Part Two of The Death of the Messiah can be found here:
In Part One I introduce this series on The Death of the Messiah. I point out that, while we may think there is only one story of the death of the Messiah, repeated four times, in fact there are four different renditions of the story of Jesus' death, both in the details and in the portrait of Jesus presented. I also said that there is also a fifth rendition: the one that we create from the other four.
I point out that these Gospel stories were divinely inspired and that God was therefore, both mindful of the inconsistencies in the stories, and intentional in his/her inspiration, in that God wants us to be able to see Jesus' death from four unique vantage points.
We do not improve on the Gospel accounts by trying to harmonize them, regardless how tempting it is to try to do so. Ultimately, all attempts at harmonizing the Gospels fail and never give a true picture of what God is saying to us in those sacred texts.
This fact, however, gives ulcers to many who believe that the stories of Jesus must all be clear, concise, neat and without factual disagreement. Part of the problem for such people is that they insist on viewing the Gospels as history, which they are not. They are theology told in narratives, stories, and are kerygma, proclamation of the Good News of Jesus the Christ.
In Part Two, using two major examples of the differences in three of the Gospel accounts of the Death of the Messiah, we explored my contention that it is good to have four differing Gospel accounts. Having four different depictions of both the narratives of the stories and then seeing how Jesus reacts to essentially the same events allows us to see that Jesus is a far more complex character than the portrait we often hold of him.
And each of the four Gospel accounts paint a part of Jesus that appeals to different people, and even to the same person at different stages in his or her life.
We finished Part Two looking at a short but profound conclusion by Dr. Raymond Brown: "To choose one portrayal of the crucified Jesus in a manner that would exclude the other portrayals or to harmonize all the Gospel portrayals into one would deprive the cross of much of its meaning. It is important that some be able to see the head bowed in dejection, while others observe the arms outstretched in forgiveness, and still others perceive in the title on the cross the proclamation of a reigning king."
Today we are going to look at Mark's account of the Death of the Messiah in some detail. As we saw last week, Mark, the earliest Gospel written, portrays a scene of stark human abandonment of Jesus.
And, of all the Gospels, Mark portrays a very human, very vulnerable Jesus. His portrayal of Jesus, the disciples, and all of the actors in this drama of death, shows people in all of their human frailty, in their evil plotting and their despicable actions. In the end, Mark shows that we all, even Jesus, have no choice but to depend on God.
In my opinion, Mark gives us deep insights into the hearts and minds of men and woman, and explores the depths of the human condition like no other Gospel.
So here we are now looking together at a very human and very vulnerable Jesus surrounded by disciples who are ordinary and, usually, not very bright disciples. One professor of mine called the disciples as portrayed in Mark, DUH-ciples.
Some may feel uncomfortable with the intellectually dense disciples portrayed in Mark, and even with the very vulnerable, very human Jesus who feels and acts much like we might in similar circumstances.
Mark's Jesus is very aware of what he must do, but he agonizes over it, and, at one point, begs God to let it pass him by. Mark's Jesus shows great courage in the face of personal fear and doubt and commits himself to God even knowing it will mean his death. In the end he is, in fact, abandoned by all who followed him, and Jesus even despairs that he has been abandoned by God.
Of course, we know that was not so; but Mark gives absolutely no indication that Jesus knew that. Still, he remained faithful to God even to his last breath.
Jesus is aware from the beginning of Mark's Gospel that his preaching of the coming Kingdom of God is going to get him killed. As early as the third chapter, Mark tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians were plotting to destroy him.
Jesus himself predicts His own violent death three times, long before the actual event. Yet the disciples did not understand, failed to understand, refused to understand, and did not want to understand.
Then Jesus arrives in Jerusalem intent on purifying the Temple, and it all comes to a head as the priests and scribes plot to destroy him, exactly as the Pharisees and Herodians had been doing from the beginning.
There are other hints. A woman admirer anoints His body with oil, a sign of preparing him for His death. Judas plots to betray him, and Jesus, aware of the plot, at the Last Supper indicates His willingness to pour out his blood as a sign of the New Covenant God is offering to the people.
