I don’t know whether you’ve ever played that parlour game where you are given a series of quotes in Elizabethan English and you have to decide whether each quote is from Shakespeare or the Bible. If you haven’t played this then you have not really missed much. If you’re a fan you can find it on Sporcle. I once had a colleague who, in his first month as a curate, was told to go round the area knocking on people’s doors and inviting them to church. One older lady said firmly, no thanks, she didn’t want to come to church, my religion is a private thing and in any case I live by all the teachings of Jesus: ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’. And she shut the door firmly. Michael headed down the path giggling at the quote from The Merchant of Venice (or was it Hamlet, he couldn’t quite remember.)
‘Live by the sword, die by the sword’ sounds like the Bard but here it is: it’s a rebuke to an overheated disciple right in the middle of the arrest scene in Matthew. Jesus’ sufferings up to this point have been psychological and spiritual. He knows what the crowds don’t know. And what the disciples seem so reluctant to accept – that he is heading to Jerusalem to die. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus wrestles in agonised prayer to embrace the will of his Father. His closest disciples dozed.
Our passage comes in as Jesus is still praying. Immediately Judas arrives and betrays him with a kiss. This feigned intimacy with its cataclysmic breach of trust has become a byword that echoes down the centuries. It’s a moment of fatal miscalculation for Judas that makes me shiver.
And now with his arrest Jesus is under real physical threat. The innate human fight or flight response in situations such as these is very powerful. Mark’s Gospel tells us that one disciple took flight in his underwear. Here in Matthew the response is fight. And as so often violence threatened invites a violent response. Faced with an arrest party with swords and clubs, one of Jesus’ disciples draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the servants. Luke reports that Jesus healed the servant’s ear. And I feel reassured – Jesus still has miracle working power. But in Matthew we are just as confident that Jesus has great power – but he explicitly refuses to use it. To be sure, he says, he could appeal to his Father for more than twelve legions of Angels, ‘but how then will the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must happen this way?’ Neither Judas, nor the Temple police, nor even Jesus’ disciples understand his utter determination to live and die as it was spoken of him in the prophets.
After his arrest the disciples desert him and flee. And now Jesus is truly alone. But this is necessary because he and he alone can work the salvation of humankind. Jesus does not play the game of swords. ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’ said Gandhi. But the way of Jesus is not non-resistance. Nor is it the way of non-violent resistance. Rather Jesus is embracing his destiny, the destiny pre-ordained by the Father and prophesied in Scripture.
What follows is a travesty of an illegal trial where Jesus’ accusers are scrabbling around for the necessary two witnesses who will tell the same story. Finally two can agree about his intent to commit a terrorist act against the Temple and then miraculously rebuild it faster than the Nightingale hospitals are going up. But Jesus hasn’t actually done anything wrong. And John tells us that this stuff about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days is really about his body: it will be destroyed and God will restore it on the third day.
In the end they settle on the charge: his self-claim to Messianic kingship. Jesus doesn’t deny it. And he doesn’t keep silent either. He simply quotes from Daniel: one day you will see the full power of the Son of Man. No arrogance, no exaggeration, but no compromise either – just a proper confidence in God’s purpose and God’s power. All they can do is lash out, mock and spit at him. It’s a drop compared to the ocean of God’s love in Christ.
The path that Jesus was called to walk is of a different order to yours or to mine, of course. His path was uniquely lonely and costly. He carried the sins of the world on his shoulders. But in our own small way are we bound to follow after him and to walk the way of the cross. What sustains us is not some perverse enjoyment of suffering. Rather we know he has gone before us, that he walks with us and that we have the Spirit of Jesus in us. We follow well when we live by Scripture and hold the hand of our loving heavenly Father in prayer. One writer put it: ‘never confuse the edge of your foxhole with the horizon.’ We can be so tempted to leave God’s power out of account. We can replace God’s ways and wisdom with our own. We are too tempted to look around and not up – to see only our foxhole and not God’s sun-emblazoned horizon.
Lord, we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross and despised its shame. In times of great upheaval and change when so much trust and hope is invested in the work of scientists, the efforts of our self-sacrificial healthcare workers, and in human organisation, instill in us the habit of looking up, putting our trust in you, our God and our redeemer.