Some reflections this Easter on these verses from the crucifixion story.
But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “it is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.
There is something strikingly sad about these religious, devout men trying hard to do the right thing with these thirty pieces of silver, whilst doing profoundly the wrong thing in deciding to put Jesus to death. These guys, whom Matthew has spent the whole book portraying as legalistic but in disproportion (“you strain a gnat but swallow a camel”) are a constant warning to us, who are so prone to major on minors and minor on majors.
They take counsel together in verse 7, as they had done in verse 1, where we read that “they took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.” Taking counsel is a good thing, but they come up with a wrong decision (to put Jesus to death). We must always beware homogenous counsel where everyone at the table is locked in to the same broken narratives, and where all share the same blind spots. They commendably take counsel, but such echo-chamber counsel can actually reinforce prejudices and justify wrong thinking.
There are just too many verses about money in the crucifixion story for us to think that money is neutral. Matthew, who was a tax collector, writes a lot about the evils of money and the corruption it brings. What could be worse, on the day that Jesus dies, than a group of men convening to decide how to spend some silver? What an indictment on the human condition.
Their concern is how to avoid the appearance of wrong – it is political. Deuteronomy 23:18 was the verse which tradition took as a foundation for the condemnation of money won through unclean or shameful means from being used for sacred purpose. This verse prohibits what we would today call money laundering, or even in recent times ‘sports washing,’ where money from dodgy sources is used for public benefit, in an attempt to redeem image.
Deut 23:18 You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God.
Matthew Henry writes,
The hire of a traitor they thought parallel to the hire of a whore, and the price of a malefactor (such a one they made Christ to be) equivalent to the price of a dog, neither of which was to be brought into the house of the Lord, Deut 23:18. They would thus save their credit with the people, by possessing them with an opinion of their great reverence for the temple.
The issue facing the chief priests is beyond obeying the law and getting rid of the money, it is “how can we use this money to bolster our reputations in the public eye?” Thus, they seek to profit reputationally from the betrayal of Jesus, by endowing a field as a burial ground for foreigners. It’s a pretty disgusting decision, exposing the prejudice which kept non-Jews at arm’s length. Jewish tradition did see a separate Jewish economy, so that money passing outside the system into Gentile spaces was considered somehow “other.” And separate burial, still practiced widely in the world today, is a form of Apartheid whereby even in death, which is the one thing common to all men and women, otherisation and separation remain.
Thus, as so often today, an act of charity by the chief priests actually works to expose and perpetuate their superiority and racism.
This Easter, I feel angry and sad that, as Christ dies for the sins of man, men everywhere continue to worship money more than Messiah, care about reputation more than the Redeemer, launder their guilt while their souls are still filthy, and perpetuate racism as the prince of peace dies.
And yet, in Divine irony, the price of Jesus’ death is invested outside the corrupt and arrogant temple-system, into a piece of land outside the walls in the valley of Hinnom. Hinnom, or Gehenna, from which many ancient languages derive their word for hell (jehennem), was the valley into which the city dumped its trash, Jerusalem’s landfill site, and the traditional location of this field. That’s why the priests could buy a parcel of land there so cheaply – it’s not exactly prime real estate.
How profound! Christ’s blood money purchases a resting place, after death, for foreigners, sinners, outcasts and all those living on the trash heaps of the world. Many of the Fathers apply this passage in exactly this way. And all those who follow Christ, confessing themselves strangers and aliens in the world, who may never receive honourable burial, who choose to go with him outside the city walls into shame and contempt – he has bought them a home, with his blood.
The blood of Jesus buys a plot of land, even in hell. Those who follow him, the penniless, the tragic, the underdog, the scorned, those too unclean to ever be welcomed in the temple, to ever be acknowledged by the chief priests, find rest for their souls.
Easter clarifies more than ever the difference between the chief priests and the foreigners, the corrupt and the broken, the legalists and those with no legal standing, those concerned with reputation and those of no reputation, those who spend all their time thinking about money and those who have never had money.
Easter reminds us that history is pretty flat, morally. We are certainly no better than the chief priests. We are just as obsessed with image, with money, and with laundering our consciences. We still approve what is wrong through the counsel of the like-minded. We still despise the foreigner. We still appease ourselves through acts of charity that are fundamentally otherising. We still live in a world of systemic injustice, abuse of power, and perpetuated inequality. Please don’t tell me humankind is improving.
And meanwhile, Jesus is led away to be crucified.