Mark 15:1-15, Jesus and the Political System

[March 7, 2010] In the passage we considered last week, after Jesus was arrested, he was taken to the palace of the high priest and bullied throughout the night by the high priest and his colleagues—aristocratic chief priests (all Sadducees), temple scribes and elders on the council, who depended on the Romans for their position.

Pilate wanted Jesus crucified as an example to the people because of the way Jesus was paraded into the city the Sunday before, being hailed as the “King of the Jews.” Pilate was not normally in Jerusalem, having his headquarters in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, but because of the tremendous crowding of the city of Jerusalem during the Jewish festival of Passover and the danger of rioting, he came to Jerusalem to ensure order and control.

Pilate’s predecessor, Gratus, removed four high priests during his eleven years in office (15-26 AD). Caiaphas was the last high priest appointed by Gratus (in 18 AD) and stayed in office during the ten years when Pilate governed Judea (from 26 to 36). Caiaphas was not replaced until the Passover of 37 when Vitellius, the governor of Syria, intervened. Caiaphas played his role very well with Gratus and Pilate, apparently winning their trust.

The arrest of Jesus, done by the Temple authorities with the help of the Roman garrison from the Antonio Fortress, was instigated by the governor. The chief priests were to hand Jesus over to him with a capital charge. They spent the night bullying Jesus to say something for which they could charge him or to at least have the testimonies of two others that agreed, but they failed. They agreed, however, that Jesus was worthy of death (because He claimed to be Messiah and the Son of God and the figure of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13), even though this “arrogance” was neither blasphemy nor a chargeable crime.

A Morning Council (Mark 15:1)

When they were all in agreement, word had gone out to the other members of the council. At dawn, they met together and the council members agreed to hand Jesus over to the Roman governor. This was not a legal meeting of the Sanhedrin, as I pointed out before, but was meant to offer enough agreement on the part of the members of the Sanhedrin to satisfy the governor. Unfortunately (from their point of view), the things of which they found Jesus guilty were religious in nature and of no interest to the governor (see John’s account). They did not find the evidence that the governor was seeking.

The “Trial” before Pilate (15:2-5)

The Gospel according to Mark provides little information about Jesus’ “trial” before Pilate, following Matthew. In Luke, the members of the council (representing the high priest) accuse Jesus of claiming to be a king, forbidding payment of the Roman tax, and of stirring up rebellion in Galilee and Judea, though they are unable to provide any witnesses. In all four gospels, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” This could also be translated as an indicative: “You are the King of the Jews.” To this Jesus answers, “You say [it]” (or, “Are you saying so?”) which John interprets as, “You say that I am a King.” This is not an admission, and Pilate allows the chief priests to accuse Him further, but Jesus does not honor their attempts with an answer.

According to the Gospel according to John, Jesus’ accusers do not enter the Praetorium. Pilate goes outside to receive their accusations and then goes inside to question Jesus.

In the Gospel according to Luke Pilate declares three times that Jesus is innocent (“I find no guilt in this man”). This is not explicit in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts. In any case, what we have in all the gospels is not a trial. It was merely an investigation. Pilate did not have the evidence required for a trial. When Pilate steps outside the Praetorium and gives in to the mob that was gathered there so early in the morning to demand Jesus’ death, there was no semblance of any justice done. It was a lynching.

The Mockery of Justice (15:6-15)

When Pilate spoke to the crowd outside—the gospels had not mentioned the crowd before this (but see Luke 23:4)—he offered to release a prisoner to them, Barabbas or Jesus, according to an annual custom. Who was this crowd? Surely it was not the pilgrims who came to the city for the annual celebration of Passover. Nor would the population of the city have gathered so early in the morning to demand Jesus’ death when they would not have even known of Jesus’ arrest. The only evidence we have is that the chief priests had stirred up the crowd (Matthew 27:20; Mark 15:11). Apparently they had gathered the crowd for this purpose.