Thus, as he leaves the Upper Room and goes to pray on the Mount of Olives, Jesus understands the necessity of his suffering and death. But the disciples do not understand and he knows it, just as he knows that they will all abandon him, telling them that they all will be scattered.
They deny any such possibility, especially Peter. But Jesus tells Peter he will be particularly unfaithful and will deny Jesus three times. On this gloomy note the Passion in Mark begins, and it will only get darker, until, on the following day, Jesus will die with no support at all from those who followed him. He will die alone.
This tragic scenario is almost too much even for Jesus. In Gethsemene Jesus confesses to the disciples, "My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death," and he asks them to stay near him while he goes to pray, admonishing them to stay awake.
Then, he goes and prays, asking God that the cup of death might pass him by; yet saying that he will do the will of the Father regardless. There is no response from God, but Jesus accepts the will of God implied by the silence from heaven, and prepares to meet his enemies, knowing he will die.
He is resigned to his fate, even as he is disturbed that the disciples can not even stay awake while he is in this agony. They are physically present, but already have symbolically abandoned him while they sleep.
His resignation to his fate is clear. Only in Mark does Jesus fail to respond to Judas' kiss, or to the striking of the slave of the High Priest on the ear by a bystander. He does nothing to save himself, saying simply, "Let the Scriptures be fulfilled." The disciples and all the followers flee.
One, a young man, once intent on following him, flees so quickly and in such fear that he leaves his captors clinging to his clothes, running away naked, saving his skin, symbolic of the total abandonment of Jesus by all who intended to follow him.
Jesus will face death, the ultimate evil, alone. That is the clear message of Mark.
The pace now quickens and Mark takes us immediately to the trial by the Sanhedrin, the governing Jewish body in Jerusalem. What goes on in the trial is juxtaposed sharply against what is happening in the courtyard outside the trial chamber.
In the chamber the chief priests, elders and scribes hear testimony against Jesus, which Mark calls "false" testimony, which does not agree on any factual details. We are not told the nature of the false testimony. But the high priest is annoyed by both the ineptitude of the witnesses and the silence of Jesus.
Trying to force an answer from Jesus he asks, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One." And, startlingly, Jesus answers for the first time in this Gospel, "I am." Until now Jesus had made no such claim, although we who have read Mark already know it from what God had said to him at his baptism and to the three disciples at the Transfiguration.
But far more damning to Jesus is that he does not stop there but says that he, the Son of Man, will be seated at God's right hand and will come again on the clouds of heaven. This is too much for the high priest, who declares that statement blasphemy, whereupon all of the members of the Sanhedrin condemn him as deserving of death.
Some then spit on him and blindfold him, beating him and screaming at him to prophesy. All of which is ironic for that is precisely what he has just done, and none of them believed it!
Thus, the themes which have already emerged earlier in the Gospel here coalesce: destroying the Temple, acknowledging Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Yet, in Mark, still, nobody believes it.
In stark contrast to Jesus' faithful willingness to go the last mile for God is the scene outside the chamber of the Sanhedrin, in the court yard, where Peter has hesitantly followed Jesus at a distance. In the chamber, Jesus confesses who he is; while outside his prime disciple denies him.
As predicted by Jesus, Peter denies him not once, but three times, finally swearing an oath that he does not even know Jesus. When the cock crows, Peter realizes his sin, and weeps.
The irony is complete: Jesus is beaten and ordered to prophesy which he has already done but none believed him, and, meanwhile, other of his prophesies are coming true in the court yard.
Rather than kill Jesus themselves by stoning, which was allowed under Jewish law, the Sanhedrin instead bind him and hand him over to Pilate, the Roman Governor. Mark gives us no indication why.
But the effect is dramatic and interesting, if usually unnoticed. Up to now the condemnations against Jesus have been theological: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?" "Do you intend to destroy the Temple?" These are religious questions.
Pilate knows about and cares nothing about such questions. His concerns are strictly political, reflecting the concern of the Roman occupying force for stability in this conquered land: "Are you the King of the Jews?"
