Mark 15:1-39 (NRSVCE)
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
We have a very long Gospel reading today, because today is Palm Sunday! Also known as Passion Sunday! There are actually two options in the lectionary for today’s Gospel reading. Both are Mark’s Passion narrative, but the one I have here is the shorter version (the longer version goes through the Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal). There is a lot to digest in this reading, so to keep things easy I will focus on only a few things.
In yesterday’s reading, we saw how Caiaphas and the high priests wanted Jesus killed because they were afraid of what the Romans would do. It was fear which drove their actions. Here, we see the same from Pilate. Pilate has been charged with maintaining order in Israel, and he finds himself presented with a crowd which has been whipped into a frenzy by the Jewish priests. They all want Jesus dead. Pilate doesn’t have cause to kill Jesus, and certainly not to crucify him (a sentence typically reserved for enemies of Rome). But the crowd is adamant. If Pilate does not do as they wish, he risks a riot and the safety of not only himself, but his soldiers. Now Pilate is the one who is afraid. “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.” It is fear that turns people against Jesus. Sin is what drives that fear. Remember how Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden after they ate the fruit. Their sin had caused them to be afraid—specifically, afraid of judgment. In our sin, we retreat from God, we run away at the mention of His name because God exposes our sin. He exposes the truth. Jesus was killed because he spoke the truth, and that made people fear him.
Then there is the twist of irony which Mark makes sure we do not miss. The soldiers cover Jesus in a purple cloak, the color of royalty, and place a crown of thorns on his head. As they beat him, they salute and pay homage, mocking him for being “King of the Jews.” They placed this inscription above his head on the cross, and continued to mock. The Jews also mocked him. “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” The irony here is that the Jews are indeed looking upon their King. The soldiers are as well. Remember from yesterday that Jesus is the one who unites the divided kingdoms. He truly is the King of both Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish priests and the Gentile soldiers are paying him homage in an attempt to mock him, when in fact they are paying homage to the true King.
This is finally recognized by one of the Gentile soldiers. Jesus dies, and the temple curtain is torn in two (the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies, where God dwelt in the temple, from the outside world). It is a Gentile who first realizes “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Mark here is emphasizing that the Kingdom of God does not lie only with the Jews. It is meant for all people. Christ has come to unite the nations, to unite the people of God into one body, under his headship. Jews and Gentiles alike feared him for this, for this would mean losing their power and authority, and it would mean their sin would be exposed for what it is. Only after crucifixion does this soldier realize what they have just done, though the Jews remain blind to it.
There is much more which can be said about today’s reading. Mark’s Gospel is far more rich than I think it often gets credit for. But this reflection has already exceeded the limit I have been trying to keep myself to, so I will leave it here. Give the Passion narrative from Mark a few read-throughs. Read it once, then read it again. You will start to see the depth and beauty of Mark’s narrative come alive.