Commentary on Mark 14:1—15:47
Palm/Passion Sunday is less a day for preaching and more a day when preachers can allow extended gospel readings to set the tone for those who will be worshiping together throughout Holy Week and to rehearse the drama of Holy Week for those who will not gather with the worshiping community again until Easter Sunday.
To allow worshipers to move from the joy of the parade into Jerusalem to the joy of the parade out of the tomb without experiencing the somberness of the temple conflicts, the eschatological predictions of future suffering and redemption, the anointing, the last supper, the arrest and trial, the mobs, the crucifixion and the burial is to rob the Paschal Mystery of much of its mystery.
The lectionary for this Sunday divides the readings into the Liturgy of the Palms (anchored by Mark 11:1-11) and the more extended Liturgy of the Passion (focused on Mark 14:1 — 15:47). But if congregations are willing to forego their usual liturgical format, worship can be structured around a sequence of dramatic readings from the gospel lections (as well as the other lections). Such a format invites worshipers to experience an extended narrative in a way that the confines of Sunday worship rarely allow. Hymns, prayers, communion, and other acts of worship can be included in the service at places that invite the congregation to respond appropriately to the different readings (analogous to a Lenten version of Lessons and Carols, if you will, without stepping on the toes of a Tenebrae service that might follow later in the week).
If the preacher cannot let go of the habit of preaching even in such a format, she or he might offer a sort of running commentary on the readings that:
1) introduces pericopes in a way that invites a new hearing and assists the hearers in keeping the big picture in mind while listening to an individual scene,
2) summarizes and fills in gaps of the Jerusalem narrative that are not read in worship, and
3) highlights Luke’s distinctive voice in narrating Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem over against the voices of the other evangelists. But in such a liturgical format the commentator should shy away from providing too much detail, so that the focus of the congregation remains on the dramatic readings themselves and not on the commentary.
On the other hand, there is also value in focusing homiletically on the climax of the Markan readings, which is the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. In such an approach one might read only the shorter option of the gospel lesson (15:1-39).
Indeed, the climax of Mark’s entire story is the acknowledgement of the centurion that Jesus is indeed God’s son. This christological element can be named in a way that:
1) preaches the cross in a manner foreshadowing but not upstaging the proclamation of the death on Good Friday, and
2) helps the congregation understand a key element of Mark’s theology as Mark is read throughout the liturgical year. The significant length of the gospel reading for the liturgy of the passion (whether one chooses the longer or shorter option) invites a homiletical strategy that can be expanded to the whole Gospel.
The flow of the sermon might go something like this:
Begin with commentary on the scenes in chapter 15 leading up to Jesus’ death, focusing on how Jesus’ identity is misunderstood. The religious leaders, Pilate, the crowds, and soldiers are all confused about who Jesus is.
Move to a wide angle lens approach and offer a sympathetic reading of these opponents indicating that their misunderstanding should be no surprise given that Mark presents even the disciples as being confused.
Walk through key moments in Mark where the disciples exhibit misunderstanding, e.g., in the parables discourse where insiders are supposed to understand the mystery of the reign of God but Jesus has to interpret the parables for them (4:10-13, 34), in the miracle of calming storm where they question who Jesus is (verses 40-41), when Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ (seemingly understanding) only to be rebuked by Jesus and called Satan after he rejects Jesus’ self-understanding as one who must suffer and die (8:27-33), and after the other two passion predictions where the disciples respond inappropriately (arguing over who is the greatest in 10:30-37 and asking to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand in glory in 11:32-40).
The strategy behind such a survey would be the cumulative effect of presenting the disciples’ misunderstanding. Thus the climax of the narration should be Peter’s denial (14:66-72) that is the last scene before the lectionary reading begins in 15:1: when he says in his last denial, “I do not know this man you are talking about,” he thinks he is lying, but he is not.
Sum up the misunderstanding in terms of the fact that no human in Mark’s narrative calls Jesus the Son of God. The title of the book declares it (1:1). The heavenly voice announces it at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and transfiguration (9:7), but the disciples do not “get it.” But finally one person does — the very man who crucified Jesus, the Gentile, the Roman oppressor, the centurion. When he sees Jesus die, he recognizes him: “Truly this man was God’s son” (15:39).
This long narration of Mark’s story through the christological lenses of misunderstanding and the messianic title of Son of God finally allows the preacher to claim, on the congregation’s behalf, our contemporary misunderstanding of who Jesus Christ, the Son of God is. And it allows the preacher to lead the congregation to the rejection, suffering and death of the cross, even today, as the place where we can truly understand who Jesus is for us (pro nobis).
Preachers with different theological orientations will naturally interpret the significance of the cross in different ways, but reclaiming its centrality (through the lens of Mark) for interpreting the Christ event and indeed contemporary Christian existence is not a bad way to start off Holy Week.