In verse 10 the gospel tells us that Pilate knew that the chief priests had handed Jesus over through envy or with malicious intent (see Matthew 27:18). Pilate asked this crowd, “Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” because he knew that the chief priests had handed Jesus over with malicious intent. What does this statement in the gospel mean? It could mean that the gospel writer wanted to shift the blame from Pilate to the chief priests (and so many would interpret it). But it could also mean that Pilate asked this loaded question knowing that the chief priests wanted Jesus “done in” as much as he did in order to get their collaboration and, in fact, to get them to take the blame for it when the public discovered what had happened. There was no evidence to charge Jesus with a real crime, but he could let Jesus be an example of anyone who wants to rise up against Roman authority and claim kingship for themselves. He addresses the crowd, in other words, like this: “So here is this Man claiming to be the King of the Jews. Do you own Him as your King? What shall I do with Him?” In fact, he said, “What do you wish me to do with the One whom you call the King of the Jews?” It was an accusation leveled at them more than at Jesus. Do you choose self-rule or the rule of Rome? If they rejected Jesus, it strengthened the legitimacy of Roman rule in their eyes, at least in this petty case.

In other words, this was not the gospel writer’s attempt to shift the blame from Pilate to the chief priests but Pilate’s attempt to do so. Pilate in fact was guilty for he put to death a man whom he had determined to be innocent, or in any case, had not been found guilty (“What evil has He done?” verse 14). He was the only one with the power to do so.

The Choice between Jesus or Barabbas

 Most historians do not find the story about Barabbas plausible. There is no historical evidence of such a practice nor is it politically plausible that a governor would arbitrarily release an enemy of the state as a favor. But be that as it may—since we do not have to determine this to gain from the text what it is trying to tell us (though we may well imagine that both Peter and Matthew believed the story, even if they had not witnessed it)—let us consider the value of this story for the Gospel.

Barabbas was imprisoned for committing murder during a riot against Roman rule. He represents those interests that later would develop into the forces that rebelled against Rome in 66-70 AD and would bring about the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem as Jesus had predicted. These forces were in full bloom when the Gospel according to Mark was first told (by Peter), and the war was actually taking place when Mark composed the gospel in its published form. The story is told in all four gospels, however; first in Matthew. The interest in Jewish sovereignty was clearly an issue in the time of Jesus, the more zealous Pharisees demanding that the Jews purify themselves of contact with the Gentiles and influence from them. These zealots (the organized Zealots probably did not yet exist) justified violence as a means to establish God’s kingdom, using examples from the Old Testaments. Barabbas represented—at the time—an extreme example of this.

Moreover, Jesus put this choice before the people. His conflict with the Pharisees had mostly to do with this choice, though not directly in political terms. The Sadducees represented the opposite extreme. They were wealthy and collaborated with the Romans who protected their interests. They, in fact, were the first to be attacked by the Zealots in the events that unfolded in Jerusalem in the 60s. So it is ironic that here they encouraged the crowd to choose Barabbas over Jesus.

In fact, Pilate, the priestly establishment and the Zealots had more in common with each than they had with Jesus. They all took for granted the use of force as the means of achieving their ends.

Historically, the city of Jerusalem chose the way of Barabbas instead of Jesus. When the Zealots took over, the city rebelled against the Romans and as a result, as Jesus predicted, the judgment of God fell on the city as the might of Rome came against it. Let it be said, however, that the way of Jesus—the way of nonresistance—was chosen by rabbinic Judaism. They survived the destruction of the Temple and chose the way of patience that Jesus advocated. This way of thinking led the Jewish people until the rise of Zionism in the twentieth century when, after the Nazi holocaust, their patience wore out. We can hardly blame them, yet this change has led to the Palestinian crisis and the instability of the Middle East.

This story of the choice between Jesus and Barabbas concludes the section of the gospels in which Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem as the heir of David’s throne and pronounced judgment on the city (Mark 11—14:11; also Matthew 21—25 and Luke 19:28—21:38). The way of Jesus is the way of prophetic patience—as taught by the great prophets of Israel. The Maccabean rebellion in the second century BC was an exception. Their violent overthrow of the rule of the Seleucid Empire seems to stand in contrast to this.

The church is to continue in the way that Jesus and the prophets of Israel taught, accepting neither the way of the “zealous” Pharisees nor the way of the Sadducees. The church is to remain faithful to the Way, never using violence to assert itself nor accepting political power for itself, even on loan from a greater power.

