Exodus 28-30, Psalm 26, Matthew 27
Jesus died that we might live
Exodus 28 – 30
If you worship in a large auditorium of a mega church and your preacher wears a business suit or blue jeans and a casual shirt and there are no liturgical vestments or altar hangings, you probably will not find these chapters to be relevant to your faith life. If, however, you are familiar with Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Orthodox or Lutheran worship, these chapters will offer you some understanding of why we do what we do 3,000 years later.
Clergy in these traditions wear colorful vestments that match the different Church seasons of the year such as Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. Each year, the Church walks through a liturgical cycle, where the colors of the Church Year are expressed in the vestments worn by clergy and the altar hangings which match the Bible lessons being read and the hymns being sung. It all coheres. It tells a story in word, sound and color. That is part of the beauty and glory of traditional, liturgical worship.
It also hearkens back in time to something ancient and mysterious. When I was growing up, we stood each day and said the Pledge of Allegiance in school. It was something that had been done by students long before us. It was a tradition. This tradition, however, pales in comparison to many of the traditions of the Church, which have been observed for 2,000 years or more.
For example, “You shall make sacred vestments for the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron.” (Ex. 28:2) The author of Exodus is teaching us about the institution of the Levitical priesthood. The Levites were the descendants of Aaron, Moses’s brother. According to Jewish custom, they were responsible for the operation of the Temple for over 1,000 years. They wore special vestments. “…they shall use gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns, and fine linen.” (Ex. 28:5).
While attending the funeral service for an old and wonderful friend, Bishop Paul Moore, who had served as the Bishop of New York, I listened as his daughter, Honor, an accomplished writer, offered one of the most beautiful eulogies that I have ever heard. “My father wore gold, blue, purple and crimson…” she said as she began and ended her eulogy. I could just imagine her father, Paul, standing tall at the altar, wearing those beautiful vestments, whose roots come from the book of Exodus, some 3,000 years ago.
Church people sometimes take these things too seriously. We have battles over the colors, fabrics and hangings on the altar or vestments that their priests wear. Feelings are hurt. Sometimes, we associate too much with these traditions. They signify our relationship with God, but are not the essence of it.
The author of Exodus explains in chapters 28-30 how priests should be vested and consecrated and how objects used for religious practice should be anointed with a special oil to set them apart for service to God. The very best that could be offered was set aside for God and to support the priests serving in the Temple. The people of God were to offer their best, not their leftovers, to glorify and give thanks to God and to support their priests and house of worship.
A friend of mine, who is now a retired Episcopal priest, was sitting in church one day watching as the colorful vestments worn by the priest seemed literally to come alive and a powerful and mystical way. What happened in that moment spoke deeply to her. She experienced God profoundly. God got her attention through the colors, liturgy, movement and vestments.
It was the beginning of her journey to become a priest and to serve others at God’s altar. At their best, colorful vestments and holy objects, which have been consecrated and set apart for God’s purposes, are doors through which each of us can enter into an ancient holy mystery which remains ever so new.
Psalm 26 goes nicely with the readings that we have just read from Exodus. They appear to have been written by a priest. The author notes, “I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord.” (Ps. Ps. 26:6) This hearkens back to Exodus 30:20-21, where we read, “…when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering… they shall wash with water… They shall wash their hands and their feet…” Whether a priest or lay person, the author exercises integrity and asks for God’s grace.
I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked. (Ps. 26:4-5)
This is a clear reference to Psalm 1:1, which we noted earlier sets the tone for all of the psalms in the Psalter. The author of Psalm 1 writes, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers…”
It would be wise to say a special prayer before reading chapter 27, which tells of Jesus’s crucifixion. We ought not to read it as if we are glancing at a newspaper for this is the story about how God gave his only Son in order to reconcile each of us, who at some point have cut ourselves off from God.
In Matthew 26:63, we read one of the Bible’s shortest sentences, “But Jesus was silent.” Today, we encounter more silence. “But [Jesus] gave [Pilate] no answer, not even a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matt. 27:14) Silence is rare in church and rare in daily life for most of us. Preachers rarely speak about silence or God’s silence, but it is a vital part of the spiritual journey.
Monks and cloistered nuns are students of silence. They learn that silence is the language of God. We rarely encounter God amid much noise. It is when we experience silence in our life and in our worship that God has an opportunity to speak. The Swiss theologian Max Picard wrote a wonderful little book called The World of Silence and philosopher Bernard Dauenhauer wrote Silence: The Phenomenon and Its Ontological Significance. The Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor gave a series of lectures at the Yale Divinity School entitled When God is Silent, and the poetry of the Anglican priest R.S. Thomas is full of silent moments where the reader is invited to enter a church or space where God has just exited. There is silence and absence, but somehow there is also the powerful and mysterious presence of God.
