These four chapters cover an amazing depth and breadth of truly crucial events in a short space. Here we have…
- The final teachings of Jesus
- The anointing at Bethany
- The Last Supper
- The prayer in Gethsemane
- Peter’s denial
- Judas’ betrayal and subsequent suicide
- Jesus’ arrest, trial, and beating
- Jesus’ journey to Golgotha, crucifixion, death, and burial
- Jesus’ resurrection
- The Great Commission
Reading four chapters in the Old Testament could, in one sense, take us through a greater span of history, covering hundreds or even thousands or, in the case of the opening chapters of Genesis, millions of years. However, here, in these closing four chapters of Matthew, we have the sense that we are peering into the very center, the crux, of history.
Perhaps the reason why we get this feeling in reading of these last events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is because in him, as St. Irenaeus said, we have the human story recapitulated. C. S. Lewis puts it this way in Letter VIII of Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer…
Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep—as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. This also is characteristic. In every Church, in every, institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. Its pretentions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that very reason it may be free from local fanaticisms. It claims to be just on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’état. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He Himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are “Why hast thou forsaken me?”
You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it. To be like the fox at the end of the run; the earths all staked.
As for the last dereliction of all, how can we either understand or endure it? Is it that God Himself cannot be Man unless God seems to vanish at His greatest need? And if so, why? I sometimes wonder if we have even begun to understand what is involved in the very concept of creation. If God will create, He will make something to be, and yet to be not Himself. To be created is, in some sense, to be ejected or separated. Can it be that the more perfect the creature is the further this separation must at some point be pushed? It is saints, not common people, who experience the “dark night.” It is men and angels, not beasts, who rebel. Inanimate matter sleeps in the bosom of the Father. The “hiddenness” of God perhaps presses most painfully on those who are in another way nearest to Him, and therefore God Himself, made man, will of all men be by God most forsaken? One of the seventeenth-century divines says, “By pretending to be visible God could only deceive the world.” Perhaps He does pretend just a little to simple souls who need a full measure of “sensible consolation.” Not deceiving them, but tempering the wind to the shorn lamb. Of course I’m not saying like Niebuhr that evil is inherent in finitude. That would identify the creation with the fall and make God the author of evil. But perhaps there is an anguish, an alienation, a crucifixion involved in the creative act. Yet He who alone can judge judges the far-off consummation to be worth it.
I am, you see, a Job’s comforter. Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. But on second thoughts I don’t regret what I have written. I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.
“But what of the resurrection?” you may well ask. Yes, it is there, in chapter 28. And I believe in the resurrection of the body, in Jesus’ resurrection and ours, just as we confess in the Creed. Lewis believed in it as well. But notice how Matthew takes more time to dwell on Jesus’ suffering. That suffering which Jesus shares with us is a comfort too, just as is the hope of resurrection. But even the resurrection is not the end of the road, rather a bend in the road, with all of eternity beyond….