Sundays in Mark (67) Jesus the failure unmasked at last

Continuing in a series of simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark  

Mark’s matter of fact description of the death of Jesus continues. The political and religious dimensions of the crucifixion are never from the surface.

Two enemies of Rome flank Jesus; Jesus himself is there due to Pilate’s political expediency. His fellow Jews have religious reasons for their bitter words – the man dying in agony before their eyes is a shameful failure. Great promises and, yes, some remarkable deeds, yet all now exposed as just empty rhetoric and vain hope. His life ebbing away is proof of that. At last he is unmasked as a false Messiah.

His enemies rejoice. Jesus’ brutal end conclusively proves that their mostly surreptitious campaign against this Galilean nobody was justified. Not only are they finally rid of their fiercest critic, but their religious and political positions are enforced. So now, with no fear of losing the people, at last they can publicly mock the laughable pretensions of the man from Nazareth.

God’s honour is secure. The victory is won. It’s time to celebrate.

Do you hear the irony dripping from Mark’s pen?     

The Crucifixion of Jesus

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28] 29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

Sundays in Mark (66) The crucifixion of Jesus

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

The entire narrative has been inexorably heading towards this point.

Reading this afresh it is remarkable how much Mark says in the sparest of prose. Simon of Cyrene is introduced, the account of the soldiers’ gambling for Jesus’ last vestiges of dignity and life is told, the drink of gall and Jesus’ refusal is mentioned – and all framed by these three words, ‘they crucified him‘.

Unadorned facts. Short. Brutal. Real. Left to the reader’s imagination – of an all too familiar form of violent death.

I have a confession here. I have never watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I can’t even articulate exactly why but I know I’ve never had any inclination to see it. It just felt so ‘out of step’ with the Gospels. The violence is not overlooked but it is not centre stage.

The real point, and more of Mark’s irony is at play here, is that this powerless, condemned, thirsty, beaten, bloodied, publicly humiliated, mocked, shamed and abandoned Jew dying a cursed man’s death, really is, against every expectation and every prior theological framework,  the long promised King of the Jews, the Messiah of God.

But that’s a crazy foolish thing to say. Makes no sense at all. Does it?

The Crucifixion of Jesus

21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Sundays in Mark (65) Jesus Mocked but things are not all they seem

After a bit of a break, I’m back to some simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark

We were in the the trial and execution narrative section of the Gospel. Jesus has been condemned to die by a pragmatic Pilate. He is now ‘beyond hope’, the verdict has been passed, and he is given over to the authority and power of those tasked with torturing, killing and degrading enemies of Rome – the local soldiers.

On a random tangent here, I’ve just finished the third (Sovereign) of the C J Sansom’s wonderfully compelling Matthew Shardlake series – a sort of medieval detective but much more. He brilliantly evokes the day to day life, politics and grim realities of King Henry VIII’s England. And there is no more grim reality than the Tower of London. A place of fear, brutality and hopelessness.

I won’t give spoilers away, but there is a chillng torture scene as someone is left in the hands of the expert and coldly ruthless torturers in the Tower.

Reading it, I thought of this text in Mark and how Jesus is given over to the hardbitten professional killers employed to effect the brutal realities of the death sentence ordered by their (comfortably distant) superior.

Jesus is beyond the protection of any law; without hope of a reprieve and left alone to face his professional tormentors – who, Mark makes clear, are clearly enjoying the extra ‘twist’ this prisoner has provided them with all this talk of being the ‘King of the Jews’.

Mark is silent on how Jesus responds to the torture and mockery. There is a strong implication of silent endurance.

Here is the innocent lamb being led to the slaughter. Here is the true King being mocked and offered joking worship. Here is the irony and ‘foolishness’ of God revealed. Here is the upside kingdom of God in all its surprising weakness. Here is the path to the cross.

But, as with Jesus as every stage of his life, things are not all they seem.

