Commentary on Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]
In Mark 15, Jesus endures the violent and humiliating mechanisms of Roman power.
Mark tells this story with a paradoxical emphasis on both divine providence and human agency. Each emphasis warrants some explanation, but I will dedicate more pastoral reflection to the second.
Mark conveys God’s providence chiefly through allusion to Jewish scripture, showing a special affinity for the Psalms. Jesus’ silence before his accusers echoes Psalm 38:13-14 (perhaps also Isaiah 53:7), the dividing of Jesus’ clothes echoes Psalm 22:18, the mockery of onlookers at the crucifixion echoes Psalm 22:6-8, and Jesus’ cry of abandonment quotes directly from Psalm 22:1. Preceding Mark 15 are other references to scriptural fulfillment (14:27, 49), as well as Jesus’ own repeated predictions of his passion and resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34, 45; 14:8, 22-24). Taken together, these details give the impression that Good Friday falls within God’s overarching providence.
Notice that this is different from saying that everything is “scripted,” as if God were moving chess pieces in a sordid plot to sacrifice the son (it is also different from saying that Mark presents a specific kind of atonement theology, as I explain in my analysis of Mark 8:31-38). Rather, Mark weaves various moments of scriptural “fulfillment” into his narrative to convey divine faithfulness—divine faithfulness in continuity with God’s ancient covenant with Israel. We see the depths of this divine faithfulness most clearly in Jesus’ commitment to his mission, which is the restoration of humans and communities to every level of wholeness. Jesus refuses to dial down this ministry to spare his own life, or even to soften the backlash, facing hostility in full confidence that God brings life from death (8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 12:18-27; 14:28). It is the God of the Psalter, the God of Israel, acting through Jesus on our behalf.
This brings me to Mark’s emphasis on human agency, an emphasis so prevalent that it is easy to overlook its significance. More than anything, Mark simply wants us to see the human capacity both for coming to Jesus and for killing him. On the one hand, mostly in the first half of the narrative, we see crowds of people repeatedly drawn to his ministry. He heals the infirm and welcomes sinners, bringing human wholeness without regard for approved methods and timing. On the other hand, Jesus’ indifference to approval provokes the ire of those claiming the authority to approve and condemn. In Mark 15, this animosity finally turns deadly.
Particularly noteworthy is the way Mark casts human animosity in forms of ridicule, especially on the question of Jesus’ royal/messianic identity. It is precisely Jesus’ claim to be “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One” (roughly equivalent royal expressions for Mark) that invite the high priest’s verdict of blasphemy and the derision of the priestly council (14:61-65). When Pontius Pilate repeatedly calls Jesus “the king of the Jews” (an expected Roman interpretation of Jewish messianic language), one hears a hint of belittling sarcasm (15:2, 9, 12, 26). Roman soldiers add to this by dressing Jesus up like a pathetic king and paying mock homage to him (15:17-29). Most devastating are the moments of ridicule, from three different character groups, while Jesus is hanging upon the cross (15:29-30, 32). In fact, I am inclined to read the so-called “confession” of the Roman centurion as a continuation of this sarcastic derision rather than an authentic epiphany into Jesus’ identity: “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” (15:39).
Regardless of how we interpret the centurion, the Markan motif of mockery accentuates the ugly depths of human animosity toward Jesus and his mission. It adds to the degradation of Jesus, in keeping with how Rome used crucifixion as an instrument of extreme dehumanization, as a public spectacle to deter the slightest hint of subversion. No wonder Jesus dies alone, abandoned by his fearful disciples (14:43-51, 66-72) save for a female remnant looking on from a safe distance (15:40-41). Mark’s audience may come to the story knowing that Jesus’ promises of resurrection win out over his cry of abandonment. But that knowledge does not lessen the bitter agony of this moment, as the one who came to heal is broken, as the one who came to dignify is humiliated.
My mind turns to the painful legacy of racial terror lynching in the United States. Thousands of African Americans were lynched between the Civil War and World War II, while thousands more were forced to flee their communities (often with their families) for fear of being lynched. For a profound analysis of this history, I strongly recommend the interactive study published by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), titled “Lynching in America.” This study documents how, in many cases, lynching took the form of public spectacle, “festive community gatherings” in which “large crowds of whites watched and participated in the Black victims’ prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and burning at the stake.”1 Eerily reminiscent of Golgotha, white attendees were even known to fight over the victim’s possessions and various relics from the lynching.
There is no divine providence here. Lynching, like Roman crucifixion, is an instrument of brutal dehumanization. It was a public deterrent against the increased emancipation of African Americans in the generations after the abolition of slavery. It symbolizes our historic, violent animosity to God’s unbridled mission of human wholeness, with each murder and displacement creating deep generational trauma. Yet the trauma is not merely historical, as the same EJI study found that, in many states, our racist lynching legacy extends into the death penalty.2
So deeply embedded is this racist nightmare in our nation’s story (not just in southern states) that the theologian James Cone insisted: “Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the lynching tree.”3 Cone understood the salvific significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, as it demonstrated God’s complete solidarity with human suffering and mortality. But Cone also understood the extent to which our salvation is also wrapped up in “our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.”4
In its depiction of a public spectacle lynching, Mark 15 provides opportunity to explore both kinds of solidarity, to ask how our professed fellowship with Jesus might manifest itself in an embodied solidarity with “the crucified people in our midst,” to reflect on what Good Friday worship might mean in light of the still-standing trees that bore lynched bodies, and to rethink our approach to spiritual pilgrimage in light of the new Legacy Museum and Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Mark 15 invites us into the suffering of Jesus because attention to suffering is the first step in God’s mission of human wholeness.
- Equal Justice Initiative, Lyching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (3d ed.; Montgomery, Alabama: Equal Justice Initiative, 2017), 28 (see also 33-37).
- Lynching in America, 5 (see also 62-64).
- James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2027), 161.
- Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 161.
March 28, 2021