Liturgy of the Passion
Alternate Reading A
March 28, 2021
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It is absolutely impossible to write a brief note on two chapters of events that are the culmination of Jesus' life.
But given what Jesus went through, I guess we can offer to take a little extra time to ponder these passages.
In Remembrance of Her
Whereas on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday the action has all begun with Jesus coming into Jerusalem from Bethany, today the action is in Bethany. Specifically in the home of Simon, the leper. The fact that Simon has a home suggests that possibly his leprosy has been healed and he is now considered clean. Otherwise, he would be an outcast and not be able to live in a home within the town. Perhaps Simon is one those unnamed people whom Jesus has healed, and this is a case of hospitality offered to Jesus in return for his "hospitality" of healing?
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, page 208) note that having failed to undermine Jesus through their challenges in Chapters 11 and 12, the religious authorities now resort to the tactics elites use to exact satisfaction: stealth, false accusations, manipulation of public opinion, and abuse of power.
Specifically, they will:
- bribe an insider, Judas (Mark 14:10-11);
- bring false witnesses (Mark 14:55-56);
- trump-up accusations before the Roman governor (Mark 15:3-4);
- incite a crowd against Jesus (Mark 15:11 );
- mock Jesus as he hangs, shamed, from the cross (Mark 15:31-32 ).
Mark 14:1-11 is another "Mark Sandwich." It begins with the announcement that the religious authorities were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him (Verses 1-2), and ends with Judas going to the authorities to provide them with the means to do it (Verses 10-11).
In the middle is the story of the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus (Verses 3-9). Whatever else we might make of this story, we should begin by noting the high praise Jesus gives her (Verse 9):
By my word of honour, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
Jesus gives us a pretty clear directive for our preaching on this day!
It ought to intrigue us that this woman is not named in the text we have. It can hardly be the case that her name was unknown to those present, or accidentally got lost in the re-telling of the story - particularly given Jesus' own directive that what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. Unfortunately, at this point we can only idly speculate on the causes of this omission. Blatant misogyny? Protecting her identity for her safety?
Her behaviour is certainly exceptional. Simply walking into a room where the men were eating was crossing a huge social barrier that no honourable woman would dare even think of doing.
And she seems to be a woman of some means. An alabaster jar is very expensive, and not something a peasant woman would normally have. And the nard is also very expensive - a year's wages for a day labourer.
Her actions provoke an angry response. Such waste! Think of the poor!
But Jesus leaps to her defense. "Let her alone. She has performed a good service for me. She has done what she could."
Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, pages 85 to 107, make a good case that this story is presented by Mark to sharply contrast and highlight the failure of the core, inner group of disciples to get what Jesus began teaching them from the time of the Transfiguration:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Jesus teaches about his rejection, suffering, death and resurrection three times in Mark: 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33-34. And each time, the disciples say or do something that completely misunderstands or avoids the reality of what Jesus is saying.
But here at last, on the day before all that Jesus has been teaching begins to unfold, here at last, this unnamed woman demonstrates her loyalty to, and bonding with Jesus. She "does what she could" under the circumstances - anoints his body in anticipation of his death.
The protests of the disciples only further illustrate their failure to "get" Jesus and his mission.
Pause for a moment and deeply sink into the circumstance of this story, and then listen to the disciples getting angry at this unnamed woman, scolding her for "wasting" a bottle of perfume to anoint Jesus before his rejection, suffering and death. Wasting! I'm surprised at Jesus' patience with them all.
She has anointed Jesus; Judas is about to sell Jesus into the hands of the authorities; Peter will deny him; the rest will run away in fear. Who among this group should be remembered throughout the world wherever the good news is proclaimed?
As Jesus says:
She has performed a good service for me. She has done what she could. What she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
May it be so.
The Last Supper
Mark has already told us that the religious authorities are trying to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him, and that Judas has secretly agreed to betray him. Borg and Crossan suggest that sending TWO disciples into Jerusalem to find the place where they will eat the Passover meal is to prevent Judas from betraying Jesus' presence until after the meal is over.
Note - apparently - that Jesus has already made arrangements with others for the preparation of the room without informing any of his disciples. The two that go into the city find the room "furnished and ready."
And note that the sign is a man carrying a jar of water (this would be noticeable, because only women usually carried water). And this man meets them. That is, this man recognizes and seeks them out rather than the other way round. The disciples have no prior knowledge of who this man is. They are "out of the loop" about these arrangements.
