Commentary on Mark 15:16-39
Unvarnished and raw: that’s how Mark recounts Jesus’ death. More than any other evangelist, Mark drives the church into the heart of its gospel in all its horror and wonder.
Every temptation to prettify it should be resisted.
Attraction to Jesus is hyperbolic in Mark (1:28, 45; 3:7-8); 15:16-20 reverses the polarity by spotlighting a huge gang’s enmity. Easy on the sadism, Mark magnifies Jesus’ humiliation: draped in royal purple, crowned with thorns (15:17) with the reed as a faux scepter (15:19), and a faithless “Hail [to] the King of the Jews” (15:18). “Bending [of] their knees” (15:19, my translation) compounds their sarcasm. Here we have the photographic negative of Paul’s Hymn to Christ (Philippians 2:5-11), whose last stanza thunders Christ’s exaltation, with every knee bowed and every tongue confessing. Mark recasts that image in a stridently minor key, accenting the Messiah’s descent into shameful self-abasement.
Golgotha (Mark 15:21-32) answers Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-11). When Jesus entered David’s City, the cry was “Hosanna,” “Lord, save” (11:9-10). He exits to a very different cry — “Crucify” (15:13-14) — and the one most obviously needing salvation is Jesus himself. After Peter refused the Son of Man’s ordained suffering and death (8:31-32), the teacher insisted that those coming after him “take up their cross and follow me” (8:34); in 15:21 Simon of Cyrene does as Simon Peter was instructed. Previously in Mark (14:3, 8) a myrrh-like ointment was a perfume, associated by Jesus with his death. At his crucifixion myrrh is offered to him mixed with wine (15:23b), probably as a painkiller (Proverbs 31:6). Jesus’ refusal of it has been foreshadowed: he has chosen a different cup (10:38b).
“It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucify him”: the Greek historical present tense places us smack at the scene of Jesus’ impaling onto a stake and crossbar. The evangelist omits all the gruesome details of harrowing death by crucifixion. Instead, he encourages readers to listen for the event’s biblical resonances, “how then is it written about the Son of Man” (Mark 9:12). Psalm 22 provides the soundtrack for Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ death (note the paraphrases of Psalm 22:7 and 18 with Mark 15:24, 15:29a). Scripturally disclosed, all proceeds in accordance with God’s will.
The placard worn by the victim points up the political aspect of Jesus’ death: he was executed for sedition, as “the King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26; cf. 15:2, 9, 12, 18). For Mark this is socially preposterous (14:48) yet religiously valid (12:35-37). On either side of Jesus two genuine malefactors are executed (15:28), mirroring the sons of Zebedee who had requested seats “one at your right hand and one at your left” (10:35-37). Jesus replied that his disciples didn’t know what they were asking (10:38). Now the reader understands that answer’s import.
In contrast with Luke (23:39-43) and John (19:25-27), in Mark everyone ridicules the crucified Jesus: random bystanders (15:29), the chief priests (15:31), even those crucified with him (15:32b). “The destroyer of the temple and its rebuilder in three days” (15:29b) recalls the bogus charge against Jesus before the Sanhedrin (14:57-59). “Having come down from the cross, save yourself” (15:30) perverts Jesus’ requirement that his disciple take up the cross and relinquish life for the gospel (8:34-35). “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (15:31) stupidly paraphrases Jesus’ interpretation of the Son of Man’s own duty (10:45). The challenge, “Let [him] come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe,” reverses the sequence of faith and mighty works in this Gospel, wherein faith has proved the condition of restoration, not its outcome (2:5; 5:34, 36; 6:5-6a). Amid all this irony Mark’s emphasis remains transparent: Jesus has been abandoned, bereft of consolation. To die crucified, altogether alone, is a vision of hell.
At high noon (Mark 15:33) “darkness came over the whole land”: an apocalyptic image of divine judgment and human mourning (Amos 8:9-10). At three in the afternoon (Mark 15:34) Jesus howls in distress. His last articulate words are scriptural (Psalm 22:1-2): Jesus stares into God’s veiled face and asks why “Eloi, Eloi,” “My God, my God,” has left him in the lurch. The beloved Son (Mark 1:11; 9:7) persists in praying to the God who, like everyone else, has evidently deserted him. His audience misunderstands this as a cry to Helias, Elijah, protector of the tormented righteous. By offering refreshment to Jesus on the chance that Elijah may rescue him (15:36), this faithless generation still seeks a sign (8:11-12). During his life few have understood Jesus (4:12; 8:14-21); at the moment of his death their foolishness persists. With a second shriek Jesus dies.
Two reactions are narrated; Mark offers us clear interpretation of neither. The rending of the temple curtain (Mark 15:38) suggests divine agency of cultic destruction (cf. 1:10; 13:1-2). God is present yet remains hidden. A “sign from heaven” has been granted, which no one, save the reader, has witnessed. At 15:39, for the first and only time in Mark, a mortal correctly identifies Jesus as “God’s Son.” Whether the legionnaire believes what he says is irresolvable and ultimately inconsequential. The reader who faithfully accepts the Son of Man’s self-assessment (8:31; 10:45) can judge the accuracy of the centurion’s verdict and the basis on which it is reached: no miracle of any kind (contrast Matthew 27:54), only direct confrontation of one who has thus died (15:39).
So densely layered is Mark 15:16-39 that the preacher should beware of attempting too much in a single sermon. Choices must be made. This, however, cannot be disregarded: Jesus is remembered as Christ crucified. His death was no accident; nor did he live to a ripe old age. He was executed by the most barbarous means his contemporaries could devise. It was this, yoked to the confession of Jesus as Messiah, that Paul acknowledged as scandalous for Jews and moronic to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). That scandal endures. The church dare not forget it.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Son of God, your suffering for our sin is great. We cannot atone for all that we have done or failed to do. Yet we offer you all that we have and all that we are. Restore us as we are reminded that we are redeemed because of all you have done. Amen.
Crucifixus, Antonio Lotti