The Narrative of Matthew and Forgiveness (Part 2)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

The second narrative insight into Matthew’s theology of forgiveness centers around the interactions between Pilate, Jesus, Barabbas, and the crowd in Matthew 27:15-26. Although the events surrounding Jesus’ death took place around Passover, the scene before Pilate would have reminded Matthew’s Jewish readers of a different Jewish feast: Yom Kippur, the Festival of Atonement. During this festival, two goats would be brought before the assembly, one of which was released and the other which was killed for the sins of the people.[1]

When the crowd chooses to release Jesus Barabbas and crucify Jesus Son of the Father, they unwittingly elect to sacrifice the one whose blood would actually supplant the blood of sheep and cattle. 27:24-25 are verses long abused by Christians with anti-Semitic tendencies who desire to punish the Jewish people for their role in crucifying Jesus.[2] And, on a face-value reading of the passage, these verses do seem to absolve Rome of any guilt for Jesus’ death while laying blame solely at the feet of the Jews.

Yet in light of Matthew’s theology of forgiveness—especially the fact that Jesus’ blood grants forgiveness of sins (26:28)—there is more to this passage than first meets the eye. For when Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ blood (another event recorded only in Matthew), he actually washes off that which forgives sin. And when the people—presumably in bloodlust—cry out for Jesus’ death, they actually ask to receive that which grants forgiveness and salvation. Through a theological reading of this passage, therefore, Matthew simultaneously subverts Roman power—now sanitized from the saving blood—and offers redemption to the Jews—who are covered in Jesus’ forgiving blood. Matthew, who wrestled with how to forgive his Jewish neighbors for their willingness to crucify Jesus, urges his community do recognize that the Jews are already forgiven in Jesus. Lest they too become unforgiving servants, followers of Jesus are therefore urged to extend forgiveness to the Jews.

[1] David P. Wright, “Day of Atonement,” 72-76 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G) (New York/London: Doubleday: 1992), 3. Lev. 16.20-22.

[2] Harrington, 20-21. Hagner, lxxii.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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