And just in case you're wondering - Is this the Passover meal that Jesus is sharing with his disciples? - Mark specifically mentions "Passover" 4 times in 5 verses, 12 to 16.
Why is this?
Well, in our tradition, "Lamb of God" is one of the titles attributed to Jesus. But which lamb?
At the time of Jesus, some lambs were killed and offered as sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist is reported by the Gospel of John as making this identification with Jesus:
Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
John 1:29 NRSV
But that lamb is NOT the Passover lamb.
The Passover lamb is sacrificed so that God's people will be liberated from their slavery and oppression in Egypt, and be freed to enter a safe and abundant land. Specifically, the Passover lamb does two things:
- Its blood - painted on the door posts - acts as a shield, protecting those inside from the 10th plague, the angel of death; Exodus 12:21-28; and
- Its body - eaten that night - provides nourishment for the arduous journey ahead - the flight from Egypt, the flight towards freedom and the promised land.
In this meal, Jesus identifies himself with the Passover lamb. His death is not a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. His death is a sacrifice for liberation.
For liberation - for freedom. And for covenant - for bonding together with God, as God's people, to live together as God desires us to live together.
Mark fails to give us an explanation of exactly which covenant Jesus is referring to when he says, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." But surely, it is not impossible for this to be a reference to the original covenanting at Mount Sinai. Exodus 24:1-8.
I wish I were a better scholar of Greek so that I could feel more confident of how to interpret who are the "many" for whom Jesus' blood is poured out. The word used is not the one for "nations" or for "Gentile;" that is, for non-Jews. So possibly Jesus wasn't being all that inclusive. But on the other hand, it is the word we use for the "hoi polloi," the masses of ordinary folk. And I'll take whatever crumb there may be for me at this table of grace. "Hoi polloi" - count me in.
And surely it is not impossible for us to understand that whatever this covenant is, it does NOT erase or replace or void all the previous covenants God has previously made with God's people - the Jews. (And who would worship a God like that anyway?)
The meal ends with Jesus making an explicit set of "book ends," of which we are somewhere in between. The first book end is that meal then, with his disciples. The second book end is "that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God."
The time we are in then is both a time of remembering what Jesus did back then, and a time of anticipating what Jesus will do "new in the Kingdom of God."
Peter's Denial Foretold
Once again, Jesus reveals that he knows what is about to befall him. And once again, the disciples vehemently deny it.
Note that Jesus does not claim personal special ability to foresee future events.
Rather he simply knows scripture; knows his disciples; and knows how the authorities are responding to his successful public challenging of them.
The effect of Jesus foretelling of all that is about to happen is to take away the power of those who are acting by stealth and deceit.
Jesus bested the religious elites in the open; and when they resort to secrecy, he outwits them again!
Later, his followers will draw comfort and encouragement when they remember that when they were frightened and confused by what was happening to them - even then - Jesus was a rock - steadfast and unwavering.
The Garden of Gethsemane
Personal aside to begin with
In my humble opinion, this text is the key to understanding Mark's Gospel. Misunderstand this text, and you will misunderstand how the good news Mark begins his gospel with (Mark 1:1) is seen in the events that follow: Jesus' betrayal by Judas, arrest, abandonment by his followers, sham trial, denial by Peter, torture, and brutal execution.
If one needs any further evidence of the Divinity of Jesus, one need look no further than his continued patience with Peter, James and John. A mere human would have given up on these three long ago.
These are the three who witnessed Jesus' transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8). And it is these three who subsequently proved their total lack of understanding Jesus' teachings and mission (Mark 8:32-33; Mark 9:28; Mark 9:33-35; Mark 9:38-39; Mark 10:10; Mark 10:13; Mark 10:24, 26, 28; Mark 10:32; Mark 10:35-38; etc.)
Nonetheless, it is these three that Jesus takes aside with him as he goes to pray.
Mark describes Jesus as distressed, agitated, troubled, anguished, full of sorrow (depending on which translation you are using).
And Jesus tells the three that his soul is deeply grieved / overwhelmed with sorrow / so sad I feel as if I'm dying / crushed by sorrow.
He asks them to stay near by and to stay awake. For companionship in his distress? Perhaps. As watchmen to alert him if/when soldiers come to arrest him? Almost certainly.
And of course, being the loyal, faithful friends they are - they promptly, and repeatedly, fall asleep! Like I said, unassailable evidence of Jesus' Divinity is that he continues his relationship with them.
