Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) Year B

Verbal threads connect Jesus’ death to his baptism 

Palm Sunday procession photo
Photo of Palm Sunday procession, via Unsplash

March 24, 2024

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Commentary on Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Mark’s account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus highlights the human capacity—with rare exceptions—to resist and even oppose the ways of God.

The Passion account unfolds at a noticeably slower pace than the rest of Mark’s Gospel, as if challenging readers (listeners, preachers) to consider again their own answer to the question Jesus asked at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)

Opposition from the beginning

Although the opening verse of Mark makes clear Jesus’ identity (Christ, Son of God) as well as the narrative intent of the Gospel (the beginning of the good news), human opposition quickly rises against Jesus’ ministry (for example, 2:6–7; 3:6; 3:21–22; 6:3–4). Even the disciples, those closest to him, often struggle to understand both his mission and his message.

Despite the opposition, his growing popularity causes the power-elite—scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, chief priests—to fear him (see also 11:18; 12:12). 

It comes as no surprise when they conspire to end Jesus’ ministry (not to mention his life) by handing him over to Pilate. After all, Jesus had predicted this outcome on more than one occasion (8:31; 9:31; 10:34). 

Political expediency

As Roman governor of Judea, Pilate authorizes Jesus’ crucifixion, although he seems to be  swayed by political expediency rather than by a conviction that Jesus’ death is the appropriate outcome. He recognizes that jealousy fuels the actions of the chief priests even as he hands Jesus over “to satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15). 

For their part, the crowds who shout, “Crucify him!” had—just a few days earlier in narrative time—welcomed Jesus as a king with shouts of “Hosanna! … Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (11:9–10). 

How things have turned! The crowds’ words and actions illustrate how easily people may be manipulated into violence: the dangers of mob mentality at its worst. 

Not that sort of king

Although Mark attributes several titles to Jesus (for example, Son of God, Son of Man, Christ, Teacher/Rabbi, Lord, et cetera), “King of the Jews” appears only in the Passion account, where it carries an ironic or sarcastic valence. 

Three times Pilate refers to Jesus as king, as if with a question mark, seeming to imply his recognition that the trial itself is a scam. 

For their part, the Roman soldiers taunt Jesus as king (see also Psalms 22:7; 69:19–20). They clothe him in a purple cloak, twist thorns into a crown, salute, and kneel in false homage. Creating a game of the spectacle, they cast lots for a share of Jesus’ clothing. 

In ironic testimony to Jesus’ supposed crime, the words “King of the Jews” are inscribed as the charge against him. Passersby mock him, as do chief priests and scribes, whose sneering taunts are joined even by the criminals who are crucified with him.

These all act as if Jesus’ ministry has counted for nothing. No matter that he cast out demons, healed the bedridden, gave sight to those who could not see, restored people to community, fed multitudes, and forgave sins. 

None of that is enough to engender their trust in his mission as God’s Messiah. People want more, and on their own terms. “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe” (15:32).

They do not recognize the truth they speak. Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, King of Israel, and the cross will not be his end. However, like those who hear Jesus’ parables or witness the feeding of the multitudes, they see, but they do not understand (4:12; 6:52; 7:18; 9:32). 

Their inability to perceive the truth betrays their answer to the question Jesus had earlier asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

It also triggers a devastating outcome, as happens whenever religious conviction and political power join forces to support a deadly end. 

The end of the beginning

Jesus bears a share of the worst that people can inflict upon one another. Whatever suffering might lie ahead for Jesus’ followers (for example, 13:9) then and now, it has already happened to Jesus. Cruelty, betrayal, abandonment, suffering—even the death every human must face is a death he has already endured. 

Several verbal threads connect Jesus’ death (15:37–39) to his baptism (1:10–11) and create an inclusio, or frame, around his earthly ministry. Identified as “my Son” by a voice from heaven at the baptism, the forsaken Jesus cries out to “my God” at his end, holding fast to that relationship even at this most desolating moment. 

The Spirit that came into him (Greek pneuma…eis) as the heavens were torn apart (schizō) departs from him with his final expiration (ekpneō). And the temple curtain is torn (schizō).

In contrast to those unable or unwilling to see the truth of who Jesus is, a lone centurion, standing nearby, declares the answer to the question Jesus asked at Caesarea Philippi: “Truly, this man was God’s Son” (15:39).

Nearby or far away: What is next?

The women who followed Jesus are witnesses to his death, “looking on from a distance” (verse 40).

Their presence within eyesight of the cross and again at the tomb, where his body is laid, offers  silent testimony to all that Jesus did and taught during his earthly ministry. 

Just as they supported him through that ministry, they now offer a ministry of their presence.

Their willingness to remain close during the trauma stands in sharp contrast to the absence of the 12 disciples. Like the crowds, who turned from cheering supporters at the triumphal entry to a jeering mob at the trial, the disciples seem to have lost their trust in Jesus’ messianic identity. 

Jesus told them this would happen. They should not be surprised. 

Nonetheless, the disciples are nowhere to be found throughout the trial and crucifixion. Only Joseph of Arimathea—not one of the 12 but a member of the council waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God—takes the bold step of providing a respectful burial for Jesus.

The end of the passage leaves a lot hanging. Life and death are often like that. 

But—spoiler alert—this is not the end of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.