For the Forgiveness of Sins

Ask any Christian why Jesus died, and many will respond, “to save us from our sins.” There are, in fact, a great many differing theological explanations for the death of Jesus in the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew is the only one in which Jesus, with his words over the cup at the Last Supper, interprets his death in terms of forgiveness of sins (26:28). But in Matthew, Jesus’ death is not framed as a sacrifice of atonement but rather as the result of living a life of forgiving love and teaching others his way of forgiveness (5:38-48; 9:2-8; 6:12, 14-15; 18:23-35). Unique to Matthew is the fuller account of the treachery of Jesus’ friend and disciple, Judas, and his tragic end. A question is set before us, whether we, like Judas, will be incapable of accepting forgiveness or, like Peter, will be open to the forgiveness Jesus freely offers when we fail. Further, can believing communities embrace those who have sinned grievously?

There is a particular emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel on the shedding of blood and its consequences, which reaches a climax in the Passion narrative. Previously, Jesus had exposed the refusal of the religious leaders to recognize their complicity in the shedding of the blood of the prophets (23:30), just as Pilate tries to do when he washes his hands, declaring, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (27:24).

In contrast, the crowd responds with a recognition that the effects of Jesus’ execution will continue to redound not only upon them but upon their children (27:25). This verse is most often read as an acceptance of responsibility or guilt for the death of Jesus. However, there is no verb in the sentence, making it possible to read it as a statement, “his death is upon us and upon our children.” It is a recognition that the effects of violence committed by leaders reverberate onto the people as a whole and continue to affect future generations. At the same time, with Jesus’ words over the cup, Matthew asserts that the forgiving effects of the shedding of Jesus’ blood also redound to them.

Jesus’ invitation to drink from the cup of his “blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28) brings together two powerful symbols: blood and cup. Blood signifies the life-force over which only God has power (Dt 12:23). The cup connotes suffering, as in Jesus’ plea in Gethsemane, “let this cup pass from me” (26:39). By accepting Jesus’ invitation to drink from the cup, disciples accept suffering that befalls them as a consequence of living the Gospel.

At the same time, partaking of the blood signifies acceptance of the life-force of God, which empowers disciples to endure and overcome suffering and evil.

In the Gospel of Matthew this power is explicitly linked with forgiveness. Jesus has lived and taught forgiveness as a means of breaking cycles of violence. He has accepted “the cup” of opposition that such a life has engendered, which will culminate in his death. His own blood seals again God’s covenant with God’s people, just as Moses did with blood sprinkled on the people (Ex 24:8). The pouring out of Jesus’ blood “for many,” leaves no one out, as the Greek word pollon, reflects a Semitic expression where many is the opposite of one, thus the equivalent of “all.” When the angel announces to Joseph, “He will save his people from their sins” (1:21), it is not by a single sacrificial act but by an entire way of life into which his followers are invited.

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