[March 14, 2010] This Sunday we reflect on the putting to death of Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark. The account in Mark follows Matthew very closely with a few differences in details. What is emphasized here is Jesus as the King, mocked and humiliated by those who see Him—and the Gospel—as ridiculous by their own standards, utterly insignificant and despicable. This indeed is what we face as we identify with Jesus and bear the Gospel to the world. But laced throughout this piece—hinted at in bits of symbolism—is the irony that through this humiliating treatment Jesus ascends the throne of true kingship and becomes the Savior, and the disciple too who would bear His shame, though none are here but in figure, finds his or her own exaltation.
Mocked by the Soldiers (Mark 15:16-19)
In the verse before (verse 14), Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. In all four gospels the word used here, “to hand over,” is the word that Paul uses for the Gospel, and the church’s tradition which is the remembrance of the Gospel story. When we proclaim the Gospel, we are handing it over to men, and there it is mocked, trampled and spat upon.
The soldiers take Jesus into the courtyard and decide to have some fun with Jesus at His expense. After gathering all the others (the whole battalion), they surround Jesus (see Psalm 22:16) and begin their mockery of Him as the “King of the Jews.” Matthew’s account is a little more realistic and brutal, telling how the soldiers strip Him, clothe Him in red (the color of a soldier’s garb), and put a reed in His hand. Mark changes the red to purple, the emperor’s color (John keeps it purple). As in Matthew (and John), the soldiers weave a crown of thorns and put it on Him, and bow in homage to Him and hail Him as King. Then they strike Him on the head with (the) reed and spit on Him.
In chapter 8 Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One. This is the Prophet-Priest-and-King figure (or figures) whom the people expected at the end of days. Jesus also claimed the title of Son of Man from Daniel 7 who would be given eternal dominion and a kingdom that will not be destroyed when “the beast” is slain and dominion is taken away from the rest of the beasts. The voice from the cloud on the mountain (Mark 9) also declared Jesus to be the Son of God, which alludes to kingship too (2 Samuel 7:14; see Luke 1:32) while pointing far beyond this.
Jesus asserts all these titles by His magisterial obedience to the Father and His submission to the Father’s will for us sinners. By that obedience He exposes the guilt of humanity and hands Himself over to their evil treatment. He allows them thus to condemn themselves. (In doing so He also submits Himself to God’s judgment on humanity and bravely bears that judgment on His own person.) Thus His faithfulness under the blows of their humiliation is a kingly judgment of their behavior and a pronouncement of their guilt and condemnation. They hail Him as King in mockery who stands before them as their true King and Judge (in contrast to the emperor in Rome).
The red robe in Matthew becomes purple in Mark as the red of blood is mixed with the blue of heaven. He is the divine emperor who wins His kingdom by the shedding of blood. He is the victor in the fight and with His blood purchases (redeems and sanctifies) His captives (see 1 Peter 1:2, 19).
The reed that hits His head—in Mark it is not the imperial scepter as in Matthew—reminds us of the staff that struck the rock in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-7) from which was released and flowed rivers of life to satisfy the people’s thirst. YHWH told Moses that He would stand on the rock and Moses must strike the rock with his staff. Jesus is the rock who is firm in the path of His obedience. From Him flows the satisfying waters of salvation, waters of the divine life. Once redeemed from our guilt by His blood-shedding, He gives us the gift of eternal life that enlivens us now as His disciples.
The Lord’s garments are put back on Him in verse 20 and taken away and divided in verse 24. He is stripped of everything He had on earth and suspended naked above the earth on the beam of the cross. His garments are divided by lot among the soldiers (see Psalm 22:19). In the Scriptures garments often symbolize our outward deportment, and hence our righteousness. So here, on the one hand, is hinted at the end of Jesus’ earthly “way,” but also the passing on of His righteousness to others (in the Scriptures the lot often speaks of divine appointment). This righteousness speaks not only of the imputed righteousness of justification but also of the disciple taking on the righteous deportment and behavior of Jesus, hence the way of the cross.
This is clearly hinted at when we are told how the soldiers had seized Simon of Cyrene and forced him to carry the cross of Jesus. He is the father of Alexander and Rufus (see Romans 16:13), obviously members of the Christian community. He was probably in the city to celebrate the Passover. His name, Simon (a very common name), means “hearing,” and thus as a “hearkener” he alludes to those who are disciples. If we would follow Jesus, His cross (the rejection and humiliation that the Gospel bears in the world) will be forced on us as well. The disciple is one who bears the cross as he or she follows Jesus. This is strongly impressed upon us in the Gospel according to Mark. According to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, there is no other way for the Christian to be in the world. This is the end of the journey of God’s people through the land overshadowed by the tower of Babel, by the world-gestalt that would seek to assert itself over against the kingdom of God, the “beasts” in Daniel and “Babylon the Great” in the Book of the Revelation. The model of Jesus is the way of the church in the world.
Mark’s account reminds us of Simon’s children, a hint that the way of the cross is also the way of fecundity, fruitfulness. While it seems to be all loss, for us this path is also the way to fruitfulness. The grain of wheat becomes a whole head of grain, for the disciple as well as for the Savior, if we too would “fall into the ground and die” (hate our soul) and follow our Master (see John 12:24-26).
It is telling that in this whole depiction actual disciples are nowhere to be seen. They are fearful and hide. After the resurrection, when they are anointed with the Holy Spirit and sent out, the church has had countless numbers who bravely bore the shame of the Lord’s rejection and who have been humiliated because of His name and often martyred. On our own we cannot do this.
