In Accordance with the Scriptures

The biblical accounts of the events leading up to, and including, the death of Jesus are rich in references to the Hebrew Scriptures.

Apr 07, 2017

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Year A)
Readings: Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Gospel: Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

The biblical accounts of the events leading up to, and including, the death of Jesus are rich in references to the Hebrew Scriptures. Like the infancy narratives, the accounts of the passion and death of Jesus either quote directly or echo the Old Testament in almost every verse. This final week of Lent is a good time to reflect on the Christian use of the Jewish Scriptures to interpret the actions and passion of Jesus.

Over the years, it has gradually come home to me that there are two misguided ways to interpret Old Testament allusions and citations in the New Testament. The first wrong way is simply to take an Old Testament reference as a claim that a prediction came true. This bald prediction/fulfillment approach reduces the meaning of the reference to the simple thought: the Old Testament says such and such, and look, it happened in Jesus’ life. Granted that this was often the way those references were treated in the apologetics of another age, this way of thinking rarely does justice to the implied intentions of the biblical authors, and these intentions vary according to context.

The other misguided way of interpreting the New Testament references to the Hebrew Scriptures is the hypothesis of some sceptical biblical critics who assume the details of the passion were simply invented by authors using the Old Testament as their source. This hardly makes sense as the practice of people proclaiming Good News.

What, then, is the best way to understand the New Testament references to the Old Testament? It is to take those references one by one, looking in each case for the way in which the older text is used to interpret the meaning of the life and person of Jesus. This Sunday’s readings provide a number of fascinating examples. Let’s consider two of them.

Zech 9:9 in Matt 21:5

Behold, your king comes to you,
meek and riding on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.

Mark and Luke tell of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem without quoting this explanatory verse from the prophet Zechariah. All of the Synoptic Gospels are clear that Jesus’ choice of the donkey as his mount for entering Jerusalem was quite deliberate. The move is so carefully prearranged that one suspects that it is some kind of prophetic symbolic action — like the table fellowship with outcasts or the sharing of the cup of blessing. Matthew makes the meaning of the choice evident by citing Zechariah 9:9, which is part of a portrait of a future king who rides a donkey instead of a war horse, a peacemaking king who bans the bow and the chariot. (The Fourth Gospel will clarify the meaning even further, not only by quoting the prophet but also by showing Jesus choosing to ride the donkey in response to the palm-waving of the crowds.) Notice that the citation of Zechariah is more than a matter of highlighting a fulfilled prediction; it explains the meaning of the action.

Wis 2:16-18 in Matt 27:43. To Mark’s description of the passers-by and the chief priests and scribes taunting the crucified Jesus to save himself and come down from the cross, Matthew adds some words. “Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him,” say the passers-by. And the Temple officials add the barb,

He trusted in God;
let him deliver him now if he wants him.
For he said, I am the Son of God.

This Matthean addition is a paraphrase of Wisdom 2:17-18, whose context is a description of a group of wicked men who think that might makes right (Wis 2:11) ganging up on a just man and speaking cynically among themselves:

He boasts that God is his Father.
Let us see whether his words are true. …
For if the just one be the son of God,
he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. ...

This allusion to the Old Testament is clearly not a matter of prediction and fulfillment. For the author of Wisdom, it is a perennial scenario. As applied to Jesus, the reference is a reflection on the meaning of the drama that Jesus plays out, for the Wisdom passage also comments on the delusion of the abusers of the just man:

These were their thoughts, but they erred;
for their wickedness blinded them,
And they knew not the hidden counsels of God,
neither did they count on a recompense of holiness,
nor discern the innocent souls reward. … (Wis 2:21-22).

Thus Matthew enlists the Wisdom text not as prediction but as illumination.

These examples are just a hint of the wealth of meaning that lies behind the echoes of Scripture in the passion account.-- By Fr Dennis Hamm, SJ

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