Now, neither Jesus nor anyone else has ever before made such a claim. Jesus refuses to take the bait, answering only "You say so;" which really isn't an answer because Pilate has actually not said that he thought that to be true. Pilate pushes him to say something, to answer the many charges the Jewish leaders have brought against him. But Jesus says nothing.
At this point there is no indication that the Sanhedrin has convinced Pilate to do anything with Jesus; but it is here that the crowd comes into play. It was the custom to release one prisoner to the crowd at Passover and Pilate asked did they wish to have the "King of the Jews," Jesus, released, or Barabbas, a rebel, part of an insurrection against Roman rule. The crowd demanded Barabbas.
Pilate, wishing perhaps to remove the decision from himself, asks them what to do with Jesus and they all shout "Crucify him!" And Pilate, apparently surprised at the harshness of their verdict says, "Why? What evil has he done?" They gave no answer; shouting again, "Crucify him?"
Mark tells us nothing of Pilate's thoughts but only that, to satisfy the crowd, he released Jesus to be flogged and then crucified.
Once again, in this scene as in the others, no one looks good except Jesus. Pilate appears weak, almost threatened by the crowd. He makes no attempt to get to the bottom of the issue; certainly makes no attempt to achieve any kind of justice: he simply wants to pacify the crowd.
First the disciple, Judas, betrays him, then the disciples all run away; Peter denies him; witnesses accuse him falsely; the high priest condemns him, as does the whole Sanhedrin to a man; the crowd turns against him, Pilate sentences him to flogging and crucifixion; the soldiers beat him, mock him, spit on him (as had the Sanhedrin) and lead him to his death.
Thus, both trials end in betrayal and mockery. And all: disciple, Jewish leaders, crowd, Roman Governor, and Roman soldiers share in the shame and guilt of desertion, betrayal, accusation, and condemnation of the Son of God. Mark wants to drive that point home and does so with dramatic clarity.
The soldiers enlist Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross, implying that the beating had made it impossible for Jesus to carry it Himself. On reaching Golgotha they offer him a bitter drink, which he refuses, and then they crucify him.
Mark, who often aligns things in threes, divides the time on the cross into three periods. They crucify him at 9 in the morning, darkness overcomes the land at noon, and at 3 in the afternoon Jesus dies.
The title, "King of the Jews" is mockingly nailed to the Cross; but Mark does not see it as an ironic symbol, but rather calls it "a charge against him." For the first three hours no human being shows Jesus the slightest sympathy, not the soldiers, nor the crowd, nor the passers-by, nor the chief priests and scribes who came to watch the spectacle.
All mocked him, telling him to save Himself and come down from the cross, if he be the Messiah. Even the two bandits crucified with him taunted him. Not one of his disciples came to the cross to be with him in his last hours.
Even nature itself seemed to abandon him, as the sun was overcome and darkness fell over the whole of the land for the next three hours. And in the darkness Jesus hung there alone, abandoned by all who ever claimed to love him.
And finally, mercifully, it is over, as, at 3 o'clock, Jesus cries out with a loud voice the only words Mark reports: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" These words are not new to Jesus. They are the opening words to Psalm 22.
We should not try to soften these words, as hard as it might be for us to believe that Jesus could possibly feel abandoned by his own Father. But the words are there; God wants us to hear them.
Shortly thereafter Jesus lets out a loud cry, not of words, just of agony, and dies. Jesus dies, alone, abandoned by his friends, seemingly abandoned by God. Mark is quite clear that Jesus thought God had forsaken him.
This made the other Gospel writers very nervous, even as it might make some of us nervous even now. And so they changed the final scene considerably from what Mark reports.
Our job now is to hear those words and to ponder them; not to try to rewrite the Bible or to try to justify them, saying that he didn't mean them or coming up with some other such nonsense to correct Mark. Our job is to try to understand the depths of despair that Jesus felt; this very brave, very faithful, very human Jesus we see here hanging on that tree.
God's reply to Jesus' death is immediate, abrupt: the moment Jesus dies the curtain of the temple is split in two, from top to bottom, a violent rending, symbolic of Jesus' claim that he would tear down this Temple "made with hands."