And this, it seems to me, is a way of summarising the Christian faith. It is a belief that a deeper reality lies behind what we can see. That beyond the often grim and harsh realities of life there is hope because there is a God who has entered those realities and overcome them in the most counterintuitive way imaginable – death and resurrection.

  The Soldiers Mock Jesus

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Sundays in Mark (64) Jesus sentenced to death

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

Rejoining Jesus’ ‘trial’ before Pilate, Mark introduces the information that the Romans would release a prisoner at Passover as a traditional but notional act of ‘goodwill’ – the interesting twist being that the subjugated Jews got to choose whom it would be.

Mark also gives information on Pilate’s motivation and personal convictions that the charges against Jesus were politically motivated falsehoods. In typical style he does not go into detail of how he knows this but other gospel accounts tell of Pilate’s vacillation, sending Jesus to Herod Antipas, his wife’s dream about Jesus’ innocence and Pilate’s attempt to wash his hands of the whole affair.

The earliest Christian tradition clearly is that Pilate is more of a passive participant: in the sense of having no active interest in seeing Jesus dead. He is caught on the horns of dilemma:

Release the innocent man and risk alienating even further pretty well the entire Jewish Sanhedrin and aggravating a hostile crowd – a crowd remember who are gathered from the entire Jewish diaspora in Jerusalem for Passover. And simultaneously fail to release one of their political heroes, Barabbas, who had had the courage to do what Jesus had not done – attempt a violent liberation of God’s people in God’s given land?

OR

take the politically expedient route of killing this inconvenient Rabbi?

Political expediency wins.

Reflection

There are so many things that could be said here. One thing that stands out to me is the stark and deliberate contrast between Barabbas and Jesus. The former represents the route of power and violence, might and force to achieve God’s ends and end Pagan occupation of Israel. This is the sort of thing the Messiah was expected to deliver.

The latter emphatically rejects the ‘will to power’ to achieve God’s ends. This upside-down-Messiah preaches an upside-down kingdom where the meek will inherit the earth and those who suffer for the kingdom are to consider themselves blessed. And this is no ‘soft’ or ‘weak option. It is the hardest path of all. He lives out this upside-down-kingdom all the way to the cross. And his followers today are called to take the same route of suffering, peace, powerlessness and non-violence.

Mark 15:6-15

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13 “Crucify him!” they shouted.

14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

Sundays in Mark (63) Jesus before Pilate

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is now brought before Pilate by the Sanhedrin.

Following the conclusion of Jesus’ Jewish trial, Mark is careful to emphasise how the chief priests, the elders, the teachers of the Law and indeed the whole Sanhedrin are involved in the decision making process of bringing Jesus before Pilate. They are also present and actively involved in the second ‘trial’ as Pilate meets the prisoner. The objective here is a death sentence, something that lay only in the gift of the Roman Procurator.

The only charge that will gain any traction with the Romans is a political one; connecting Jesus with a potential revolutionary movement that could destabilise Roman control of Palestine.

Rome was ruthless with such threats, especially because they were very real. Israel’s history of revolt against pagan overlords and the regular appearance of messianic figures and revolutionary movements (think for example of the Macabbean revolt, the later Jewish war of 66-70AD and the successful but short-lived establishment of an independenst state led by the messianic figure of Simon bar Kochba in 132-36AD) meant that being identified as a leader of such a movement usually equalled rapid execution.

Mark’s account could hardly be more sparse: the critical political question is highlighted (Are you the king of the Jews?). Jesus’ throws the question back at Pilate. What do you think? By doing so, is he pointing out both the illegitimacy of the charges and how Pilate’s understanding of Jewish kingship is of a completely different order to his (Jesus’) teaching on the kingdom of God?

Like many before him, Pilate is amazed by Jesus. Mark does not tell us exactly why. By his charisma, courage and dignity, mocked, beaten and whipped, facing death and yet refusing to compromise or seek to save himself? Or do you see other reasons here?

One thing stands out to me here – Jesus perfectly walks an astonishingly fine line of both rejecting the injustice of the whole trial process while simultaneously accepting his fate as the climax to his God-given mission to Israel.  

