Reading: Mark 15
I know that the calendar says that today is “Palm Sunday”, but in our study of Mark’s gospel, we are on Good Friday. The reason why it is traditional to have a good Friday service is that you cannot jump from Palm Sunday to Easter. Holy Week is a full week; and by far the best covered week in the gospels; and this is why we’ve been studying passages that take place during Holy week for over a month.
In Mark’s account, Friday’s events begin at sunrise. Last week we talked about the non-binding midnight, hidden trial that happened so that they could secretly condemn Jesus to death — but the first thing in the morning there is the need to have a trial in a court that was able to do something about it — so, at sunrise they bind Jesus and take him to Pilate.
Pilate hears the findings of the secret night court, and he asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, and about the list of accusations that the local government takes to Rome. Jesus again offers no defense, which surprises Pilate. Pilate apparently does not feel that these charges deserve death, so he asks the crowd which prisoner he should release — offering the choice between Jesus and Barabbas the murderer. When the crowd asked that he pardon Barabbas and punish Jesus — Pilate asked the crowd what his crime was — but the crowd simply yelled crucify him and Mark tells us Pilate had Jesus crucified because he wished to “satisfy the crowd.”
This double trial tells us something of the rights of the local government — while they had the autonomy to order that a man be arrested, to convict that somebody, and to order a punishment of beating, they did not have the autonomy necessary to execute somebody. They did not only submit to Rome for the purpose of paying taxes, but also in matters of justice.
Pilate’s actions also give us a hint of his position; and the hint it gives me is that he must have felt some insecurity in the position. If you notice, Pilate wants to please the crowd; now he’s not in an elected position — Pilate had no direct reason to please the crowd — none of the crowd has a vote on his position — now why would he want to please them?
A huge hint comes in that the public executions included a person who was involved in an insurrection. If there had been such instability recently enough that there were public executions for the sake of an insurrection, that had to reflect poorly on Pilate. The worst thing that could happen to him is if his superiors in Rome felt he was not up to the task of governing.
Now, something that I find interesting is that when Pilate examined Jesus and heard the accusations, which clearly included that he claimed the Jewish throne, Pilate’s response was to ask the crowd if they would like Jesus, the king of the Jews to be pardoned. Mark tells us that Pilate recognized that the local leadership turned over Jesus out of jealousy — in other words, he didn’t see Jesus as a threat to himself — but, instead, a threat to the local politicians — basically, it was an issue that he didn’t want to get involved with. I might say that Pilate didn’t like the idea of these local leaders bothering him at dawn, and trying to pull his strings and make him dance like he was their puppet.
In the end, Pilate does what the crowd demands — he does not want a riot — and Jesus is again beat and mocked. When Jesus is lead away to be crucified, one of the people in Jerusalem, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus is pressed to carry Jesus’ cross. Cyrene is part of what is now Libya — actually, some of us have are very familiar with this part of the world: Benghazi, Libya is historically part of Cyrene.
Tradition tells us that Simon and his family later lived in Antioch, and were part of that Christian community. Paul mentions Rufus and his mother in Romans, and while I don’t know much of anything about Alexander — tradition tells us that Rufus is one of the 70 disciples Jesus sent out to preach, and it also tells us that he was a leader of the early church, at one point becoming bishop of Thebes. The point is, when this story is being told, these are people who are known in the early church. While the soldiers pressed a random man to carry Jesus’ cross — he, and his whole family were known as part of the resurrection community.
Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified at 9:00 AM. From dawn to 9:00 is, in the early spring just 3 hours. The Roman trial, the mocking, the beating, the walk to the spot of the Crucifixion all took place in just 3 hours. When Jesus was crucified, the mocking continued. The local politicians mocked Jesus, and those on the cross also mocked Jesus. When Jesus said Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani, people thought he was calling for Elijah, and said: “Let’s see if Elijah comes.”
Mark tells us that basically all that is left of his group of disciples is a couple women named Mary who followed Jesus, and provided for his physical needs, and perhaps other women as well. At the time of the Crucifixion the men were scattered, but the women where there at the end.
Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council; in other words, somebody who might have been at Jesus’ trial the night before, went to Pilate and asked for the body to be buried. Joseph is traditionally considered to be one of Jesus’ disciples, and thus, one might assume that Joseph was a reason why the conflicting testimony delayed a conviction; perhaps not everybody decided in advance. The Marys see Jesus buried.
Like before, Mark’s account is the briefest; there is much of the story that Mark does not tell — Mark only mentions women at the Crucifixion — Mark does not mention Jesus saying to John: “behold your mother.” Another thing that one does not see in Mark is Pilate sending Jesus to face Herod. Mark also does not have the exchange between Jesus and the thieves on the cross; we only see that the others who were put to death also mocked him.
Mark does not tell us of Jesus appearing before Herod, nor does it have the scene in Matthew where Pilate’s wife has a dream about Jesus, and Pilate at the end washes his hands; It really is hard to read Mark without filling in the details that are in the other gospels.
When I think of the little bit that Mark did include — the feeling is one of how sudden the Crucifixion is; at dawn, the council is banging on Pilate’s door, and by 9 AM Jesus is being nailed to the cross. Whatever hesitations Pilate has in Matthew are not there — instead Pilate simply tests the resolve of the crowd and learns that those who are there, and not only the council wish this to happen.
Two things that stand out for me in Mark’s account of the Crucifixion are the soldier who says: “Truly this was the Son of God” when he sees Jesus die, and that Joseph, who took Jesus’ body and buried him in his personal tomb was on the council. There were two men who were, at least nominally, part of the system that put Jesus on the cross — Joseph, as a member of the council, was part of the body that first convicted Jesus and the Centurion was an executioner; yet both of these saw that the one who was crucified was someone special.
Tradition tells us that the centurion was not only present for the Crucifixion, but was also the leader of the group of soldiers who guarded the tomb after the resurrection. Tradition also tells us that after seeing all this, the Centurion was baptized, left military service and went to his home in Cappadocia where he shared what he saw and experienced. Tradition also tells us that he was executed by Roman soldiers.
The reason these two people stand out is this is a reversal from what I am used to in my own culture. Often the enemy is depicted in ways that make it more difficult to sympathize with them. Our stories are very often simplistic — and we apply this to the gospel, to the point that many of us have turned Pharisee into an insult, when there is nothing shameful about being a Pharisee.
Mark’s gospel does not tell us so much of the story that we are used to hearing — but it does tell us explicitly that there was at least one member of the ‘council’ who felt Jesus deserved a proper burial — and who tradition tells us was one of two voices on the council who opposed the plot against Jesus. The soldiers in an occupation force are not often presented in a sympathetic way; yet here is a soldier who is on of those who participates in making the Crucifixion happen, yet he is also one of the first to recognize who Jesus is. Part of the gospel is that even at the worst moments; those moments when we are suffering under our enemies — these enemies are still not beyond redemption; and this is good news especially for anyone who needs salvation.