Verses 35 and 36 then give us Jesus' prayer to Abba (better translated as Papa or Daddy than the more formal Father).
This prayer is crucial to our understanding of Jesus' death.
Verses 35 and 36 use 3 key images:
- "this hour,"
- "this cup," and
- "your (God's) will."
These three are connected, but NOT identical.
"This hour," means the seamless flow of connected events that lie ahead. It does not literally mean, "the next 60 minutes."
"This cup," means one's life, and more specifically whatever it is that God offers / has placed in one's life. Think of Psalm 23, "my cup overflows."
Jesus prays that, if possible, this hour might pass from him. And that, since for God all things all possible, this cup should be removed from him.
Given that Mark has already told us that the elites are planning to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; that Judas has already agreed to betray Jesus into their hands; and that Jesus has predicted that they all will abandon him and Peter will deny knowing him - Jesus does not need to be Divine to know what lies ahead, what "this hour" and "this cup" hold for him - pain and death.
However, it is a tragic mistake to assume that "your (God's) will" for Jesus is identical to "this hour," and "this cup."
"God's will" for Jesus is NOT revealed here in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Rather, God's will for Jesus was revealed way back in Chapter One. Given the highest possible honour of being named "my Son, the Beloved, with (whom) I am well pleased," (Mark 1:11) God's will for Jesus, God's mission for Jesus, God's goal for Jesus is that Jesus:
proclaim the good news of God,
The time is fulfilled,
and the Kingdom of God has come near;
and believe into the good news.
Mark 1:14-15 (NRSV)
Let me repeat, God's will for Jesus is that Jesus proclaim the good news of God.
And for more emphasis, let me say, God's will for Jesus is NOT pain and death.
It has been devastatingly clear to Jesus for some time, that proclaiming God's good news about God's Kingdom of non-violent justice in the face of Rome's Empire of violent injustice will end - at least in this lifetime - with more of the same old story - violent injustice, that is, with his torture and brutal execution.
But it is absolutely crucial NOT to make the tragic mistake of identifying God's will for Jesus - proclamation - with the response of the Roman Empire to this proclamation - pain and death.
Jesus prays for deliverance from "this hour" and "this cup." That is what he is wanting / desiring. His flesh is weak. He is tempted. Tempted to abandon God's calling for him. Tempted to abandon proclaiming God's Kingdom under the threat of pain and death. Tempted to give up.
Nonetheless, Jesus also prays for courage.
Prays that "not what I will" (capitulation to the violent injustice of the powers of this world), but "your will" (proclamation of God's Kingdom of non-violent justice) be done.
"I want to give up; give me courage. I want to give up; give me courage. I want to give up; give me courage."
Praying thusly three times, Jesus emerges once again as the decisive, unwavering, active Son of Man who moves to engage "this hour."
The hour has come;
the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
Let us be going.
my betrayer is at hand.
Mark 14:41-42 (NRSV)
If we are going to proclaim the Good News According to Mark this year, then I pray that no one, no where, ever again, will preach that God's will for Jesus was pain and death.
Instead, may everyone, everywhere, always, have the courage given to Jesus to proclaim God's Good News of God's Kingdom of non-violent justice - even, or perhaps, especially, in the face of this world's response of inflicting pain and death.
Betrayal and Arrest
While Jesus has been praying, Judas has been betraying.
Judas arrives with a crowd. This crowd is not the same folks who were "the crowd" five short days ago on Palm Sunday. That crowd had cheers for Jesus. This crowd has clubs and swords. This crowd is in the service of the religious authorities. (They would not be allowed by the Roman patrols to be armed and out at night unless they were "official.")
This crowd doesn't even know who Jesus is - couldn't recognize him on their own. And so Judas not only must lead them to the place where Jesus is, but must also single him out from among his followers. The pre-arranged sign is the customary greeting of a kiss on the cheek.
Jesus' comment highlights the point Mark is making. Jesus has honourably done everything out in the open, in the light of day. The religious authorities are acting dishonourably, by stealth, under the cover of darkness.
The curious incident of the young man who runs off naked is just that - curious. The most interesting speculation I have ever heard about this young man is that he is Mark, the author of this Gospel.
Jesus Before the Religious Authorities
Verse 54 is the first slice of a Mark Sandwich that asks us to chew on the falseness of the witnesses within the Council and the falseness of the witness of Peter in the courtyard.
