First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Passion Sunday

William Loader

Passion Sunday: 25 March Mark 15:1-39 (40-47) (or 14:1 - 15:47)

Passion Sunday is also Palm Sunday. It is possible to read Mark as though this is simply a report of a Roman trial and brutal atrocity. This is surely appropriate. Let the story speak for itself. When we do so, however, we soon discover that the story has already undergone considerable reflection. Mark is not just describing; he is portraying something. We always convey meaning by the way we describe. It was no different with Mark. Mark is also doing much more than telling the story. He is repeating it. Much of it has been told and retold and reflected upon for three to four decades before it reached Mark. Behind those decades are events whose shape is still preserved in the narrative.

At the outset we see Jesus before Pilate. Why? Mark tells us that Jewish authorities had handed him over. Behind this is a complex history. It includes Rome's concern to maintain peace and suppress sources of disturbance in its far flung empire. It includes the Jewish authorities' concern not to allow anything which might provoke the Romans to interfere more strongly in their state with the danger that they might suppress the little freedom they had to sustain their temple and religion. With revolutionaries the case was straightforward. With people like John the Baptist and Jesus who advocated change and used the language of revolution it was more difficult. They still sounded dangerous and their popular support could easily be misread. They could still be filed under 'potential threat to stability'. In an age when life was cheap the simplest solution was to arrest and execute revolutionaries or at least - where there was no overt military threat - to arrest and execute the leaders of popular movements and hope they would go away.

There are elements in the story of Jesus' trial and execution by Pilate which reflect this logic. It is what made sense of the offer to swap Jesus for Barabbas - both were filed under the same heading. Similarly it explains why Jesus is executed along with two other revolutionaries - who would also have been filed under the same heading. They are called in Greek, leistai a common term for brigands and guerrilla fighters. Their difference from Jesus would have been largely over the means not the end. It also helps us make sense of the accusation brought forward in the trial which becomes the ground for the execution: 'king of the Jews'. It fitted the general category. There was enough in what Jesus talked about to lead authorities to see danger. Did they know of his ride into Jerusalem, his behaviour in the temple? They probably knew he attacked the temple (leadership) and predicted its downfall. It was enough to justify staging the mockery of this would-be king and posting the charge above his mangled body as a deterrent to others minded to disturb the peace.

Mark gives it to us straight, though perhaps with a tendency to incriminate the Jerusalem crowds and their leaders more than was deserved. In his own setting he would have experienced Christians being hauled before Jewish councils and accused of blaspheming against God because of what they claimed about Christ. Jesus' alleged trial before the sanhedrin may be heavily dependent on models drawn from the church's experience. Originally we probably had a quickly assembled hearing before the high priest and some other key figures, as John's account suggests, not a formal trial.

The account of the crucifixion is sparsely told and graphic. People would not have difficulty imagining it. Crucifixions were common. At some stage the story has been shaped by Psalm 22 (and Psalm 69). Thus Jesus' last words are the cry of Ps 22:1, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' The mockery of wagging heads and casting lots for Jesus' clothes also belong to Ps 22. Perhaps they are no more than imaginings based on the Psalm. Similarly the thirst and the offer of sour wine draws on Psalm 69:22. Whether historical or not, they could be imagined as true by those who told the story. It must have been something like that - and probably was. This was no sham suffering. It was real. For Mark the realism matches what his hearers were also likely to face. It also defies attempts to imagine Jesus as a hero of power and glory, the way he suggests the disciples had wanted to see him (and themselves in 8:27 - 10:45). Mark wants to start finding God at the point where Jesus seems most forsaken. Mark does not understand Easter as God's abandonment of the way of love and lowliness, but his affirmation of it.

Mark is doing much more with the story. He loves the effect of threes. Three times Jesus prayed in anguish in Gethsemane and held on. Three times Peter denied Jesus under pressure. He even divides the crucifixion scene into three lots of three hours. There are three mockeries. Two of these pick up accusations made in Mark's Jewish trial: that Jesus would destroy the temple and that he was the Messiah, the Son of God. The third time these motifs appear (three, again!) is in the climax of our passage. The temple curtain is torn, foreshadowing that Jesus' prediction of its destruction was right; and a Gentile (anti-hero) acclaims Jesus 'Son of God'. So for Mark the 'right people' get it wrong and the 'wrong people' get it right. This applies also among the disciples; they go for their lives at Jesus' arrest. The women stay around and are with him at his death (40-41).

In Mark's account the world falls into deep darkness on Jesus' death. Matthew expands such symbolism by claiming also that an earthquake rocked the land. The killing of Jesus, however incidental to the tasks of governance for the Roman and Jewish authorities, masks the worst in human brutality. Regimes do this to people in the name of all kinds of claims to common good and, not least, to the furtherance of peace. People do this to people, when anger and fear conspire to suppress love and goodness. We all do it. Mark's is an 'in your face' account of the killing of love. The event is bigger than Mark and Mark's account. It has become for millions a symbol of what evil can do and of how far love will go. It is not told to espouse a theory about the past. It has no reference to models of atonement. It only has the suffering, in colouring and contours drawn from the Psalms. It is not really a story to be remembered so much as a story to be lived with and lived through, in which we can recognise and engage its repeated forms in today's world and in ourselves.

Palm  Sunday: 25 March John 12:12-16
Epistle: Passion and Palm Sunday:  29 March  Philippians 2:5-11