in Christ to discuss and argue the truth of Jesus’ claims. Now, we have two thousand years of the Church’s failure to act like Jesus toward the Jews that horribly complicates the relationship.

We Christians must ask ourselves, who has the right to speak for us? The only credible person who claims the right to speak for us all, the Pope, is specifically not granted that right by all of us! How is it that those Jewish persons at the crucifixion had the right to speak for all Jews everywhere then and since? Some people might reply that the New Testament assigns the blame--that God has spoken through Matthew so that the Jews are all to blame. Without questioning that God has spoken through Matthew, we can and must ask if we have understood the New Testament correctly if we hear it assign blame to the Jewish people as a whole.

The concept of corporate identity is not a postmodern phenomena, despite our preoccupation with it today in social politics. It is evident in the Hebrew Bible in the writings of the Jewish prophets, and particularly in the writings of Isaiah, which were of primary importance to the early Jewish Christians in arguing the claims of the Messiah Jesus to their fellow Jews (e.g. Acts 8:26-39). Isaiah describes the Servant of the Lord in chapters 40 to 53 of that book in a way that accentuates the corporate identity of Israel. Sometimes, the Servant is clearly the people of Israel.

Sometimes, however, the Servant is an individual, but as an individual standing for the whole people, in the unity of their corporate identity. This is presented as God's work, not a definition of unity that we impose upon Israel. The suffering of Messiah, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and graphically portrayed in The Passion of the Christ, is the suffering of the Servant of the Lord of Isaiah chapter 53.

Jesus' fellow Jew and disciple Peter refers to that chapter in describing Jesus' suffering: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (I Peter 2:24)." Jesus died *for* us. This death for us is at the heart of the gospel, because Jesus died in our place, so that our sins were nailed to His cross.

This makes the gospel the proclamation of a truth that brings inner freedom in a life of loving service to God, because we are freed from both the power of sin and from the fear of death—the greatest power that can be wielded against us in this world. But, isn't that what we heard Jesus say to His Jewish hearers, that the truth would set them free?

Was Jesus Himself, then, being anti-Semitic? Or, to state it differently, is His death any different from His life, a stumbling-block Peter calls it, again citing Isaiah? Doesn't the charge of anti-Semitism in the New Testament reduce to the challenge of faith *in* Jesus that Jesus Himself put before His own people of Israel, distorted and obscured in the history of the Church by Gentile racial hatred of Jesus' own race?

What the gospel of Christ tells us is that we, all, have sinned, and fallen short of what God has created us for, which is nothing less than His own glory in living union with Him.

The death of Jesus, followed by His resurrection, offers us a way out of that dilemma, a way through faith in Christ in which His blood cleanses us from all of our sins. The blood of that Passover Lamb of God, according to the New Testament patterned after the Hebrew Testament, causes the judgment of God in His separation from us, to pass. All those who believe in Jesus, then, *want* to be washed in the blood of the Lamb, to have His blood upon us!

The divine irony of His blood being upon us who believe in Him extends to those who killed Him that day, who cried out for His blood to be upon them. If Jesus' death is our life, is their killing Him not a service to us?

In other words, did not Israel, the Servant of the Lord, act in unison that day, the One and the many, in a sacrifice to end all sacrifices? Who is guilty, then? Jesus bore it, *all.* Jesus makes that clear: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). The Jews did not kill Jesus. The Servant of the Lord laid down His life for us, at the hands of “the kings of the earth,” as Psalm 2 puts it, or as we might say, “the powers that be.”

Christians, who believe the story of Jesus' Passion, are actually forever indebted to those Jewish men and women who acted on behalf of us all, in agreeing to put Jesus to death. Not that we commend their motives. No, in an ultimate sense we *share* their motives, every day, in every one of our lives. Failure to acknowledge that human unity in complicity simply reflects a lack of repentance on our part.

In a very specific sense, any Christian that is angered at the Jews for killing Jesus falls into the very profile of the spiritually bankrupt religious leadership that were offended by Jesus, a portrait also given to us by Matthew: “And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. (Matt. 23:30-31)”

The murder of Jesus is *our* story, man and woman against God, unwilling to accept Him as He presents Himself to us. God offers us all forgiveness through the life and death of Jesus. The people of Israel, the Servant of the Lord, have served us all, in corporate unity with Jesus Whom God appointed to speak for Him in an ultimate action of God's love toward us all.

The unavoidable implication of Jesus’ Passion is that humanity itself is united before God, and that Israel as God's Servant has served us all for His sake. If the Jews, represented in this story by Caiphas and the crowd, are one in the horrible, unjust execution of Christ, Gentile Christians, represented by Pilate in his abuse of power, are one in their horrible, unjust killing of the Jews through history.

No, it was we, all humanity, who killed the Servant of the Lord, and God who has forgiven us of all through that very act of Jesus’ Self-giving.

If anti-Semitism increases as a result of Gibson’s film, its viewers will have seen and not understood. In Jesus’ words, “In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’ (Matthew 13:14)” Such is the blindness of Pilate, and all Christians who have stood in his place of power, executing the Servant of the Lord at any time in history.

Any Christian like Pilate washing their hands of complicity in the death of Christ in order to blame the Jews, only proves that they do not understand what they see. It is not accidental that Pilate is the one who dismisses the possibility and value of knowing the truth: he did not see Jesus for Who He is. Miroslav Volf accurately describes the Victim of the incredible violence shown in The Passion of the Christ: “Jesus, who claimed to be the Truth, refused to use violence to “persuade” those who did not recognize his truth. The kingdom of truth he came to proclaim was the kingdom of freedom and therefore cannot rest on pillars of violence.”

If the graphic violence portrayed in this film inflames anyone’s ire against the Jewish people, they have seen and not understood, nor has the truth freed them to love and serve. The violence is not the point of Jesus’ story, not at least as it was written. Cinema, for all its visual splendor, is an ineffective medium for communicating the written word. As always, to appreciate the full story, one needs to read the book.

© 2004 The Rev. Joseph P. Murphy, Ph.D. This article is the property of VIRTUOSITY. It may be forwarded electronically, but may not be altered in any way, shape or form. You may view this article at www.virtuosityonline.org.

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