Tuesday before Easter


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For the Epistle
Isaiah 50:5-11
Mark 15:1-39

One of the major differences between the Passion narratives is the depiction of Pilate. In Matthew he is obfuscating and cowardly (cf Sunday Next before Easter), in Luke, as we shall see (cf. Thursday before Easter), he is a rounded, even complex figure and in John (cf Good Friday) his behaviour is sarcastic and theatrical but in Mark he is a straightforward, pragmatic Roman. Pilate follows the procedure, asks the questions, weighs the weak legal argument (Jesus is prepared to proclaim himself to the religious authorities but not to Pilate) and the strong political imperative of keeping his fractious subjects quiet and then makes a sharp, definite decision. One gets the impression that he is not very much bothered either way and that if the factors were differently weighted he would have made a different decision. The soldiers take Jesus to their barracks for a bit of sadistic fun which immediately brings to mind our “Suffering Servant” passage from Isaiah (cf Isaiah 42:1-4, Isaiah 49:1-6, Isaiah 50:4-9, Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12). Like Jesus, the figure in Isaiah presents his back for beating, his cheek for plucking and his face for spitting. The soldiers, well aware of Jesus’ claim of kingship reported uncritically by Pilate in spite of Jesus’ silence on the point, set him up as a mock king. Against the background of notorious Jewish antagonism to Roman rule, this piece of political pantomime was important in strengthening the flimsy case for summary execution. Then Jesus is led out, assisted in carry his cross beam by a stranger from Cyrene whose sons, Rufus and Alexander, went on to be adherents of the early church (Romans 16:13), underlining the effect Jesus had on their father, Simon. Contrary to a plethora of misleading painting (summed up in the hymn “There is a green hill far away”) Jesus was crucified at the Jerusalem rubbish tip; a kind attempt was made to drug him but he refused; and his garments were divided amongst the soldiers (cf Psalm 22:18) but it was their Centurion who recognised him as the Son of God after his death. The kingship theme is reiterated in the superscription, the mocking continues, coupling the religious authorities and the thieves, and there is the curious episode of the cry of Jesus to the Father being mistaken for an appeal to the Prophet Elijah whose reappearance was supposed by some to be a necessary precursor to the arrival of the Messiah.

We know so much about the Passion of Jesus compared with the rest of his life but so little of the detail is consistent over all four accounts that it is tempting to try to assemble a consistent, combined narrative but this ‘historicist’ approach has severe theological limitations. What matters in the different accounts is why the Evangelists selected their material. Mark’s spare style belies a deep theological purpose set out in 1.1: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, the very words used by the Centurion in the last verse concerning Jesus’ life as a human like us. This uncomplicated approach, so different from the dialogues between Jesus and the Jews in John, allows Mark to lay out his material in a series of sharp observations which give the story a dramatic momentum which moves with inevitable assurance to its climax.

The cry of Jesus: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” has been the subject of deep controversy, epitomised in Albert Schweitzer’s thesis (The Search for The Historical Jesus) that Jesus the man, voluntarily deprived of his godly foreknowledge, thought that his mission had failed but as almost every detail of this account refers to Old Testament sources it would seem unfair not to apply the same criterion here. The call upon God in moments of despair is a common feature of the prophesies of Isaiah and Jeremiah which form the material out of which the Passion narratives are wrought and so it is natural for Jesus to cite the opening verse of Psalm 22. The reward of the “Suffering Servant” is Isaiah for his humility and patience pre-figures the Resurrection which is the definitive answer to Schweitzer.

The complaint of Jesus serves the important function of reminding us that Jesus was a human being who suffered all the humiliation and pain which Mark describes. His unfathomable purity and flawless obedience may tempt us to see the Passion narratives as a series of symbolic, scripturally derived tableaux rather than as a series of cynical, sadistic, humiliating, excruciatingly painful events, combining the worst mental and physical cruelty that man could devise. This real man, who preached a Gospel of repentance and humility was killed because his very goodness was a goad to those who knew they should do better. In a way that was inevitable from the start, the confrontation between a loving Jesus and a hating world was bound to end this way but just as our shortcomings are real, so was the pain he felt for us. On the other hand the reality of Jesus’ suffering has been brought home by the last Century’s shared catastrophes which led to the idea that Jesus is always to be found among the suffering who can take comfort from his presence with them; not only does he suffer for us but with us.

Another form of distancing is to think that only a highly specific section of the human race, at a given place and time, caused the death of our Saviour. As we are indivisible in creation and all equally flawed, we must all bear our guilt; in a sense which it is not easy to impart with the necessary impact, we are all still hammering in the nails.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Consider the different ‘faces’ of Pilate in the four Gospels and other sources
  2. Why was Elijah so significant for Jesus’ contemporaries?
  3. What does Mark’s account owe to Isaiah and Jeremiah?
  4. Does Albert Schweitzer have a point?
  5. Mark’s Passion is stylistically simple but cinematically powerful.

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)