Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) Year B

Mark is the shortest of the canonical gospels. His story moves along briskly.

April 5, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 14:1—15:47

Mark is the shortest of the canonical gospels. His story moves along briskly.

On a few occasions, Jesus pauses to teach, but usually he is scurrying from one place to the next, healing, exorcising demons, raising the dead, and feeding the multitudes. It has often been noted that Mark’s favorite adverb is “immediately.”

But Mark slows down for the story of Jesus’ passion. This is the climax of the drama, and a more deliberate pace is appropriate, even in this swiftly moving gospel.

Martin Kahler, the 19th century German theologian, famously said that the Gospels are “passion narratives with extended introductions,” a judgment that rightly underscores the prominence of the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Mark devotes two chapters (one hundred and nineteen verses) to the period from Jesus’ anointing at Bethany to his burial in a rock hewn tomb, giving strikingly detailed coverage for this forty eight to sixty hour period of Jesus’ life. The following fourfold division attempts to reflect the sequence of scenes and actions.

Preparation and Passover (Mark 14:1-25)
In this section, two ritual acts foreshadow the passion. First, the woman who anoints Jesus engages in an individual act of extravagant devotion. She is criticized by some, but defended by Jesus. Clearly this is not a scene about stewardship or economic justice.

The woman’s action is a unique, unrepeatable act of honoring Jesus, which is precisely the point that Jesus makes in verse 7. The anointing of one’s head normally denotes an official declaration of kingly or priestly status, but Jesus interprets the action as anticipating his burial. Whether the woman understood it as such or not, Jesus credits her action with this effect and vows that it will be remembered around the world, a vow that the story’s canonization has assured.

Secondly, the Passover, the festival that commemorates Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 12:1-20), is mentioned by Mark only in 14:1, 12-16. We might wonder if the mention of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb (14:1) is an allusion to the crucifixion, but the timing is off. More likely, Mark wants us to view the Lord’s Supper as a Passover Seder.

Certainly the Passover meal (verses 12-21) blends seamlessly with the institution of the sacrament (verses 22-25). In the sacrament, Jesus elevates the mundane to the level of a mystery. He takes an ancient ritual and makes it shockingly contemporary and personal: “This is my body, this is my blood.” Verses 22-24 are one of the few hints in Mark’s Gospel that the death of Jesus has salvific benefit (also see Mark 10:45).

Supplication and Seizure (Mark 14:26-52)
They depart to the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. Peter and the other disciples emphatically assert their fidelity to Jesus despite his prediction of their abandonment (verse 27), a prediction shortly to be fulfilled (verse 50).

In Gethsemane, we see a very a human Jesus, a typical feature of Mark’s portrayal but especially true here. Jesus knows that events are headed for a violent denouement. He is described as “distressed and agitated” (verse 33), and he speaks of being “deeply grieved” (verse 34). Yet his prayer combines fervent supplication with reverent submission. The human Jesus does not want to die, while the obedient Son will not turn from his task. The disciples are only superficially affected by all this anguish, as is evident by their ability to nod off repeatedly.

Judas arrives with the arresting mob, and there is a short-lived and misguided attempt at violent resistance by an unnamed disciple. The sleepiness in Gethsemane, this sword-wielding outburst, and the ensuing desertion of the disciples are among the final strokes of the dismal portrait of the disciples in Mark.

Mark admittedly paints the disciples with dark hues, but historical facts likely stand behind many of these episodes, and facts are stubborn things. In telling the story, Mark often has no choice but to lay bare the disciples’ cowardice and failure. They all flee with a kind of shameful nakedness like the anonymous “young man” of verse 51.

Trials and Denials (Mark 14:53-15:15)
The trials of Jesus are famously irregular and ignore even ancient “due process.” Mark relates a Jewish trial and a Roman one, with Peter’s infamous denials sandwiched in between.

The trial before the council and the high priest (who is never named in Mark) quickly runs into trouble. Testimony against Jesus is false and conflicting; the case is unraveling. When the high priest is unable to exact any response from Jesus, he tries a judicial Hail Mary: ask the defendant point-blank to confess!

Jesus does confess, but note how he acknowledges that he is the Messiah and then reverts to the title “Son of Man.” In a profoundly true sense for Mark, Jesus is the Messiah. But it is not necessarily in the sense commonly conceived by either Jews or Romans.

