During Holy Week, we ponder the events that led to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Among the things to reflect upon is a dramatic moment in the trial before Pilate, when the people present utter a curse upon themselves.
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:24-25)
Now of course the people did not intend it as a curse; they were convinced of their righteousness in the matter. Nevertheless, a curse of this sort becomes operative if they do in fact act unrighteously—which they do. Hence this is a self-imposed curse.
Care is necessary not to associate this curse merely with the Jewish people. Some have used this passage to assert that the Jewish people have suffered rightly for what “they” did to Christ, but of course the Jewish people were divided over Christ. Many followed Jesus and accepted Him as Messiah; all of the first converts were Jews. Other Jews rejected Jesus. Which group speaks for “the Jews” and which has the power to bring a curse upon the Jewish people? It seems untenable that a small group of Jews would be able to bring down a curse upon all Jews.
A better and more personal understanding of the text is that the group represents not the Jewish people per se, but the whole of humanity. For, truth be told, we have all crucified Christ. It is something we did, not some vague group of others called “they.” This self-imposed curse, “His blood be on us and on our children!” is something we have all said figuratively if not literally; we are collectively guilty of the blood of Christ.
Are we cursed or aren’t we? Consider the following passage written by Pope Benedict:
When in Matthew’s account the “whole people” say: “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. … God put [Jesus] forward as an expiation by his blood” (Rom 3:23, 25). Just as Caiaphas’ words about the need for Jesus’ death have to be read in an entirely new light from the perspective of faith, the same applies to Matthew’s reference to blood: read in the light of faith, it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 187).
So the intended curse becomes a blessing! As the people say “His Blood be upon us and on our children!” one can almost hear God responding,
“You don’t know how right you are! For unless my Son’s blood be upon you, you have no hope. Only if His blood be upon you and your children will you ever be healed and saved. You mean these words for a curse, but I mean them for a blessing! Yes! His blood be upon you! Amen, so be it.”
And thus God writes straight with crooked lines. He makes a way out of no way; when we curse, He returns a blessing instead.
Of course this is not the only time that God acted to bring blessings out of situations in which curses were really deserved:
- The most obvious parallel is the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph’s brothers acted wickedly in staging his death and selling him into slavery, but that very act led to their salvation from famine. Joseph ended up in Pharaoh’s household and eventually became Prime Minister of Egypt. Interpreting Pharaoh’s dream to mean an approaching famine, Joseph ordered that surplus food be stored. This saved not only Egypt but surrounding lands as well, including Canaan. Joseph’s brothers and their families were saved by the very man they sold out. Realizing this they fell at his feet, prepared to become his slaves, but Joseph said to them, As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Gen 50:20). In this way, Joseph was a prefigurement of Christ. God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way.
- Another example is found in John’s Gospel. The passage below illustrates how, although we may mean one thing by our words, God means another. In this text, the High Priest, Caiaphas, declares that Jesus must die.
But some of them went to the Pharisees, and told them the things that Jesus had done [raising Lazarus]. The chief priests therefore, and the Pharisees, gathered a council, and said: What are we to do, for this man does many miracles? If we let him alone, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation. But one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that year, said to them: You know nothing. Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation. And not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God, that were dispersed (John 11:46-52).
When Caiaphas spoke of it being better for Jesus to die than for the whole nation to perish, he meant it as a death sentence on Jesus, but God meant it for our salvation: Jesus should die rather than all of us be lost. Caiaphas meant it for ill but God meant it for good. Yet again, God writes straight with crooked lines; He makes a way out of no way.
So consider well this curse that turned out to be a blessing: “His blood be on us and on our children!” Never was more truth spoken, and by it we are saved.