Monday, March 25, 2024

March 29, 2024 -- Good Friday

                                      Biblical Words                                    [874]

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9Mark 14:1-15:47

God sent a Servant, abused and slain by the world, but faithful to the end. 

The Revised Common Lectionary splits the traditional Palm Sunday in two, having one liturgy for the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and a second Liturgy devoted entirely to the Passion narrative.  I have given the Liturgy of the Palms only in last Sunday’s readings, but have moved the Liturgy of the Passion, with its reading of the full Passion narrative, to Good Friday. 

The Prophetic, Psalm, and Epistle readings here are those given for Good Friday, the most awesome of the Suffering Servant passages.  For the Passion narrative itself, however, I am using the Gospel According to Mark instead of the Passion in John, which is the traditional Good Friday reading.  This is Lectionary year B, the year of Mark’s Gospel, so here we will listen to Mark’s version of the culminating events of the secret and suffering Messiah. 

Isaiah 52:13-53:12. 

This prophetic reading is the climax of the Suffering Servant songs.  Like the other Good Friday texts, this is a complex one.  It involves different scenes and speakers, and we need a map to follow the full drama.  Here is a rather simplified one. 

God is speaking in the first and last parts of the drama, 52:13-15 and at least 53:11b-12.  Someone else is speaking in the middle section, at least 53:1-6 and probably all of 53:1-11a.  This “someone else” is a plural, as in “we” and “for our…”  What the “we” passages describe is the astonishing career of the Servant (whom God introduced in the first God-speech).  This Servant was disfigured, despised, and generally hounded to death—a fate that he submitted to like a sacrificial animal taken to slaughter.  Further, this suffering by the Servant was on somebody else’s account, or for their benefit.  “…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6, NRSV).  The Servant suffers for someone else, and that someone else has finally come to realize the truth of all this, and is declaring that truth as a new revelation (“Who has believed what we have heard?”, 53:1). 

Thus we have the following structure: 

(A) God introduces the Servant as newly exalted, 52:13-15. 

(B) A group (“we”) proclaims that the suffering was for their sins, 53:1-11a. 

(A’) God announces the Servant’s reward for that suffering, 53:11b-12. 

The whole passage spoken by the “we” or the “many” is designed to evoke great compassion at the suffering and disrespect endured by the Servant.  But even more, it evokes wonder because this suffering was not only undeserved but was endured on behalf of others, to spare them from guilt and punishment because of their rebelliousness. 

What is this really about?  What lies behind the imagery of the Suffering Servant? 

A fairly straightforward reading sees here an interpretation of Israel’s historic destiny.  The Servant’s career is Israel’s historical decline, defeat, and apparent extinction—beyond any reasonable hope of recovery.  (That is to say, it is the destruction and exile of first the old Northern Kingdom and then of the Kingdom of Judah.  Ultimately, we are talking about political entities.) 

The divine announcement is that there was a secret purpose working through that defeat and disaster—a secret purpose that, when known, will be astonishing to both the other nations and kings as well as to those very defeated and exiled folks who still call themselves “Israel.” 

From the other parts of Isaiah 40-55 we learn the following:  (1) The sinfulness of the Israelites consisted in running after other gods (who are really no-gods).  (2) The consequences of that sinfulness stand as a demonstration to the nations of the futility and falsehood of such practice.  It is futile because there is really only one Lord of history to whom unqualified loyalty is due.  (3) It is through Israel that other nations will learn this. 

That is, Israel suffers vicariously!  The other nations can learn from what happened to Israel, from the error of Israel’s ways.  It was through Israel’s sinfulness (unfaithfulness to Yahweh), leading to punishment and death, that the greatest lesson of all was learned:  idolatry and multiple gods are a way of death.  Israel has demonstrated this lesson to the world, suffered for its waywardness, but will be raised up again to live among the nations as Yahweh’s restored and honored Servant. 

In the later twentieth century, scholars shied away from seeing royal features in the Servant.  The Servant songs never say clearly that the Servant is a king.  Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the collective-individual character of the Servant probably makes most sense as a royal figure (rather than as a prophetic or priestly figure).  The Servant will stand honored among kings, and he certainly plays a representative role:  his experience is Israel’s collective experience.  In any case, the Servant makes most sense to this reader as a royal figure, the figure seen also in several psalms (22 and 118, for example).  He stands as a personification of Israel’s destiny that exactly parallels the personification of City Zion, which is celebrated so exuberantly in the text immediately following this last Servant song (that is, in Isaiah 54). 

In the sacral realities and the prophetic rhetoric of that age, City and King were the makers—and the victims—of all major historical developments.  In our passage, God declares that such a major development is about to occur for the insignificant community of exiles that still responds to the name “Israel.”  Furthermore, that community will soon be led in prosperity by God’s Servant, to the astonishment of all the nations! 

Psalm 22. 

The Psalm for Good Friday has, with good reason, been read as a Suffering Servant liturgy. 

The Plea.  The first part of this psalm alternates between the miserable condition of the speaker and the goodness of God’s actions in the past: 

1a.  I am abandoned and unheard, vv. 1-2;

2a.  You heard and saved the Israelite ancestors, vv. 3-5; 

1b.  I am a worm, despised and mocked, vv. 6-8;

2b.  You have known and kept me since my birth, vv. 9-10. 

The logic of this alternation creates a claim upon God by the speaker, expressed in the simple plea of verse 11:  “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” 

The Evocation of Pity.  The piteous descriptions of slaughter in verses 12 to 18 are intended to evoke indignation at the cruelty inflicted upon the speaker.  Besides the opening line of the psalm (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), this description of physical death has the closest ties with the Passion narratives in the Gospels. 

In this passage, a single metaphor is sustained, that of a hunted animal, probably the “deer” referred to in the title prefixed to the psalm.  This beautiful wild animal is assaulted by enemies all about, bulls and lions. 

Attention is directed steadily from a large ring surrounding the animal toward the center of its body, as that body is violated: 

Many bulls encircle me …
      they open wide their mouth at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

As these beasts pierce the skin of the victim, the inner organs are exposed and torn open: 

I am poured out like water,
      and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
      it is melted within my breast. 

And the final drained and lifeless carcass is evidence of a ruthless slaughter: 

… my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
      and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
               (This scene is verses 12-15, NRSV.)  

Nothing in the book of Job exceeds this evocation of pity. 

The imagery of the animal hunted and surrounded by beasts is repeated, more briefly. 

For dogs are all around me;
      a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled [been “pierced” in KJV];
      I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
      they divide my clothes among themselves,
      and for my clothing they cast lots (verses 16-18, NRSV). 

In this imagery, the “clothes” divided among the hunters are, of course, the victim’s skin, to become “garments” for the hunters. 

The agonizing and suffering part of the psalm concludes with the speaker’s final plea for deliverance, heightened by repeating some key words from the imagery. 

Deliver my soul from the sword,
      my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion! (verses 20-21). 

The Reversal.  The rest of the psalm proclaims a total reversal The prayer has been answered, and the delivered one thanks God for salvation.  God raised the suffering one from ignominy to glory. 

For he did not despise or abhor
      the affliction of the afflicted;
      …but heard when I cried to him (verse 24). 

Furthermore, this deliverance has world-wide significance: 

All the ends of the earth shall remember

      and turn to the Lord;
and the families of the nations
      shall worship before him (verse 27). 

The sufferer in this drama is not just a marginal resident; this is a figure of destiny (a royal figure) whose rescue from death is good news for others far and wide. 

The basic movement in the psalm is the same as in the prophetic Suffering Servant passage.  Great suffering to death by a faithful servant is finally rewarded with exaltation by God.  And all of that is recognized by the nations as an amazing work of God for their benefit! 

When the Passion stories report Jesus’ great cry of god-forsakenness on the cross, the hearers know what’s in the rest of the psalm!  The suffering one was on his way to exaltation. 

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9. 

(This is the alternate reading; the first reading is Hebrews 10:16-25.  I choose the alternate as closer to the human suffering Jesus.) 

The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the most difficult major Biblical writings for modern progressive people to fathom, much less enjoy.  However, this Good Friday reading gives us more of the human Jesus than is usual in this work.  Let’s just listen to that. 

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin…. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death [thinking of Jesus reciting Psalm 22 ?], and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered [like the “Israel” who = the Servant]; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (4:15 + 5:7-9, NRSV). 


(Originally written in March 2006; occasionally revised since.)

Introduction.  The following comments are based on a strict reading of the Passion narrative in Mark.  They avoid any attempt to harmonize Mark with the other Gospels, and they do not seek to reconstruct any actual history of the last night and day of Jesus’ life.  What we have in Mark’s Passion is one of the ways second-generation Greek-speaking Christians told the story of the Passion, as it had become part of their reverence for their Lord. 

Christian tradition has always thought Mark wrote around 65 to 70 CE (after Peter’s death) in Rome.  Modern scholars have no real alternative to that, though some think it was written in Syria or even Galilee. 

That the Passion happens on Passover night and the following day is part of the later Christian story, not at all historically probable.  The narrative reflects what Christians were doing while their Judean neighbors were doing the Passover.  The Passion narrative was the Christian counter-Passover.  (See further below on the Passover and the Last Supper.) 

Careful attention has been given here to how the narrative distributes its time over the incidents.  A word count (in Greek) of all sections of the narrative has been made and the percentage of the whole taken up by each episode is indicated.  This gives us an objective measure of what the narrators thought was important in their oral performances of the Passion, one version of which Mark dictated to a professional scribe. 

As to the meaning of the narrative,

Mark’s story deals with the question “Why did Jesus die?” and answers it at various levels.  At one level, his answer is that Jesus died because it was the will of God; at another, that he died because he was obedient; at a third (paradoxically!), that he died because of the wickedness of his enemies and the treachery of Judas.  All three explanations tell us how it came about that Jesus died:  they do not tell us what his death achieved.  None of the evangelists has a great deal to say about what we would call “the atonement.” 

      Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, 1991, p. 22. 

An additional reflection (written 2012):  

More than its alternative Abrahamic faiths, Christianity bears the message, God Suffers.  Judaism and Islam have laid extreme emphasis upon the compassion and mercy of God, but their equally extreme emphasis upon the unity of God makes the compassion and suffering more difficult to feel and resonate to than the subtle, subliminal Christian evocation that it is GOD who suffers. 

That is forever the importance of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:  Jesus is actually God in some unqualified way, and thus the Passion narrative constantly carries the subtext, overtone, visceral religious message, that this is God suffering for humans.  Human suffering (the lot of the vast majority of humans in all ages) is taken into God’s own being in incomprehensible but utterly profound ways.  

“The Cross not only reveals the nature of Jesus but the nature of God, not only the divinity of Jesus, but the Christlikeness of God.”  (G.H.C. MacGregor, The Gospel of John, Hodder and Stoughton, 1928, p. 216.)  

Surely this is the persisting and awesome power and importance for Christians of the Passion narrative.  And some think it’s power is especially achieved in Mark’s version. 

“God the Father with the Suffering Christ,” 1510, from the Workshop of Tilman Riemenschneider.
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.

(A note on terminology.  The words “Jew,” “Jews,” and “Jewish” are avoided here when the subject is the people referred to in the New Testament.  These words are later translations into European languages of the Greek word ’Ioudaíos, which, more literally translated, is “Judean” and “Judeans.”  This is a respectful reminder that there are no “Jews” in the New Testament; only “Judeans” and peoples of the nations [“gentiles”].) 

Main Scenes of the Drama (as discussed here):

The Plot and the Extravagant Anointing, 14:1-11  (10.3%)

Passover and the Last Supper, 14:12-26  (14.1%)
Abandonment:  Prophesied and Fulfilled, 14:27-52  (21.8%)
Jesus’ Trial – and Peter’s, 14:53-72  (19.1 %) 
Tried, Condemned, and Mocked, 15:1-20  (12.9%)
The Crucifixion, 15:21-41  (16.4%)
The Burial, 15:42-47  (5.4%)

Quotations throughout are from the New Revised Standard Version. 

The Plot and the Extravagant Anointing, 14:1-11

(In Bethany.  188 words, 10.3% of the total narrative)

The Plot, 14:1-2 (34 words).  There was a plot to catch Jesus and kill him.  

The plot did not just begin two days before it succeeded.  It had been building since Galilee days, as Mark presents it.  After disputes with the Pharisees over forgiveness of sins, associating with sinners, and Sabbath observance, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). 

Later, after Jesus has come to Jerusalem and challenged its leadership by attacking the commercial activities in the temple, the chief priests and scribes “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18).  Continuing his provocations in the temple, he told the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard -- which patently accused the Jerusalem elite of rejecting God’s will and messengers.  At that the authorities “realized that he had told this parable against them, [and] they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd” (12:12). 

It is no surprise, then, that two days before Passover, “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (verse 1).  They still needed to avoid a public incident, so they agreed to avoid the time of the festival (which lasted eight days altogether, beginning the 14th of Nisan, the day the Passover animals were sacrificed). 

In Mark’s presentation they faced a quandary.  Jesus was in Jerusalem because of the festival, so if they delayed too long he would be gone again (or would have already caused an uprising).  Their decision here was to take their chances and wait until after the festival.  That was their plan.  Judas soon changed it. 

The Anointing, 14:3-9 (124 words).  The story of the plot is interrupted to tell the story of the extravagant anointing.  It is a common practice of Mark to “sandwich” one incident between two parts of another.  A prominent example is the healing of the woman with a blood flow which is placed between the two parts of the story of raising Jairus’ daughter, Mark 5:21-43.  And there are several other examples.  This technique may be just as characteristic of oral recitations of traditional materials as of the composition and editing of written documents. 

Jesus has friends in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, in this case in Bethany.  This village lay about two miles southeast of Jerusalem around the base of the Mount of Olives toward Jericho.  There, at the home of Simon the (former) leper, a fine dinner is given for Jesus.  As the men are reclining at their meal, a woman comes in and pours extremely expensive ointment on Jesus’ head.  (The ointment would be worth about $25,000 in our current economy, that is, a year’s pay for a day laborer earning $12 an hour, using the valuation given by the woman’s critic in verse 5.)  Variations on this story are told in all the Gospels, and the woman gets criticized for her extravagance – or in Luke’s case for her sinful character (Matthew 26:6-13; Luke 7:36-50John 12:1-8). 

Mark says nothing about the woman’s motives; only reports her actions in succinct but indelible terms.  The primary points of the narrative are not about her but about Jesus.  This is a critical moment in sacred history.  Extravagance that would be irresponsible at normal times is now praised as a “noble deed” (kalon ergon, verse 6).  The reason is – and the Jesus of this tradition may be transforming a royal anointing into a burial service – “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (verse 8). 

This nameless woman becomes famous (her act to be remembered “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,” verse 9) because her action formalizes Jesus’ preparation for death.  While others are plotting Jesus’ death, those who love him are sanctifying it. 

Judas, 14:10-11 (30 words).  The frame around this anointing story is closed by the action of a betrayer.  “Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them” (verse 10). 

In most English versions Jesus is “betrayed.”  The Greek verb is paradidomi, which literally means “give over,” and is applied to such benign things as passing on tradition (“your tradition that you have handed on,” Mark 7:13).  It is also used of taking custody of someone (“after John [the Baptist] was arrested,” Mark 1:14), and that leads to our meaning, to hand over (betray) someone into someone else’s custody.  This is what Judas does. 

However, in the course of the whole narrative, Jesus will be “given over” in a series of transferals, all using this verb.  Judas hands over Jesus to the priests (14:41), the priests hand him over to Pilate (15:1 and 10), and Pilate hands him over to those who actually crucify him (15:15).  It is probably not out of the spirit of Mark’s narrative to read all of these as “betrayed.” Jesus was betrayed from one party to the next in this chain of death. 

When the chief priests heard Judas’ offer of betrayal, “they were greatly pleased” (verse 11).  Judas offered them a way to take Jesus immediately but quietly, avoiding a public disturbance.  This was just what they wanted.  They strike a deal, and promise Judas money.  The Mark narrative offers no speculations about Judas’s motives, not even greed (which he is accused of in other Gospels).  There is no interest here in how one of the chosen twelve, associated with Jesus for some time now, could thus turn against him.  In the really big picture, this is God’s doing (more on this later), and that is the essential story. 

Passover and the Last Supper, 14:12-26

(In the Upper Room.  259 words, 14.1%)

Preparing for the Passover, 14:12-16 (99 words, 5.39%).  Still out in Bethany, the disciples think about the religious highpoint that is at hand.  They ask Jesus, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” (verse 12). 

This is the point in Mark’s story where all commentators through the ages address a big question about the chronology of Jesus’ passion.  Did the Last Supper happen on Passover evening?  Did it happen at the same time that Jerusalem was packed with observant Judeans doing their seders?  (The meal had to be eaten inside Jerusalem, and the population of the city reportedly increased from about 30,000 to 120,000 for the evening of the meal.) 

The historical question.  This question is about “what really happened,” not about what Mark narrates. 

There are two major reasons why this dating in Mark seems wrong to historians.  One is that the Gospel of John makes it a day earlier.  There Jesus has the last supper on the evening before the Passover day (John 13:1), and Jesus dies on the next afternoon while the Passover lambs are being sacrificed at the temple (John 18:2819:14).  Obviously in the late first century, different Christian communities had different traditions about the timing of the passion events.  John presumably represents the tradition of Christians in Ephesus, capital of the Roman province of Asia. 

The other reason against the Last Supper being a Passover meal is a modern one.  The Passover meal took place between twilight and midnight, and historians do not believe that the Judean ruling priests and other leaders could have been busy arranging the arrest of Jesus and conducting his court hearings during the same night in which the most solemn observance of the spring festival was going on.  Historically viewed, it is very improbable that the Last Supper was a Passover meal.  John’s chronology is more viable to the historians. 

Nevertheless, Mark’s Gospel definitely makes the Last Supper a Passover (14:12-16).  The big question is why.  Why would the Mark tradition make it a Passover meal?  Why is it important to this tradition that the Last Supper happened on the same evening as other Judeans were doing their Passover thing? 

The answer is suggested by considering what early Christians were doing in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Were they still observing the regular Passover – whether in Jerusalem or (for most of them) in other communities around the Roman empire?  Many Christians were also Judeans and all of them were deeply involved with the Judean scriptures.  What would they do when their neighbors, observant Judeans, prepared to observe the Passover each year? 

The answer is given in the nature of Mark’s narrative of the last supper.  The Last Supper is the Christian counter-Passover.  Judeans celebrated liberation from slavery; Christians solemnly observed a time of betrayal, abandonment, mockery, and death. 

It was important in Mark’s community that the Last Supper took place at exactly the same time as the Judeans were doing their Passover.  What for Judeans was a time of feasting, ending in the singing of the Hallel in Psalms 115-118, was for Christians a time of mourning and remembrance of betrayal.  (Paul’s version of the Last Supper begins, “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed…” I Corinthians 11:23, not “on the night of his last Passover,” or even “on the night before he died.”) 

Thus the Mark narrative spends over 5% of its total time describing how the Upper Room for the Passover was found (verses 12-16), doing just as Judean neighbors were doing.  (In the Christians' case to re-enact the last supper, their sharing in the death.)  Then another 4.5% of its time is spent on the announcement of the betrayer (verses 17-21), before the meal is even reached.  These were important things in this version of how Jesus died. 

When Judeans (in Rome, Ephesus, or Antioch) start preparing for their Passover by removing all the leaven from their houses, Christians start preparing for their vigil of watching through the night as their Lord is betrayed, abandoned, and condemned. 

Announcement of the Betrayer, 14:17-21 (83 words, 4.5%).  “When it was evening, he came with the twelve.”  Jesus and all of the twelve come to the dinner.  The first solemn business of this evening – taking up more time in the narrative than the Last Supper itself! – is telling the twelve that one of them is betraying Jesus. 

The response of the disciples to this announcement is given in detail – and is very curious.  When Jesus has just said, “one of you will betray me,” one might expect someone like Peter to burst out, “Who is he?  Let me at him!”  No such thing.  “They began to be distressed [grieved] and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’” (verse 19).  What a strange response.  Why the doubt?  Self-doubt?  Is this only modesty, because one is never entirely sure of one’s own deep places?  One by one they almost pleadingly ask if they are going to do this incredible thing.  What’s behind this strange questioning? 

Think of this scene told to a community of Christians in Rome around the year 65 of the Christian Era. 

The year before, Nero had rounded up many Christians – now distinct from Judeans for almost the first time.  Among other tortures administered by Nero’s servants, many of the Christians were burned as human torches in his gardens.  What a time of scrambling to be out of the way must have happened!  How many weak Christians betrayed the locations of their fellow believers?  How many betrayed their Lord to save their lives?  How desperate and drastic the action of Judas must have seemed to people who knew of betrayers among their own number!  Many were torn by those agonies and betrayals in Rome.  (There were other persecutions in other centers, of course.  The Roman one happens to be rather famous.)  Judas is the archetype of the betrayer of the Lord, the Lord who now lives in the body of his believers (the church). 

This intensity about the betrayer is also seen in the uncompromising damnation pronounced by Jesus on the betrayer.  “The Son of Man goes as is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!  It would have been better for that one not to have been born” (verse 21).  Why couldn’t Jesus have been supremely understanding and forgiven Judas – said something like the scribe has put in his mouth in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive him, for he does not know what he is doing”?  Surely the sayings about the betrayer – and the amount of time given to the topic – reflect a special urgency in the situation where this tradition was written down.  For those folks it was a life-and-death issue, whether they would have the strength to hold out against betraying.  Their salvation was on the line.  Deep subject for doubt, and the need to “watch,” lest they enter into temptation (testing), as the Gethsemane scene will urge upon them. 

Words over the Bread and the Cup, 14:22-26 (77 words, 4.2%).  So far we have heard about plotting a death, anointing for burial, betrayal, and severe judgment upon the betrayer.  Now we hear about food and drink!  Except it’s not just eating and drinking … 

Taking bread “he broke it…and said, ‘…this is my body.’”  They drank from the cup and he said, “This is my blood…poured out for many” (verses 22 and 24).   The Last Supper is also about death, the broken body and the shed blood. 

It is not just about one person dying, however.  It is about others sharing in a particular special death.  They share in the death by eating the bread, which is pronounced equivalent to the broken body, and by drinking the wine from the cup, which is shed blood.  The true point of the supper is giving the bread and the cup to the others.  They will not succeed in staying together, much less in staying with Jesus, through the coming ordeal.  But in this meal they are united with Jesus and in the transcendent event that he lets them feel is happening in their midst. 

Out of the heavy overtones of death there are three positive notes.  He says “Take (the bread).”  The command implies that there is some point to this.  The brokenness leads to something beyond.  And the blood that the wine represents is blood of a “covenant,” of something uniting persons and groups for a future.  Finally, after they drink the wine, Jesus speaks directly of a spectacular future.  “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (verse 25).  He will be gone for a while, death will have its “hour,” but when he returns it will be for the banquet held when the reign of God comes fully. 

That coming banquet time was familiar from a prophecy in Isaiah: 

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples

      a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow,

      of well-aged wines strained clear. 

And he will destroy on this mountain

      the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

      the sheet that is spread over all nations;

      he will swallow up death forever. 

(Isaiah 25:6-8)

In Mark’s simple presentation of the words of the Last Supper, we come closer to transcending death and loss than anywhere else in Mark’s passion narrative – including his account of the empty tomb on Easter. 

Abandonment:  Prophesied and Fulfilled, 14:27-52

(In Gethsemane.  400 words, 21.8%)

Predicting Desertion and Denial, 14:27-31 (79 words, 4.3%).  Many of Jesus’ words in the early Passion narrative are predictions.  The anointing woman’s act will be remembered, the man in the city will lead the disciples to the upper room, one of the twelve will betray him, he will drink wine in the coming reign of God.  Jesus’ word guides and authorizes the events.  Now, with the predictions of the disciples abandoning him and Peter’s denying him, Jesus in effect gives permission for these bad things to happen.  All is within God’s will, to which obviously Jesus has access. 

Leaving the city walls, they move to the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley to the east.  Here Jesus makes the sudden declaration, “You will all become deserters…,” as the NRSV interprets it.  More literally it is “you will be caused to stumble,” and thus often “you will all fall away” (NIV).  This solemn declaration is supported by the first direct quote from the scriptures in Mark’s passion narrative.  “I will strike the shepherd, / and the sheep will be scattered” (verse 27, quoting Zechariah 13:7).  This quotation portrays Jesus and the disciples as re-enacting the destiny of Israel’s king and people.  The king will be struck and the lost sheep will be scattered among the nations.  The desertion of the disciples is not only in accord with Jesus’ word; it is in accord with the word of God in the prophets. 

There is also a positive prediction, though it is virtually an afterthought.  This word anticipates that after their flight the disciples will reassemble in Galilee, where Jesus will lead them himself.  “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (verse 28, NRSV).  This Galilee prediction, which assumes Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, will be reaffirmed at the empty tomb (16:7), but the disciples will not comprehend any of this until much later.  The disciples seem to act in these narratives on the basis of what is happening at the moment, not on what Jesus has prophesied, not on the basis of the overarching sacred drama. 

Peter protests that the prophecy of desertion will not apply to him (verse 29), to which Jesus replies with another prediction – that Peter in particular will deny knowing Jesus that night.  Peter denies this prediction even more vigorously, saying he will die for Jesus first, and the other disciples say likewise. 

All of this reminds the hearer, who knows how this turns out, that the best of intentions and the surest confidence are still in God’s hands.  One lives as a Jesus follower hoping that God will not allow the testing to overwhelm one (the meaning of “lead us not into temptation [literally testing]”).  The proper spirit is better expressed in “Surely, not I?” (verse 19) than in “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (verse 31). 

Prayer and Sleep in the Garden, 14:32-42 (181 words, 9.9%).  In between the prediction of abandonment and its fulfillment is the prayer in the olive grove. 

The Gethsemane prayer scene is the most intimate personal revelation of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.  He is pictured in inner struggle rather than in his more pontifical persona.  It was, therefore, a favorite passage of the old liberal life-of-Jesus writers, who were always seeking the “personality” of Jesus.  Finally they found the real Jesus here. 

The Gethsemane scene is one of the finest pieces of narration in this Gospel.  The drama is superbly unfolded.  The story-teller’s typical three-fold sequence is used as well as it is in the Peter denial story later.  Here, too, there is a dramatic use of space.  The whole scene is set in a garden, that is, within a walled grove.  Inside that there is a place where the other disciples are left (“Sit here while I pray,” verse 32), the outer court of this sanctuary.  Jesus takes the three key disciples further in, where he shares his agony with them, but then himself goes yet further, into the innermost sanctuary as it were.  There, at the holy of holies, Jesus falls in prayer and makes his desperate plea to Father God. 

The portrayal of the very human dread, followed by resignation and acceptance, is profound.  He prayed “that, if possible, the hour might pass from him.  He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want,  but what you want’” (verses 35-36).  (Note the narrative technique:  Mark tells you what Jesus prayed, then he lets you hear the prayer in Jesus’ own words.  Solemn treatment!)

It is noteworthy that there is no response from God.  If you were ever going to have a heavenly voice support Jesus, this seems like a good time.  (One of the scribes copying the Gospel According to Luke couldn’t resist giving Jesus a heavenly answer and wrote how an angel appeared to him at this point and gave him strength, Luke 22:43-44, found only in later manuscripts.  John also has a similar scene with God replying directly to Jesus, John 12:27-30.) 

The only answer Jesus gets is that the disciples have gone to sleep on him!  What Jesus expected of the three key disciples especially was that they “keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (verse 38).  Jesus hoped to be supported in his distress by this prayer-chain of three.  Instead he finds them asleep three times and finally concludes, “Enough!  The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (verse 41). 

The Arrest and Flight, 14:43-52 (140 words, 7.6%).  Judas brings the posse from the high priests, scribes, and elders.  This is Judas’s moment in the Gospel drama.  “Now the betrayer [his function in the crime, not his name] had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’  So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him.  Then they laid hands on him and arrested him” (verses 44-46). 

After Judas’s arrival, the narrative is a bit choppy.  This is the point in the Passion narratives where questions of non-violence come up.  First we have the incident of the sword, which all four Gospels report.  Mark’s version only tells that someone drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave.  In itself this seems incomplete, and the other Gospels all add something else. 

Here, the sword whack is followed only by Jesus’ criticism of his opponents for sneaking up on him with swords and clubs as if he were a bandit instead of arresting him by day in the temple (which is, of course, exactly what the priests were avoiding).  But even this comment by Jesus is only in passing, for he resigns himself to the inevitable, in conformity with the scriptures (“But let the scriptures be fulfilled,” verse 49). 

The conclusion of this scene is the flight of the disciples.  “All of them deserted him and fled” (verse 50).  Done. 

Except that there is another brief astonishing incident.  “A certain young man was following him [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth.  They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (verses 51-52).  What is this oddity?  The other Gospels omit this incident; it is Mark’s only. 

Scripture students concluded long ago that this is the narrator’s signature, written in an obscure corner, as it were.  The John “whose other name was Mark” (Acts 12:12), referred to elsewhere in the New Testament, had a home in Jerusalem.  It was a substantial home, belonging to his mother, and Peter and other early Christians regularly met there (Acts 12:12-14).  Mark was himself a cousin of the apostle Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), and had accompanied Barnabas and sometimes Paul on missionary journeys over the eastern Mediterranean (Acts 13:5, 13; 15:37-39).  Near the end of his life, Paul, writing possibly from Rome, reports “Mark” as a fellow worker who sends greetings to Philemon (Philemon 23-24).  Thus, perhaps, somewhere in the 60’s Mark was present in the Christian churches in Rome.  (If Philemon was written from Ephesus, it would place “Mark” in that city around 57 CE.) 

Critical scholars have doubted that all these references are to the same person – Mark was a very common Roman name.  Still, the range of New Testament references to Mark (more than any other Gospel writer, except John) suggests that in his mature adulthood he was continuously involved in Christian missionary work.  The tradition makes this Gospel his writing, from Rome.  If this is the same person, he would have been a teen-ager at the time of Jesus’ death.  Thus, there is an outside possibility that he had followed the mob led by Judas and got caught in the rush of fleeing disciples at the time of the arrest. 

How otherwise explain this almost absurd little episode?  (That he was Jesus’ homosexual lover smacks rather too much of modern wishful thinking.)  Let’s accept it as Mark’s modest but, somewhat embarrassed, signature that – “I was there also!” 

Jesus’ Trial – and Peter’s, 14:53-72

(Before the High Priest.  350 words, 19.1%)

Exposing Who Jesus Really Is, 14:53-65 (222 words, 12.1%).  The night-time trial of Jesus was the subject of enormous study in the twentieth century, much of it heated without much light.  In general, it is fairly clear that a night session of the Sanhedrin – the highest council of Judean leaders – was illegal.  Furthermore, it would have been impossible on a Passover night.  It is also reasonably clear that the Council did not have legal authority to inflict the death penalty, though they could certainly have made a plan to seek the death penalty from the Romans. 

Mark’s narrative is a reconstruction forty years after the fact, based on events that Jesus followers had come to believe must have happened.  What is really important in the narrative itself is not the legalities of the Judean trial, but the revelation of Jesus’ identity from Jesus’ own mouth. 

The narrative portrays an almost humorous attempt to trump up a charge against Jesus concerning the destruction of the temple.  As presented, those giving “false testimony” against him could not get their act together well enough to condemn him, even in a hostile court!  Only a final show-down between the High Priest and Jesus can reveal the truth – and then only because Jesus must really tell the truth when the Priest puts the question, “Are you the Messiah [the Christ], the Son of the Blessed One?” (verse 61). 

The answer Jesus gives is the first fully public admission of his messiahship in this Gospel.  God, the angels, and the demons knew who Jesus was from the beginning (1:11, 13, and 24).  The disciples had caught on after a long time in Galilee (8:27-30).  Some of the controversies in the temple in the last week certainly hinted at his identity (the parable of the tenants of the vineyard, 12:6-8), but only here with the high priest does Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of Man become fully public and a matter of record.  “Jesus said, ‘I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven’” (verse 62).  Jesus here identifies himself as (1) the one sitting at God’s right hand in Psalm 110:1, and (2) the one coming on the clouds of heaven with dominion over the principalities, powers, and nations in Daniel 7:13-14.  By these scriptures he is definitely Messiah and Son of Man. 

As Judas solved the priests’ problem of how to capture Jesus, so Jesus himself solves their problem of how to condemn him.  “Why do we still need witnesses?  You have heard his blasphemy!  What is your decision?” (verses 63-64).  The decision is that he “deserves death.”  If Jesus has admitted being the Messiah, he can be accused to the Romans as claiming to be a king!  And Jesus will indeed be condemned as “the King of the Judeans,” convicted, as Mark presents it, on his own testimony. 

Peter Fails His Trial, 14:66-72 (128 words, 7.0%).  The denial story is superbly told.  The opening line was given before the narrative of Jesus’ trial (verse 54) – the “sandwich” technique again.  Peter is confronted by a persistent slave girl.  “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth” (verse 67).  He denies it and moves to the outer court, where the cock crows the first time.  She follows him and repeats her accusation.  He denies again, but others have begun to notice him.  They join in accusing him, citing his Galilean identity (probably his accent) as linking him to Jesus (verse 70).  After a more violent denial with curses and oaths, he hears the cock crow again.  He is undone, remembering what Jesus had predicted, and “he broke down and wept.” 

Traditional interpreters have always said that Peter himself told this story of his denial.  Whether it was personal experience or not, it is a powerful confession of the weakness of the best available men in the face of the trials that following Jesus may bring!  At least before Jesus’ resurrection. 

Tried, Condemned, and Mocked, 15:1-20

(Before Pilate.  236 words, 12.9%)

The Accusation, 15:1-5 (71 words).  When morning comes, the priests gather all their allies comprising the Jerusalem Council and then “hand over” Jesus to the Roman prefect, Pilate.  The main accusation is that Jesus claims to be a king. 

We do not hear the Judean leaders state the charge, but it is assumed in Pilate’s question to Jesus:  “Are you the King of the Judeans?” (verse 2).  Jesus’ reply seems ambiguous.  “You say so.”  Commentators think this is neither a denial nor an affirmation, but leans toward an affirmation.  It seems to be something like our, “Whatever you say.”  The narrative says that the chief priests also accused him of other things, but Jesus does not deign to reply to them, which amazes Pilate. 

What the People Wanted, 15:6-15 (96 words).  The trial scene expands to include, not just the Council, but a large crowd of people.  They are involved (according to this narrative) because it is the first day of a festival and one prisoner held by the Romans may be released from custody upon popular request (verse 6.  No such practice is known from historical records.).  Thus, Pilate offers Jesus to the people as the candidate for release (verse 9), but the people, egged on by the chief priests, ask for Bar-abbás instead.  Bar-abbás was a terrorist convicted of assassinations. 

What then should be done with Jesus, "the king of the Judeans"? 

Here is where the Gospel narrators make the crowd of Judean people (manipulated, indeed, by the high priests) finally responsible for Jesus’ death.  They represent Pilate as willing to let Jesus off, but “the crowd” demanded that he be crucified.  “Why, what evil has he done?” replies Pilate.  “But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Bar-abbás for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (verses 14-15). 

The Mocking of a King, 15:16-20 (69 words).  The mocking of Jesus is clearly ironic.  One being pantomimed as a fake king is in reality the true king.  This is clear throughout to the hearers of the narrative. 

After the flogging that Pilate had ordered, the Roman soldiers dress up Jesus in a purple robe, put a crown of thorns on his head, and engage in mock obeisance before him, whacking him with a reed that might have been his scepter.  “Hail, King of the Judeans!” they tease (verse 18).  When they grow weary of this sport they put his old clothes back on him and take him out to be crucified. 

The Crucifixion, 15:21-41

(At Golgotha.  302 words, 16.4%)

The Deed, with Brief Details, 15:21-24 (55 words).  The narrative of these events had become widespread in Christian circles.  Occasionally, well-known people were mentioned as associated with it.  One drafted to carry the cross-bar out to the execution place for Jesus (implying that Jesus could not do it?) was “Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus” (verse 21).  Such references give us clues to the later expansion of the Jesus followers.  