This huge, dense curtain was actually a mammoth drapery, over a foot thick, and was to keep everyone except the High Priest from going into the inner sanctum said to be where God dwelt.
Here Mark, not with words, but with the mental picture of the Temple Curtain, had created a significant theological picture. Rending that Curtain in two symbolizes that no more will access to God be restricted to a chosen few allowed to enter the "Holy of Holies."
From that time forward people will come to a new temple, one "not made with hands," but rather one build upon the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus is the new Temple, built to receive those who show faith in the One who died to save us from ourselves, and from the sin within us.
Mark seldom speaks of directly in theological terms, rather he lets the theology be found in the mental pictures his writing portrays. Thus he moves quickly to another great theological truth that he lets someone else speak.
Startlingly, an outsider comes immediately into the picture of the Crucifixion, not a disciple, not even a Jew, in no way an "insider," but a Gentile, a Roman centurion, who stands at the foot of the cross and says what no man, disciple or priest, had ever before figured out in the entire telling of Mark's Gospel: "Truly, this man was the Son of God."
In a single moment God has vindicated Jesus; replacing the Temple as the center of worship and offering in its place Gods' own Son, who will be confessed as Lord, by Jew and Gentile alike.
And, as irony piles on irony, we are told that while the disciples, who were all men, fled in cowardly retreat, standing in the distance are three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Joses, and Salome; three who had followed him in Galilee and had provided for him when he was going about his ministry.
Unlike the core group of male disciples, these three female disciples, and some other women, while not coming to the Cross to share his agony with Jesus, at least looked on, waited and watched. They did not flee and totally abandon him as did the others.
And there was one other, Joseph of Arimathea, who showed some courage, which only Mark sees that way. Indeed, it must have been courage and perhaps some remorse, because Mark has told us that all of the Sanhedrin, of which Joseph was a member, had found Jesus deserving of death.
But Mark tells us now that Joseph went "boldly" to Pilate to ask for Jesus' body. Only in Mark does Pilate question whether Jesus is really dead; and, assured by the centurion that he is dead, he granted the body to Joseph for burial.
Joseph took the body down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a rock hewn tomb. Then he rolled a stone in front of the tomb entrance. Preparing us for the resurrection, Mark tells us that the two Marys followed and saw where the body was laid.
On Sunday morning they will return to the tomb and find it empty. For Mark, the story of Jesus' death can not end with his burial, but with his resurrection.
Mark, more than any of the other Gospel writers, emphasizes the importance of the Passion. The Roman centurion's words dramatize the very Marcan idea that people cannot truly know who Jesus is until the death of the Messiah. As reported by Mark, People may think they know; and they can guess, but, until the death of Jesus, no one really knows who he is.
Mark clearly implies that one can become a true disciple, a faithful and brave disciple, only through understanding the suffering symbolized by a Cross which strips away all human support systems and makes one totally dependent upon God. To Mark, keeping the faith is this recognition of our total dependence on God.
For Mark salvation comes not from "coming down from the cross" as Jesus was taunted to do; but from acceptance of the cross and all that entails.
Mark's community was one suffering from great persecution. As Dr. Brown says, "the gospel or 'Good News' for them was that this trial and suffering was not a defeat but a salvific example of taking up the cross and following Jesus."
Most of us do not live in suffering and persecuted communities. So perhaps an additional question for us is whether we can, accustomed as we are to great material pleasure, and not being used to suffering for the sake of Christ, find in Mark's description of the Passion a passion of our own for taking up our cross and carrying it in his name.
While we may not know such suffering ourselves, we do not have to look far to find millions who do suffer from the burdens of their own unjust crosses. Doing something about that can be a way we can begin to know what it means to others who, though innocent, to this day bear crosses not of their own making.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer once said that Jesus calls us to "come die with me." We are far removed from such drastic action in our every day lives. But there are many who do die without help or hope. And so the call remains. "Take up you cross and follow me" is still the word to us from the Christ.
Part Four, the final part, on Luke, will be posted in a week.
God bless you all.
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