Mark emphasizes that the testimony of the witnesses brought against Jesus was both false and did not agree. Two witnesses who agree are needed to convict.
Having failed to convict Jesus based on the testimony of others, the chief priest then seeks to elicit a confession from Jesus: Verse 60, "Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?" Verse 61, "Are you the Messiah?"
Jesus' response in Verse 62 is more ambiguous than the NRSV translation suggests. It could equally well be translated as, "I am, am I?" However, the chief priest follows the lead of the NRSV translators and ignores the ambiguity.
Jesus is convicted, and the real intention of the religious authorities is enacted immediately.
That is, it is not enough merely to kill Jesus. The authorities must also kill his honour; kill the esteem in which "the crowd" hold him. They must kill his mission.
The public actions of spitting on Jesus, blindfolding him, striking him, mocking him, and beating him are all intended to shame / discredit / dishonour Jesus. They demonstrate / restore the authority and power of the elites over Jesus.
However, way back in Chapter 10, Mark 10:32-34, Jesus had already foretold that this is precisely what the authorities were going to do to him:
they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.
Mark 10:33-34 (NRSV)
And so, once again, Jesus wins the honour competition with the authorities.
His followers will later look back on the actions of the authorities and see NOT the discrediting of Jesus. They will see confirmation of his honoured status as God's Son because he was able to foretell exactly what the authorities did.
Peter's Denial of Knowing Jesus
Peter's denial of Jesus is about as low on the pole you can go in terms of demonstrating one's loyalty as a follower of Jesus. Even Judas' betrayal is more forthright and honest than Peter's lying.
And three times indicates the lying disloyalty is total and complete.
Fortunately for Peter, Jesus also foretold of his false testimony, and gave him a sign, an auditory signal that would trigger his memory of Jesus saying this.
And so the story does not end with Peter's total disloyalty. It ends with his remembering Jesus, and with that, the story ends with Peter's total remorse.
Whereas Jesus' foretelling of the actions of the elites confirmed his status as God's Son; the foretelling of Peter's actions confirms for his followers the wisdom, mercy and compassion of Jesus. Amazing grace indeed.
With the crowing of the cock, dawn arrives, and we move from the events of Thursday to Jesus' last day - Friday.
Jesus Before Pilate, His Crucifixion and Death
My red-letter edition of the Bible goes mostly black in Chapter 15 of Mark. Jesus responds briefly to a question from Pilate, and cries out from the cross.
It strikes me as odd, how at this point in the story of Jesus, we often make a subtle - but mistaken - shift.
Up till now, we have read the story as Jesus freely meeting and interacting with others - and of their chosen responses to Jesus.
But at this point, we often read the story as though it were the script of a play. Instead of real people making real choices, we read it as though everyone is on a stage - actors who are merely reading pre-written lines, and going through pre-scripted motions to a foregone conclusion.
But Verse 1 begins with a consultation - presumably in which options were considered.
And up until Verse 15, the action proceeds based on responses to questions:
- Are you the King of the Jews? (Verse 2)
- Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews? (Verse 9)
- Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews? (Verse 12)
Questions imply the possibility of more than one response, and so let's keep reading Mark as being about real people making real (though limited) choices.
Jesus Before Pilate
Back in Chapter 14, the religious authorities condemned Jesus on the charge of "Blasphemy," for responding, "I am, am I?" to the question, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" (Mark 14:61-64)
But in the process of being handed over to the Roman authority, Pilate, the charge is changed to one that would be treason against the Roman Empire: "King of the Jews." In this context, to be King of the Jews is to directly challenge the authority and governance of the Roman Emperor who thinks of himself as king of the Jews.
Again, the charges against Jesus are many, and presumably not in agreement, and so Pilate asks Jesus to make a confession of his guilt: "Are you the King of the Jews?" And again, Jesus' response is ambiguous, "You say so." Jesus will say nothing more until his last breath on the cross.
Jesus' response to Pilate is a marvelous example of him "turning the other cheek" to violent authorities. (See my note Matthew 5:38-41 for an explanation of this teaching as non-violent resistance to violent authorities.) Not answering Pilate's direct question would be provocative indeed.
It is also a courageous example of Jesus not capitulating to Pilate's real threat of pain and death. His refusal to engage the trumped up accusation - "King of the Jews" - has the double effect of confirming his honour to his followers while undermining the legitimacy of the political and religious authorities in their eyes. The authorities "accuse" Jesus of being the "King of the Jews." They don't get that this true and not a crime.
