Matthew's story of the death of Jesus on the cross (Mt 27:35ff) shows many elements of society in attendance, nearby, or passing by, just as if in a painting -- the lone exception, we might say, was the disciples.
The "soldiers of the governor" -- "the whole Roman cohort" (27:27) -- carried out the execution (35). They were not portrayed in a kindly light (28,29,30,31,32,34), because of their verbal and physical cruelty. They were knowledgeable enough in the cruelty, yet their culpability is not given the sole stage. Like many soldiers of many times, they indulged in their role, had nothing much left they could do, and receded into a background of the picture (35-36).
The behavior of the two "robbers" (38,44) -- that is, the two who were being crucified with Jesus on the right and left of Him -- their behavior during the crucifixion is made identical, as far as Matthew chooses to describe it (cf. Lk 23:39-43), to what "the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders" did. How ironic that these two elements of the story say the same things at this point (Mt 27:43-44). The crime of robbery was nothing compared to the mocking heart (41) shared with the religious group (41,44) and passers-by (39).
The passers-by were hurling abuse and wagging their heads. What was that? What are the passers-by passing by for, one might reasonably ask, there at Place-of-a-Skull (27:33)? Lest we think of it as a group of ignorant youth, letting off steam by making fun of those older, we hear what they have to say in 27:40; for just passing by, they are quite knowledgeable and are hardly there by chance.
There is a snowballing of religious hatred here: the almost "formal" irony of the sign above the Lord's head, put there by the soldiers (27:37): "This Is Jesus the King of the Jews." Then, what the passers-by "hurl" -- they certainly aren't asking for clarification -- is joined together with what the religious leaders say (or rather, mock): verses 42-43. Last of all the robbers. Soldiers, passers-by, big religious leaders, adding mockery to the abuse and head wagging of the passers-by, and last of all, at least one of the two co-crucified robbers....
AND ALL OF THEM UNKNOWINGLY SAYING THINGS WHICH MEAN FAR MORE THAN THEY COULD HAVE KNOWN! The soldiers' sign: He really IS the King of the Jews. The passers-by: Christ really is the Son of God, and the Temple of His body really will be rebuilt in three days. The religious leaders: God really will rescue Him, and God really does delight in Him. The robbers, echoing the insults they hardly were the ones that invented, almost helping us learn everything said, so as not to miss the depth of unintentional affirmation in what they all were saying.
The inner disciples were conspicuous in their absence. But others were there: "those who were standing there" (47). Matthew reveals something very interesting about them in a moment. But among them at this very moment before Jesus dies, one is moved to do something besides stand there; but only one (48).
Then "Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit." (50). The "again" there is a reference to verse 46. Of course, those who heard that, the ones "who were standing there" got the meaning of that wrong too (47). This almost certainly points to them not knowing Aramaic: almost certainly, then, they were Gentiles! Gentiles were standing there when Jesus died (cf. 28:19).
The world was all there, and the sheep (except the women afar off (55)) were scattered.
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