At the end of the Olivet Discourse, Matthew writes that Jesus “finished all these words” (Matt. 26:1). Matthew uses nearly identical phrases at the end of each of Jesus’s long discourses (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1). This one is different. Earlier, Matthew wrote “he finished these words,” but now it’s “he finished all these words.” That “all” hints that Jesus is entering a new phase of his ministry. Jesus, the rabbi and prophet, has said everything he’s going to say.
Matthew’s Jesus is voluble. He teaches in long discourses, laying out Israel’s way of righteousness and peace, commissioning disciples, disclosing the secrets of the kingdom, teaching his followers how to govern disciplined communities of forgiveness. Israel’s leaders never listen. Pharisees try to catch him in his words. Priests and elders plot against him and accuse him of being in league with the devil. So in his final discourse, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus predicts the judgment looming over Jerusalem, then stops. In the final chapters of Matthew, he says almost nothing. He speaks only once during his trial before the high priest—warning him he will see the Son of Man enthroned—and says even less to Pilate. It’s a startling moment. When Israel’s divine husband stops speaking to his bride, it’s a sign his patience has come to an end. Jesus has finished all his words.
As he goes silent, Jesus the healer, Jesus the exorcist, Jesus the wonder-worker is reduced almost to an object, “delivered” or “betrayed” from hand to hand to hand. He’s betrayed by Judas into the hands of soldiers, who deliver him to the priests, who deliver him to Pilate, who “delivered him up to be crucified” (27:26). Jesus goes limp, a lamb resigned to slaughter. The man of speech and action enters a wordless Passion.
Yet Jesus remains Lord. Nothing surprises him. During his long journey to Jerusalem, he repeatedly told his disciples about the details of his arrest and death. Matthew subtly shows that the chief priests and elders aren’t in control of their own plot. They decide not to arrest Jesus during Passover, not wanting to cause a riot—that’s the only detail of the conspiracy Matthew mentions. As soon as Judas offers to betray Jesus, though, they abandon their decision. And they don’t avoid the outcome they’re trying to avoid. A “riot” breaks out in Pilate’s Praetorium. The conspirators rage, gather, and plot to attack the Lord and his Anointed, but heaven is filled with scoffing laughter (Ps. 2:4). Jesus’s Passion is his supreme act of faith, as he refuses to revile, threaten, or defend himself, and instead entrusts himself to his Father, the one who judges justly.
Besides, the script of the whole sequence of events, down to the tiniest detail, was written in ancient times. Judas offers to deliver Jesus in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. The priests and elders pay him, but later, in terrified remorse, Judas returns the money. Spontaneous as they seem, Judas’s actions have been centuries in preparation. Zechariah predicted it, as Matthew indicates (Matt. 27:9), and the Torah already pre-allegorizes the betrayal. According to Exodus 21:32, if an ox gores a slave to death, the owner of the ox must pay the slave’s owner thirty shekels of silver as compensation. Israel is the Lord’s work animal (Deut. 33:13–17), called to plow and thresh the world to gather a harvest for Yahweh. But Israel’s leaders have become a demon-possessed ox, goring every servant Yahweh sends. Jesus too is gored—surrounded, as Psalm 22 says—by ferocious bulls of Bashan whose mouths gape like the mouths of lions.
As the thirty pieces of silver circulate, Judas and the Jewish leaders change roles. By paying Judas, the priests and elders implicitly acknowledge they’re responsible for killing Jesus; by returning the money, Judas confesses he’s the murderous ox. Through it all, both leaders and traitor value Jesus at the magnificent price of a slave’s corpse (see Zech. 11:11–14). Jesus is content to go silent because he knows the word of his Father, echoing down the centuries, will yet prevail.
Today Western Christians enter Lenten passion and silence in imitation of the faith of Jesus. In the weakness of the fast, we confess the Passion of God is stronger than all human action. In Lenten silence, we affirm the confidence of the silent Savior, assured that God will finish all his words.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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