Jesus Before Pilate

1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

3 The chief priests accused him of many things. 4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”

5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

Sundays in Mark (62) Peter denies Jesus

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark. This week Peter’s moment of doubt, failure and pain.

While Jesus faces derision and judgement, Peter experiences his own ‘trial’. The servant girl’s description of Jesus as ‘that Nazarene’ sounds scornful. To be associated with this Messianic failure was to be linked to blasphemy and death.

Peter denies the relationship more and more vehemently. Do you notice how he even avoids saying Jesus’ name? The ‘calling down curses’ has the sense of cursing himself if he is lying and cursing his accusers if they are falsely accusing him. He is in every sense doing exactly what Jesus predicted. And even more he is doing what Jesus talked of in Mark 8

38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Reflection

Peter is probably the prime source for this narrative. Its central position in the passion narrative speaks volumes for the authenticity of the Gospels’ accounts. But more than this, it forms a climax to the disciples’ faltering belief and trust in Jesus from Gethsemane onwards.

So what does Peter’s failure say to the readers of Mark’s Gospel and to you and me today?

Perhaps it challenges believers to hold fast in trust and faith in Jesus whatever the circumstances

And, as later events will show, it speaks of profound hope into the reality of human fear, self-protection and even self-loathing. The church is a place for failures like Peter, like you and like me. For it is into that failure that Jesus will speak words of forgiveness and restoration as we turn to him in repentance and sorrow.  The need for honesty and confession are what ‘hit’ me from this text. What ‘hits’ you?  

Peter Disowns Jesus

66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” 70 Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

71 He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Sundays in Mark (61) Jesus is not good enough for God

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark, and specifically Jesus’ arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin.

With the witnesses’ evidence inconclusive, Caiaphas takes matters into his own hands and begins to interrogate Jesus directly about their claims. Talk of building a new temple was Messianic in nature since there was the expectation that the temple would be renewed in glory when the Messiah appeared.

Jesus says nothing and, frustrated at his silence, Caiaphas asks Jesus bluntly to reveal his self-understanding of his identity, ‘Are you the Messiah?’. It’s obvious from Mark’s account that this was the crux question. A claim to be the Messiah would give the Sanhedrin the evidence it required to sentence the prisoner to death.

And this it got with Jesus’ unambiguous reply – there are echoes of Ps 110 and Dan 7:13 here. Jesus’ understanding of the Messiah is finally revealed in public: a glorious Son of Man figure, enthroned and exalted, who one day will be seen for who he truly is – the authoritative and anointed Son of God.

But why the extreme reaction? Why a death sentence for claiming to be the Messiah? Is Caiaphas just hamming it up for effect? What do you think?

I think the reaction is genuine.  Caiaphas is offended and appalled at the brazenness and temerity of this Galilean nobody, abandoned by his ragtag bunch of followers, powerless and imprisoned, and yet claiming to be God’s chosen one, the hope of Israel. Such delusions of grandeur insulted the very name of God. The only just verdict was death – according to the law of Moses.

Reflection

There is profound irony here. Jesus is not ‘good enough’ for God. He fails to meet the expected standards so spectacularly that he deserves to die for daring to claim Messianic status. God could not possibly have chosen this man to fulfil his purposes for Israel. Such arrogance deserves punishment, humiliation and ridicule – and this Jesus immediately begins to receive.

It is too easy to read this text and dismiss Caiaphas & co as a closed-minded clique intent on self-preservation. How could they not see the truth!? But would you and I have been much different? I wonder too if today we can have all our theology so neatly worked out that we ‘know’ with a fair degree of certainty through whom and how God is going to do things – and it usually is through people like us.

And if Jesus was fulfilling his mission today, how do you think he would be received by the church that bears his name?

Caiaphas and Jesus

60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 61 But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

62 “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

63 The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. 64 “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”

They all condemned him as worthy of death. 65 Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him.

Sundays in Mark (60) Before the Sanhedrin

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in chapter 14 of the Gospel of Mark.