Pontius Pilate now follows a custom during the Feast of the Passover to release a prisoner. The crowds shout for Barabbas, a notorious insurrectionist, to be freed. This is like given a choice to hand over a member of Al-Qaeda or the Dali Lama, and the crowd chooses the former. They chose a man of violence over the man of love. In some ways, this choice is made each day by nations around the world as leaders chose to resort to the way of violence over the way of love.
Interestingly, the hand washing that we discussed in Exodus 30:20-21 and Psalm 26:6 is repeated, but this time not by a priest, but by a Roman ruler who wants to remain free of guilt, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood…” (Matt. 27:24) Of course, Pilate is not. It takes courage to stand up to the mob and to deny what they demand. When men or women submit to what they know to be wrong and immoral and allow others to do evil, they fully share in the actions that they permit to take place.
In verse 26, we read that Jesus was flogged. We could easily read over this without experiencing a twinge of anguish. Flogging, however, literally took the flesh off a victim’s back. If you have seen Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, you have a clear idea of how brutal it was. When a victim was flogged or scourged, his hands were tied behind his back. He was tethered to a pole with his back bent over and exposed to a whip. His punisher used a long, leather lash, studded with sharpened pieces of bone and metal, to whip him. Each lash removed flesh and carved furrows into his back. Most men died while they were scourged. They did not survive to be crucified.
Each time that I read about the crucifixion, I think of prisoners around the world, condemned by despotic regimes and tortured by their captors. In our efforts to root out Al Qaeda, we, too, have stooped to torture. There is evil in the heart of every human being that can be unleashed on others. We should pray and work to end torture everywhere. The Church and Christians must speak out!
Throughout Matthew’s account, Jesus is derided by the high priest, chief priests, elders, scribes, prison guards, passers-by and even the bandits on either side of him, as he hangs in anguish from the cross. There is nothing that you and I can experience that Jesus cannot comprehend. He has known enormous pain and suffering, and he knows what we are experiencing. He has compassion for all who suffer.
In verse 35, we read that his captors “divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots.” This is a fulfillment of Psalm 22, where we earlier read, “…they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Ps. 22:18) Then Jesus himself echoes the words of Ps. 22:1, when he cries out in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry that goes down through the ages and has been repeated in countless prison cells, in places of torture, in hospital rooms, ghettos, asylums and in every desolate corner of earth by anyone who has ever felt abandoned by God. It is a moment which almost everyone will experience at some juncture in life.
The earth shook. The temple wall split. The white sepulchers lining the Mount of Olives shifted. Tombs opened. The dead awoke. Three days later after Jesus was resurrected, the saints “entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Matt. 27:53) If this were not true, it would undermine the gospel. This was also one of the crucial Jewish beliefs about the afterlife, namely, when the Messiah came, those who had led saintly lives would be awoken from the grave and experience eternal life.
For now, however, the women, who had used their financial means to support the ministry of Jesus and his disciples, stood at a distance and watched as events unfolded. The men who followed Jesus were nowhere in sight. That night, Joseph of Arimathea, a rich follower of Jesus, asked Pilate for permission to bury Jesus. It must have taken great courage to do it. Then Joseph laid Jesus in his own tomb and rolled the stone across it to protect it. Joseph’s real strength came from within. His wealth was a resource to serve God. His real strength came not from his body nor from his wealth, but from his faith.
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ (Matt. 27:24)
And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46)
Regular Bible reading and prayer go hand in hand and fortify us to lead a strong Christian life. If you are not reciting Morning or Evening Prayer each day, take a few moments to pray before and after you have read the Bible. Prayer has seven classic dimensions – adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penance, petition, intercession and oblation. The last of these is often forgotten. Oblation is when we pray to God, “Here I am. How can I serve you this day?” Try to integrate these different forms of prayer into your day, even if it is for just a brief time. It will greatly enrich your soul and bring God’s deep joy into your heart.
How do religious symbols and objects speak to you? Do they draw you to God and to the mysteries that words cannot convey, or do they get in the way? How are you striving to walk in the path of integrity? Do you bless God in the great congregation? Is worship vital to your walk with God? In what ways have you washed your hands of someone or something? Who do you deride? How have you used your resources to carry out God’s work? When have you exercised courage to serve Jesus?
God of Grace and God of Glory, we are silent and humble before the cross. Help us this day to drop to our knees and listen in silent, reverent awe, knowing that Jesus suffered and died in anguish so that a bridge of trust and truth might be built that allows us to know that you, our Father, have forgiven us and that you love us and are watching over us, even when we suffer. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania