All Seems Lost: All is About to Begin
Palm Sunday Year B
Mark 15: 1 — 39
From "The Light of Christ"
At this time of the Christian Church calendar — the start of Holy Week which leads to Easter — it is traditional to read the long Gospel account of Jesus' suffering, trial, and death. In our meditation we can only read a portion of this. Even so, our reading is 3 or 4 times the normal length. So on this occasion we will give more time to reading and a little less to commentary. The passage could be a "Good Friday" meditation for those who wish to spend some time in solitude, reflecting on this great event.
Some Notes On Our Text
The Roman business day started at dawn and the Sanhedrin had to be ready by then with their strategy. Pilate had a reputation for being tough and cruel, but he was not a "monster". The Gospels raise the question: was he different from us?
The first question addressed to Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" indicates the procurator had already read or heard the charges against Jesus. Pilate refers to the main offence: that Jesus claimed to be King. Actually, Jesus has claimed to be King of Israel (I.e. the Messiah) never King of the Jews. This was a political strategy of the Jewish authorities, and it labelled Jesus as a leader of resistance. Jesus does not say "Yes" but "It is you that say it".
Note the reservation in Jesus' reply. His meaning of kingship did not correspond to the question. Pilate picked this up immediately and did not proceed with the sentence. Instead he tests the purposes of Jesus' accusers.
Verses 3 — 5
The authorities have a list of trumped up charges but their case is a shambles, as Pilate's next question indicates. In response, Jesus remains silent in humble obedience. The presence and dignity of Jesus puzzle Pilate.
Verses 6 — 10
Pilate did not believe Jesus was guilty and tries to find a compromise.
It is quite obvious the authorities are using the situation to suit their hidden aims. Pilate is well aware that their fanatical abhorrence of Jesus' alleged treason does not arise out of a loyalty to Rome. He sees this as an excellent opportunity for him to treat them with all the contempt he had for this "obstreperous" and rebellious race. As usual, he underestimates their ability to out-manoeuvre him.
Verses 11 — 14
The crowd despise his taunt about releasing the King of the Jews. They demand Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus.
Verses 15 — 19
Pilate makes his mind up quickly to avoid any further disruption and danger to his own position. He convicts Jesus, and we know what would have been said: "Illum duci ad crucem placet." "The sentence is that this man should be taken to a cross". He also has him scourged. A Roman scourging was a terrifying punishment. The victim was stripped, bound to a post or pillar, or sometimes simply thrown to the ground, and was beaten by a number of guards until his flesh hung in bleeding shreds. The instrument indicated in Mark's text was the dreaded "Flagellum", a scourge existing of leather thongs plaited with several pieces of bone or lead so as to form a chain. (Paragraph based on William Barclay.)
For a while Jesus becomes the plaything of the bored soldiers. They jibe him: not, "Hail Caesar", but "Hail King of the Jews". Presumably he is naked, so they throw a faded scarlet cloak or a shabby purple rug over his body, and press down on his head a wreath plaitted from local palm spines. Not only do they mock Jesus, but they are extremely brutal.
Verses 20 and 21
So far Jesus has quietly suffered an unjust prosecution, a cruel scourging and the mocking of soldiers. Finally his clothes are put back on him and he is led out to be crucified. Death by crucifixion was considered the most cruel and degrading form of punishment. Apparently it was used more commonly with Jews because of their refusal to accept Roman domination. Generally only slaves and the most despised criminals were executed in this way.
Jesus had been expected to carry his cross but was too weakened by all that had occurred. Simon, a Jew from Cyrene in Libya, then in Jerusalem for Passover, was ordered to help Jesus. His sons became members of the infant Church, and so we can see how Simon was never the same after this experience.
Verses 22 — 28
Jesus is led out to the city dump where most executions took place. In an act of mercy he is offered drugged wine, but he declines it.
Then they crucify Jesus. Hardly a word is written about it. None was necessary. Everyone knew all the gruesome details. Jesus is stripped again, his outstretched arms nailed to the cross beam. Nailing rather than tying would have hastened exhaustion due to loss of blood. As a final insult, he is placed between two robbers. But he has always chosen to be among the needy!
Men were ordinarily crucified naked. It is possible that Roman practice sometimes gave in to Jewish sensitivities about nakedness. Even if Jesus was allowed a loin-cloth, this would still have been considered nakedness.
Verse 28 is considered by most scholars today, to have been inserted later. Note it is omitted in most modern versions, though there are also good grounds for leaving it in.
Verses 29 — 32
The words of Jesus three years earlier are thrown back in his face. The only path by which to save others was to refuse to save himself (Mk 8: 35). He practises now what he once preached.
Verses 33 — 39
At midday it grew very dark. Even if this was caused by the Khamsin, a hot, dust-laden wind from the south, the precision timing was a miracle.
Three hours later, Jesus calls out "Eloi, Eloi". He begins to recite Psalm 22 in his own homely Aramaic. But he is not despairing. The whole psalm is in his heart, in particular the last third.
When some bystanders thought he was calling on Elijah, they were not ridiculing him. The din would have been terrible, and their error an honest one.
With a loud cry Jesus "breathed out" his life (literally). Let us remember, no one took Jesus' life from him: of his own free will he laid it down (John 10: 18).
The Centurion, a hardened man, had seen many die, but never one like this. Jesus demonstrated perfect submission, yet complete control, until the end. This Gentile becomes the first human to confess that Jesus is the Son of God. The death of Jesus is the climax of the whole gospel. Yet at that very moment, a Roman soldier's utterance points to a new era. All seems lost. All is about to begin.
Some Reflections On the Crucifixion of Jesus
If someone asked us the question: "What do you notice about Jesus' behaviour in this account?" we would easily praise him for his self control, his humility, his determination, his trust in God, his refusal to deaden the pain with a drugged drink, and other impressive achievements. One of his strengths which may not be so obvious is his ability to remain silent, even when greatly provoked. In all of the trial and subsequent actions Jesus speaks only 3 times. We will focus our attention on these briefly as our meditation material especially as his overall silence makes them stand out as very significant moments.
First Time Jesus Spoke.
Our Gospel account shows that Jesus is handed over to Pilate "very early in the morning". When Pilate is ready to see him, Jesus is brought in and interrogated. Pilate goes straight to the point: "Are you the King of the Jews?" To this Jesus replies not "Yes" as in our text, but more correctly, "Well, you're the one saying it." The onlookers are quick to call out their charges against Jesus. "For goodness sake" remarks Pilate, "Can't you hear all the things they are laying against you! I know just as well as you that the charges are fabricated. But if you don't say anything, I have no choice but to convict you." Mark notes in Verse 5, "But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed".
Second Time Jesus Spoke.
Recall that Jesus was crucified at the 3rd hour (9 am). At the 6th hour (12 noon), darkness covered Judea. At the 9th hour (i.e. 3pm) we hear Jesus speak the second time. His words were the opening of psalm 22 "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me"? We do not know if he recited only that line. The early church tended to hold that he was reciting interiorly the whole psalm — or at least had it in mind. It would therefore pay us to read it, noting that while it reflects the deepest desolation, it climaxes in an exciting expression of confidence and hope. (Read Ps 22 or part up to V 21, then 22 to end.) Let's remember Jesus has survived a brutal scourging which often left the victim dead or near death. Yet he was able to speak out Ps 22 "in a loud voice."
Third Time Jesus Spoke.
A few moments later Jesus speaks for the last time. He gives a loud cry, and breathes his last. Note again, it was in a loud voice. This is unique at a crucifixion. Despite all the taunts, he is in complete control until the end. What we must remember is that no one took Jesus' life from him. He gave it of his own free will. The text means more than "he died". It means "he breathed out his life", or as is sometimes translated, he gave up his spirit. The infant church was quick to see in this the sign of something even greater yet to come. In less than 48 — 50 hours he will breathe out his life into his disciples. Of all people, it is a rough, tough, hardened pagan centurion who is the first person to publicly acknowledge Jesus for what he was — a title which St. Mark used to open his Gospel in Verse 1; a title we continue to use today.
This is a great model for Jesus' modern followers to recall frequently; not just at Easter time.
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