Over the last two weeks I’ve been reflecting on Mark’s account of the death of Jesus, specifically how his death (1) reveals the identity and mission of the Son of God; (2) is associated with impending judgement on the temple and today (3) the significance of the pagan Roman soldier being the one to recognise something of Jesus’ true identity.
Wasn’t it John Wayne hundreds of years ago (1965) who, playing the soldier in The Greatest Story Ever Told, exclaimed in his drawling American accent that ‘Truly this man was the Son of Gawd’?
‘Tis unfortunate that this line still tends to get automatically associated with Wayne’s hammy acting.
For it is a crucial turning point in Mark’s narrative. The centurion on duty would have witnessed the whole crucifixion and the extraordinary events surrounding it. It is clearly the manner of Jesus’ death that convinces him of … what?
As a Roman, does he recognise Jesus’ extraordinary status and authority, perhaps his god-like power and transcendent identity? He is awestruck by Jesus, but he expresses his thoughts as a pagan Roman soldier. One thing is for sure, this Jewish rabbi does not belong on the cross.
Mark takes the Roman’s words to another level of meaning. His gospel has begun with the proclamation that it is all about the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Here, the Roman, unwittingly confirms the truth. His public exclamation must have ‘spoken’ powerfully to the Christians in Rome to whom Mark writes. Jesus is God’s Son, not the Emperor.
And, I like to think, this Gentile recognition of the Jewish Son of God prefigures the inclusion of the Gentiles under the Lordship of the risen Christ. The good news of Jesus is good news for all.
The Death of Jesus
33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”