Thus, Jesus clarifies as he confesses. He is the Messiah in the mode of the suffering Son of Man. Jesus will lay claim to the title “Messiah” but only on his terms, only if he is allowed to define it by the character of his ministry and message.

Meanwhile, Peter faces his own sort of trial. He has followed Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest. Twice, a servant-girl questions Peter about his association with Jesus. Twice he denies it. A third time, he is questioned, this time by a group of bystanders who recognize Peter as a Galilean, presumably by his dialect (cf. Matt 26:73). Peter’s third denial is emphatic, apparently invoking the deity and perhaps even consequences against himself if he is not speaking the truth.

The irony is bitter indeed.

Instead of bearing witness to God, Peter invokes God as a witness to his falsehood. The cock’s crow pierces his soul, and he disappears as a character in the story apart from a brief reference in 16:7. The temptation to vilify Peter is hard to resist, but we should resist it, as well as the temptation to ignore our own acts of betrayal.

The trial of Jesus before Pilate kicks into high gear. In all likelihood, the Jewish council did not have the authority under the Roman prefect to execute prisoners (cf. John 18:31). That power rested in Pilate’s hands. The practice of releasing a prisoner at the Passover (Mark 15:6) is not corroborated outside the New Testament, but it is multiply attested in the gospels (cf. John 18:39).

Barabbas is mentioned in all four gospels, and there is no obvious motive for inventing him. There were frequent insurrections against Rome in the time of Jesus, so the reference to Barabbas’s activity is quite plausible. His name means “Son of Abba” or “Son of the father,” an irony that may be both literary and historical.

Pilate’s failure is often portrayed as a lack of resoluteness. He was weak and so was manipulated by the Jewish authorities.

However, a more nuanced reading of the gospels, as well as other historical sources (Josephus, Philo), suggests that the historical Pilate was callous and conniving. Pilate’s frequent references to Jesus as the “King of the Jews” were more likely ridiculing Jewish nationalistic aspirations than showing sympathy or reverence for Jesus. The historical fact remains that Pilate had the power to release Jesus and did not.

Ridicule, Crucifixion, Death, and Entombment (Mark 15:16-47)
In this closing section, Jesus is first given into the hands of Roman soldiers and then, after his death, into the hands of Jewish sympathizers. The soldiers engage in a crude parody of homage: crowning, clothing, and hailing Jesus as a king, all the while abusing him with blows and dishonoring him with spittle. En route to Golgotha a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, is compelled to bear Jesus’ cross.

Historically, the need for this is plausible, given the mistreatment that Jesus has received. Theologically, Simon of Cyrene becomes the first person literally to enact Jesus’ description of his true followers (Mark 8:34).

The maltreatment of Jesus reaches its apex in the crucifixion itself, Rome’s fiendish method for combining execution, humiliation, and deterrence. The derision continues, coming from passersby, from priests and scribes, and even from the bandits crucified with him.

Jesus hangs on the cross from nine in the morning until sometime after three in the afternoon. At three o’clock, he emits the “cry of dereliction,” that anguished outburst of abandonment. Again we see Mark’s portrayal of the deeply human Jesus (Luke edits out this saying; John has no use for it whatsoever).

At Jesus’ death, the temple curtain is torn in two, perhaps signifying both judgment against the temple (Mark 11:15-19) and the opening up of access to the presence of God (see Hebrews 9). The centurion at the foot of the cross, a Roman with no special acquaintance with Jesus nor the revelatory light of Judaism, makes the gospel’s third affirmation of Jesus’ divine sonship (see 1:11; 9:7).

The burial scene concludes the passion narrative. The coming of the Sabbath at sundown adds urgency to the action, for the burial cannot take place on the day of rest. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council who presumably was an exception to Mark’s earlier sweeping statements (14:55, 64), asks for the body of Jesus.

It is a bit peculiar that Jesus is dead after six plus hours on the cross. Victims of crucifixion sometimes survived for days, eventually succumbing to exposure, blood loss, dehydration, or asphyxiation. When the centurion confirms Jesus’ death, Joseph tends to the body.

The presence of women, especially Mary Magdalene, is noted at both the cross (15:40-41) and the burial (15:47). Apart from Joseph, the women are the only sympathetic characters mentioned by Mark at this point. They will reappear at the tomb after the Sabbath. But for now, this horrific and violent episode draws to a close with Jesus’ lifeless body lying on a stone slab.