Events are moving quickly. Those who had sent the armed guards to arrest Jesus were expecting the prisoner to be brought to them. An extraordinary nightime assembly of the Sanhedrin follows at the Chief Priest’s (Caiaphas) residence.

Mark is sure to stress two things at least:

1. There is no legitimate evidence against Jesus. He is innocent and without fault. In Jewish law, for a capital case, two independent witnesses needed to give evidence that agreed in every detail. The witnesses appear ‘staged’, ready to testify in the middle of the night. But they cannot agree and so their testimony is void.

2. And Mark is also sure to introduce Peter into the narrative – he sits outside in the courtyard as a council meet inside. His denials will coincide with the sealing of Jesus’ fate.

It is within such narrative details that huge theological themes would later be worked out. Themes of the innocent substitute, the righteous sufferer, and the sheer undeserving and restorative grace of God.

I’m struck reading this that not only does Christian faith stand or fall on the historicity of these events, but that all Christian truth is worked out the ‘narrative of life’ – in day to day events, decisions and actions. 

Jesus Before the Sanhedrin
53 They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, the elders and the teachers of the law came together. 54 Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.

55 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. 56 Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.

57 Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” 59 Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

Sundays in Mark (59) A moment of truth in the garden

This week, a very simple Sunday reflection on the Gospel of Mark.

Within the Gethsemane narrative in chapter 14 are these 2 verses

50Then everyone deserted him and fled.  51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

Despite their recent sincere and passionate protestations of utter loyalty, when suddenly confronted with the ugly reality of armed guards in the middle of the night and all that they symbolised, to a man, the disciples flee. (And whether the naked young man is Mark himself is not that important, the point is he deserts Jesus in shame along with all the others).

I think sometimes what we really believe is revealed most profoundly, not in conversations, or in statements of faith and certainly not in blog posts (!) – but in sudden unexpected ‘moments of truth’. Where you have no time to plan or theorise, but are faced with an instantaneous choice:  to act with courage and/or say something true, or to act with cowardice and not act, say nothing or perhaps even ‘run away’ from the situation.

And for many Christians around the world such moments of truth do involve life and death decisions.

Such moments expose faith and character. And this moment in the garden exposes the disciples’ promises as empty words. To be blunt, deep down, when tested, they simply didn’t believe or trust Jesus. Arrest, torture and death did not form part of their expectations of following this Galilean Messiah.

The question this text asks me and you is, deep down, when confronted with a ‘moment of truth’ that may test your faith to the limit, will you keep trusting and believing in Jesus?

Sundays in Mark (58) Jesus Arrested

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark and the events in the Garden of Gethsemene.

This is a dramatic scene, full of pathos and utterly believable in its simultaneous tawdriness. It brings to mind a phrase I heard somewhere on ‘the banality of evil’.

An armed group are led by Judas under cover of darkness to Gethsemene. It is significant that they are sent by the three named strands of Jewish leadership – presumably with the authority and knowledge of the Sanhedrin. Israel has decisively rejected its Messiah; Judas is doing as Jesus predicted – and through their actions the Scriptures are being fulfilled.

The group have probably little idea of who Jesus is or why he is to be arrested. Jesus challenges the courage and legitimacy of their actions. Just as much today as then, the powerful want to keep suppression of their enemies well hidden from view.

Judas’ betrayal and Israel’s rejection raise deep questions around God’s election and human choice. The text simply states the facts but does not explain them. Israel and Judas are responsible for their actions, but their actions fit within the salvific purposes of God.

What do you make of this? (a small question I know!)

Jesus’ rhetorical question is an extraordinarily important one, especially in light of later church history.

It explicitly distances his mission, life and teaching on the kingdom of God from the use of violence. (In John’s account, Jesus heals the man’s severed ear and Peter’s use of the sword is rejected). The mission of the Messiah will not be achieved through coercion, threat, or political or military power.

And this means that followers of Jesus must follow the same path.

What challenges to you see for the contemporary church here?

Jesus Arrested

43Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

44 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”