Pilate Before the Crowd
I'm not sure if we should make too much of this, but the Greek word used for "crowd" in Verse 8, is not the same word used to describe the "many" who shouted "Hosanna," when Jesus entered Jerusalem way back on Palm Sunday (Mark 11:8-10). In fact, the word used for "many" on Palm Sunday, is also the word used for "many" on Thursday in the Last Supper, "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many." (Mark 14:24)
In any case, many scholars such as Borg and Crossan argue that this "crowd" would not be the earlier crowd that the religious authorities were afraid of because of their support for Jesus. This would be a crowd that they had selected, a crowd who supported them. If this passage is being read in a worship service, "the crowd" should be the Board / Council / Session / Committees / Etc.; not the congregation.
Jesus' Degradation and Death
Crucifixion was a particularly brutal form of public execution that was intended not only to kill the person, but also to kill any lingering thoughts of following his example. This is not quiet diplomacy. This is the gloves off, iron fist of power re-asserting itself.
They could have just cut his head off, as happened to John the Baptist. But that would not do for Jesus. He must be killed, but he must also be degraded and dishonoured publicly. That is what the flogging, mocking, and stripping naked do.
In various ways the actions of the soldiers and the authorities all recall the temptations Jesus faced during his 40 day fast at the outset of his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13): to confuse the need for food / physical life with the need for purpose / spiritual life; to capitulate to the powers of this age and abandon the Realm of God; to test God by seeking to save himself ("throw yourself down from here").
Jesus' cry, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" is surely the most heart-rending - and dreaded - words in scripture.
Heart-rending because of the pain of despair that has been added to the physical pain.
Dreaded because one of our worst fears is that in our time of greatest need we will be abandoned and left alone.
Whatever happened to: "Though you die, yet shall you live;" or "Not even death can separate us from God's love." If Jesus - God's Son, God's Beloved - feels abandoned - no, IS abandoned? - what hope have I?
Mark notes three things at the death of Jesus:
- Cosmic Response. The curtain in the Temple that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple area is split in two, from top to bottom. Probably metaphoric and not historical, the splitting of the curtain has been understood by Christians as meaning that Jesus' faithfulness to God's will to proclaim the Good News of God's Kingdom - even in the face of pain and death - has permanently removed the barrier to direct access to God's blessings for "the many."
- Roman response. The declaration by the Roman soldier, "Truly this man was God's Son," is the first, and only time in the Gospel of Mark that a human acknowledges the honoured status with which Mark began his Gospel way back in the opening verse: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Since this status was also claimed by the Roman Emperor, the soldier's statement is seen by the followers of Jesus to be a validation of their worship of him.
- Women's response. His male followers have betrayed him, denied knowing him, and abandoned him. But Jesus is not alone. "From a distance," but near enough, are women who had "followed him and provided for him." They will complete this story by being the ones who observe where Jesus' body is taken, and by being the first to go to his tomb following the Sabbath.
It was bold of Joseph of Arimathea to go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus because normally those crucified were left on the cross for days or weeks as food for scavenging birds and wild animals. Eventually, any remains were thrown into unmarked pits. Allowing any family or friends to claim the body for burial would allow for the rituals families do to honour their kin - and "honour" was precisely what crucifixion was meant to obliterate.
But Pilate gives permission, and so Joseph is able to give Jesus' body a "proper" burial in a new tomb.
Two of the women who had witnessed Jesus' death, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses, see his body given to Joseph, and then see where the body was laid in a sealed tomb. They will return at dawn after the Sabbath to see that the tomb is empty.
They alone are able to give eye-witness testimony as to what happened to Jesus' body: from death, through burial, to resurrection.
They provide the legal "evidence continuity" that indeed it was the same body that died on the cross, that was then buried in a sealed tomb, and was then no longer there.
And that the explanation for this was provided by an heavenly messenger:
You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised;
he is not here.
there is the place they laid him.
tell his disciples and Peter
that he is going ahead of you to Galilee;
there you will see him,
just as he told you.
As Mark has already repeatedly done, it is the loyalty of the women which becomes the trustworthy source of our faith. It is their loyalty that provides us with the hint at the end of Chapter 15 that this is not the end of the story of Jesus.
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 207-218; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See below.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.