During the Easter season, which lasts until Pentecost Sunday, it is easy to remember that we tread in a minefield — especially as we recall the Passion. This is as it should be, for a culture that lives in the shadow of the Holocaust feels a twinge of uneasiness when we read in Matthew 27:25: And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
The uneasiness springs from what many people feel sure Matthew was getting at — namely that the Jewish mob called down a curse upon their people and that God heard their “prayer.”
To be sure, many Catholics throughout the history of the Church have embraced this false teaching. But false teaching it remains. As the Catechism tells us in No. 597:
“The historical complexity of Jesus’ trial is apparent in the Gospel accounts. The personal sin of the participants (Judas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate) is known to God alone. Hence we cannot lay responsibility for the trial on the Jews in Jerusalem as a whole, despite the outcry of a manipulated crowd and the global reproaches contained in the apostles’ calls to conversion after Pentecost. Jesus himself, in forgiving them on the cross, and Peter in following suit, both accept ‘the ignorance’ of the Jews of Jerusalem and even of their leaders. Still less can we extend responsibility to other Jews of different times and places, based merely on the crowd’s cry …”
So we know what the passage doesn’t mean. What, though, does it mean? I would submit that it is recorded by Matthew as an example of divine irony.
Divine irony is a particularly powerful literary device of which the Gospel writers are particularly fond.
Perhaps the most famous example is found in John’s Gospel when the Sanhedrin convenes to plot against Jesus after the raising of Lazarus:
“So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish …’” (11: 47-50).
John shows that even the enemies of Jesus bear witness to the truth of who he is and what he does. In the same way, the soldiers who plait a crown of thorns wind up, ironically, telling us the truth about Jesus, as does Pilate’s inscription: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Again and again, the very enemies of Jesus speak the ironic truth about him — even though they do so in mockery.
It’s the same with the mob at Jerusalem as they call for the blood of Jesus.
For Matthew, recall, is not merely a Jew preaching to Jews that Jesus is the Jewish messiah. He is also a deeply Eucharistic Catholic who knows exactly where the blood of the crucified messiah is to be found: in the cup we drink at each Mass.
And he knows, as well, that the prayer of the Church is, at each and every Mass, Let his blood be on us and on our children!
The mob says, in hatred of Jesus, what we pray in love and gratitude for his sacrifice. And we pray it not just for ourselves, but for our children.
Mark Shea is senior content editor for CatholicExchange.com.