The church always stands outside of the world as an ideational system. This “system” is more in evidence now than at any time previously in history, for it is more totalitarian by means of tremendous technology and capital. The stance of the church—the stance that the church should take—is best demonstrated by those Christian communities that suffered the most persecution in history: the early church, the Anabaptists, and others that resisted the cultural tides that swept all others in their wake.

On the other hand, while standing “outside” society in this negative sense, by its very doing so, the church puts itself in the center of society by preserving the humanity that makes society humanly possible and bearable. The church participates in that “Jubilee” that we saw in the Gospel according to Luke and therefore exemplifies (at least it is supposed to exemplify) the freedom from the powers that enslave the world to their own ends.

It is the Gospel that frees us from those powers by awakening us in our spirits and causing us to become “persons” in face-to-face relationship to one another instead of the faceless individuals (at the mercy of the powers) that society makes of us all. The power that the Gospel has to do this is the Person of Jesus Christ who is the face and real presence of God among us. He calls us and unites us to Himself in His death and resurrection and in His uniquely being both divine and human. Our union with Him takes place through the Holy Spirit which He “released” when He rose from the dead—when His own divinized humanity became communicable by the Spirit, waking people through His testimony (the Word of the Gospel in the Scriptures) and infusing them with His life.

The church is this presence in the midst of humanity and as such is a sign of its future redemption—if it would have it. The church, if it be faithful to Jesus, is the reality of humanity (redeemed by God) in the midst of a false humanity, a society that exists on false premises that is doomed to its own destruction. The church, in other words, is the sign of hope to the world. Without these local testimonies, these “lampstands,” the world is without light, desperately lighting its own lamps in an attempt to see but its blindness remaining.

The story of Jesus and Barabbas says more than this. For while Barabbas goes free (for the time being), Jesus goes to the cross in his place. Jesus bears the judgment that would have fallen on Barabbas. He makes Himself a sin offering acceptable to God. His obedience to the Father, not for His own sake, but doing what the Father requires of us—absolute submission to the divine judgment—is sufficient to forgive the sins of Barabbas (and of rebellious Israel), if Barabbas (or Israel) would own Jesus as his King and Savior. Though these two men represent these two alternatives (the way of faithfulness on the part of Jesus or the way of self-sufficiency and self-assertion on the part of Barabbas), the one—Barabbas—is released from God’s judgment by the submission to God’s judgment on the part of the Other. Though Barabbas offers no repentance (as far as we know), since he is only being used by the chief priests, what is required of us to benefit from the death of Jesus is an adherence to Jesus, to commit our lives and our very selves to Him. This is faith.

While Jesus and Barabbas represent the two goats selected on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), one slaughtered and the other released into the wilderness, Barabbas is not atoned for unless he repents. The goat that was released is sent away “for Azazel.” Supposedly Azazel was a desert demon, and if that is the case, we might recall the parable Jesus told of the unclean spirit that went out into waterless places and came back with seven other spirits more evil than itself so that the last state of the man from whom it had been cast out became worse than the first (Matthew 12:43-45). Jesus was depicting the state of the “generation” that rejected Him. The parable warned the Pharisees of what would happen to the people if they persisted in the way of violence that the zealous advocated.

Barabbas represents us. We can be released from the judgment of God only if we accept the justness of God’s judgment against ourselves, and we can only really do this when we are able to accept the love of God in the face of this judgment. When we see Jesus (because He comes to us), we know He bears God’s judgment for us out of God’s love for us. If we see this, it is enough to melt our resistance and to win our subjugation to His will.

As we meditate on Jesus before Pilate, we see Jesus submitting to the abuse of state power but only out of submission to the Father’s will. Yet He did so as a model for us. He did not cooperate in His own condemnation, and neither should we. But He also did not offer up any violent opposition, as Barabbas had done. His concern was to be faithful to God no matter what. This too should be our concern in the conduct of our lives, no matter where it leads us.

For the people to whom the Gospel according to Mark was first addressed, the lesson should be clear. Our reaction to the Roman “beast” should follow in the footsteps of Jesus and not the alternatives of the collaborating chief priests or the rebellious Barabbas. Our Way has a single focus, not on the world and its power-struggles, but on fidelity to God and the reality that God reveals.

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