Cyrene was in north Africa, roughly the northeast coast of modern Libya.  There was a large population of Judeans in Cyrene, and Simon was understood to be visiting in Jerusalem, or resident there on business.  In any case, his sons Alexander and Rufus (the second generation of Jesus followers) were apparently known to the hearers of this narrative.   In Romans 16:13 Paul wrote (to either the Roman churches or the Ephesian churches), “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother – a mother to me also.”  While Rufus was not an uncommon name, there could be a link, particularly if both Mark and Romans 16 reflect the Roman communities.    

The place of the execution was Golgotha, a hill named for its skull shape, apparently.  Jesus was offered the standard drugs to counter the pain, but he refused them (verse 23). 

In one brief clause the deed occurs:  “they crucified him.”  The narrative is more interested in the division of his clothes than in the crucifixion itself.  From the Gospels we would learn little about the technology of crucifixion. 

The dividing of the clothes was according to scripture.  “They divide my clothes among themselves, / and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:18).  Mark does not quote the scripture passage explicitly here (verse 24), but the narrative is designed for a teacher to elaborate on it when instructing people in the story of Jesus. 

Mocking the Crucified, 15:25-32 (98 words).  From here on Mark starts keeping a close clock on the crucifixion.  The actual crucifixion – hanging Jesus on the cross – happened at nine o’clock in the morning (verse 25; Greek reads “the third hour”).  Jesus will die shortly after three in the afternoon (a quick death, by crucifixion standards). 

His crime was posted on the cross with him:  “The King of the Judeans.”  Two condemned terrorists were crucified with him, one on each side (“he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors,” Isaiah 53:12, another text not explicitly quoted, but available for teachers to discuss with new converts learning the story). 

In the meantime, bystanders and enemies make mockery over his fate. 

·        You who would replace the temple, “save yourself and come down from the cross” (verses 29-30). 

·        The priests taunted, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” 

·        “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe” (verse 32; the irony here is particularly intense). 

·        Those who were crucified with him also taunted him (verse 32). 

The Death and Its Echoes, 15:33-41 (149 words).  At noon the heavens began to participate in the sacred crisis.  “Darkness came over the whole land [earth]” for three hours.  Three in the afternoon was the great moment of god forsakenness.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This is a quotation of the opening of Psalm 22, and the narrative is certainly prompting one to remember how the entire psalm goes (concluding with a glorious recovery and reign over the peoples).  Still, this is an extremely stark and despairing outcry, and it is Jesus’ only intelligible speech from the cross in Mark.  Standing alone, this cry means that Jesus experienced the total despair of being abandoned, not only by all humans but by the Father God. 

The first words of the psalm Jesus quotes have a sound similar to the name Elijah.  That explains the play by bystanders who want to wait and see if “Elijah” answers him.  This is one last twist of mockery.  Now Jesus gives a terminal scream and dies. 

The narrator reports two immediate consequences – one supernatural, the other surprisingly human.  The curtain of the holy place in the temple is split from top to bottom (verse 38).  This is, of course, a symbolic event.  The most holy place in the temple is exposed.  The mystery is no longer located there.  The implication is that a new means of access to God is becoming available.  The old way is abolished; the reign of God will be manifest in other ways (in Galilee, no doubt, from Mark’s viewpoint). 

Secondly, the centurion who was in command of the execution squad, seeing how Jesus died, confesses, “Truly this man was God’s son!” (verse 39).  Commentators have often noted that this is the true climax of Mark’s Gospel.  A non-Judean, professional soldier, employee of the empire, says out loud what God, demons, disciples, and joyous crowds had declared earlier, that this was “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). 

Returning to the scene at Golgotha, the narrative notices some onlookers who were not mocking.  These are the women, looking on from a distance (verse 40).  “These [women] used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee,” and we learn here that they have followed to Jerusalem.  Three women are named here:  (1) Mary Magdalene; (2) another Mary, identified as the mother of the disciple “James the younger” and of Joses, not known as a disciple; and (3) Salome, whom some later traditions identify as the mother of James and John, “the sons of thunder,” and therefore wife of Zebedee.  These women provide the link between the totally abandoned Jesus and the revelation at the empty tomb. 

The Burial, 15:42-47

(With Joseph of Arimathea.  101 words, 5.4%)

The narrative of the burial is the solo performance by a man who appears nowhere else.  Joseph of Arimathea, another one of those friends of Jesus in Jerusalem who keep appearing from the woodwork in Mark.  Joseph “was a respected member of the council” and was one who was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (verse 43), which presumably means he had listened hard to Jesus and is here contributing to the cause.  As a man of standing, he has access to Pilate, and gets the favor of a rapid release of Jesus’ body for burial. 

We hear that Pilate, surprised that Jesus could have died so soon, consults the centurion to confirm Jesus’ death – a point of some importance to Mark, because doubters would soon appear denying that Jesus had really died.  Joseph then purchased the linen cloth for the body (a cloth that would turn up centuries later at Turin, as some of the faithful believe), and placed the body in a tomb carved in the stone hillside.  A large stone was rolled in front of the opening of the tomb to seal it from intruders. 

The passion narrative concludes with a note anticipating Easter morning, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid” (verse 47). 


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