The Place of a Skull speaks of the scene of death. The soldiers offer Jesus wine but He refuses. In Matthew it is wine mixed with gall (perhaps wormwood), a sedative (see Psalm 69:21), which after tasting it, Jesus turns it down. In Mark they offer Jesus wine mixed with myrrh which—though out of place here—was a delicacy in Roman culture. Jesus does not taste it but refuses it outright. It is perhaps a taunt: they offer Him a drink fit for a king. Jesus surrenders to humiliation and the suffering it involves.
Rejected by the World (15:25-32)
Mark tells us that Jesus was on the cross from nine o’clock in the morning (the third hour). Three hours later, at noon, the darkness fell, and Jesus died three hours after that. In other words, He was suspended on the cross for two periods of three hours each. During the first three hours we hear of the mockery of men and what they do to Him, but in the second three hours we are told of the action of God and we hear the witness of the soldier who confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
When Jesus is crucified, the official charge against Him is posted, “The King of the Jews,” written by Pilate. Instead of saying, “He said, ‘I am the King of the Jews,’” it read simply “The King of the Jews.” He is placed between two criminals, as though He were their King: look at the “king” and his men. This was mockery on the part of Pilate, and a warning to everyone against sedition. Jesus was not guilty against sedition, in fact He preached against the kind of “zeal” that led men of action to sedition (the kind of intolerance toward “sinners” and Gentiles that many Pharisees advocated). He was a King none-the-less, but of a kind that surpassed anything Pilate imagined. There was room in the governor’s mind for the Roman emperor and those who would rule in His name. This was an ideology—“truth” to those who held it—that amounted to idolatry to the Jews. Jesus’ claim to kingship is ridiculous and worthy of ridicule in the eyes of those who are blind. In our world we also have many ideologies, including the rule of capital, of the bureaucratic state, and the technological system. What the Gospel proclaims in the face of these “realities” is, no longer even fantastic because unreal, but just irrelevant and unworthy of consideration or even attention. It is the butt of jokes and mockery still, at the expense of those who identify with the Christ of the gospels.
Those passing by repeat in mockery the words of the witnesses in the house of Caiaphas, recalling that Jesus said—supposedly—that He would destroy the Temple and build it in three days. The irony is still here, for while He did speak of the Temple being destroyed, He also spoke of the Temple of His body being destroyed—something that was happening as these mockers spoke—and His raising His body from the grave on the third day (see John 2:19). While this saying is not in the synoptic gospels, the irony of building the Temple in three days did not escape the earliest Christian auditors of the gospels. These passers-by taunt Him, “Save Yourself and come down from the cross,” not realizing that by not coming down from the cross He was saving others.
Then the chief priests and scribes (the usual pairing in Mark) mock Him along the same lines: “He saved others; Himself He cannot save!” They continue the governor’s and the soldier’s taunt, that He is the Messiah, the King of the Jews. They would believe, they say, if He would come down from the cross and save Himself. Here they are no different that the pagans who exalt power above everything else. In subjecting themselves to the will of the Roman occupiers, out of fear of losing their power and privilege, they became like their subjugators, holding their values and acting in the same manner. Who do we fear? This may tell us who our master is. But whom we yield ourselves in subjection, is whom we become like.
Last, even the “robbers,” probably crucified for the same riot that Barabbas was involved in, mock Jesus.
The entire picture of Jesus’ execution is one of rejection, humiliation and mockery. The governor, the soldiers, the passers-by, the chief priests and scribes, and even those who are executed with Him all join together in complete accord to distance themselves from Jesus and to mock His claim to being the King, being the Messiah and even being a Savior. The disciples and sympathizers are entirely absent and Jesus is alone for this part of the depiction (the centurion and the women appear in the second half, in verses 39-41).
What we are being shown, then, is how the “world” reacts to the Gospel. It looks at the Gospel as ridiculous and as something that can be discarded and to be put away from itself, even if this means hurting and using violence against Jesus or those who adhere to Him.
The Loss and the Gain
In the purpose of the Gospel according to Mark—remember Peter was telling this story to an audience in Rome at the time of Nero’s persecution of the church—the depiction of Jesus, the true King of the Jews who becomes the heavenly Emperor, suffering such scorn and violence at the hands of people, shows us what our place in this world is. There is a cost to being a Christian, always, for even when the world does not persecute us, the world is still what it is and has values diametrically opposed to those of the Gospel.
We need to die to our soul—our identification with the values and things of the world—and that always costs us much. We need to love the siblings (“brethren”), that is, our fellow disciples. This is the highest command of Jesus (aside from faith in Him) and we must be willing to lay down our lives, and everything we have, for their sake. If we can do this, the command also says that we must love all others, even our enemies. For, if we love our siblings with the right kind of love, it automatically extends to the love of all, even a love of the creation. But if we do not love our siblings, our love of others cannot be genuine. Our love of the siblings for Jesus’ sake, those beside us in the local believers’ church, even though we may not like them much, requires a crucifixion of our soul. If we do this, we cannot cling to ourselves but we need to let it all go for His sake alone who calls us.
The joy set before Jesus was to sit down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2), and we are told to follow Him and not grow weary, fainting in our souls. The result of His becoming obedient unto death is that God highly exalted Him (Philippians 2:8-9); and we are told to let this mind be in us and thus to “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling (verse 12) so that we may gain our souls (Hebrews 10:39; see Mark 8:35). If we suffer and endure with Jesus we will be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17; see 1 Peter 4:12-19) and reign with Him (1 Timothy 2:12). It is through many tribulations—endurance and faith in the persecutions and afflictions that we suffer—that we must enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-5).
For us, this means that we must learn to recognize what the “world” is and learn what it means to resist it and the powers that govern it. We can resist it because the Gospel that we hear and the Holy Spirit working within us liberate and empower us for this. This is the meaning of being a Christian today.