Liturgy of the Passion
Alternate Reading B
March 28, 2021
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It is absolutely impossible to write a brief note on this chapter 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.
This shorter reading omits Chapter 14:
- Jesus is anointed for burial by an unnamed woman.
- The last supper.
- Peter's denial that he knows Jesus is foretold.
- Jesus prays for courage to remain loyal to God in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- Jesus is betrayed by Judas and is arrested.
- Jesus is brought before the religious authorities.
- Peter denies knowing Jesus 3 times.
Chapter 15 then tells of Jesus being handed over to the Roman authorities for his appearance before Pilate and his execution.
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.