Passion Part 4: Mark 15:14-26
A Moment of Hope
Have you ever a moment of humiliation or pain that marked a turning point in life? How was it a turning point?
Churches are filled with stories of personal change, personal conversion. The moment of change was a instant in time that demanded a choice between desolation and hope. Many times, people could not see hope, only darkness. But in hindsight, the choice led out of darkness and gave a faint glimmer of light.
In the Passion narrative, Mark proclaimed the ultimate moment of change. A moment thrust in darkness, dread, and desolation. But a moment that planted the seeds of hope. In crucifixion of Jesus, we celebrate his lowest moment that led to our hope.
14 But, Pilate said to them, "Why? What evil (deed) did HE do?" They shouted all the more, "Crucify HIM!' 15 Wishing to please the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and, having (HIM) whipped, he handed JESUS over so that HE might be crucified.
15:15 "Wishing to please the crowd" is literally "wishing to do enough (for) the crowd." This phrase reflects a Latin saying.
Pilate attempted to play the politician instead of the prefect. Three times he asked the mob to justify a sentence against Jesus (15:9, 12, 14). Twice, the mob cried out for his blood (15:13, 14). At this juncture, there were three focal points of power: Pilate, the chief priests, and the mob. As we mentioned in the last study, whoever controlled the mob ruled the scene. To reassert control, Pilate would have had to call out the cohort, quell the mob, and turn the chief priests away. Was this the will of Rome? Didn't the Emperor really want tribute and the cooperation of local rulers to keep peace in the Empire?
For one prophet from the backwaters of Galilee, the effort was not worth the cost. Too much political capital would be spent. Too many lives would be lost. There would be other battles to win. Let the mob have their entertainment. Pilate had Jesus prepared for death.
16 The soldiers led HIM away inside the courtyard (which is the pretorium), and they ordered the battalion together. 17 They placed a purple (cloak) on HIM; and, having woven thorn crown, they set it around (HIS head). 18 They began to salute HIM, "Welcome! King of the Jews!" 19 They were beating HIS head with a reed and were spitting on HIM; kneeling, they did HIM homage. 20 When they (finished) mocking HIM, they pulled the purple (cloak) off HIM and dressed HIM (with) his clothes. They led HIM away so they might crucify HIM.
15:16 "the battalion" is literally the "cohort." It is an exaggeration on Mark's part to assume that many men would assemble to watch the whipping of one condemned man.
15:18 "Welcome" is literally "Rejoice" in Greek and "Hail" in Latin. It was the common greeting.
15:20 "When they (finished) mocking him" is literally "when they mocked him." The force of the verb indicated the action was complete; the soldiers tired of they sarcasms and moved to the next station that prepared the prisoner for execution.
Pilate turned Jesus over to his own troops for whipping. This torture had two purposes: proclamation of the crime to the populace and humiliation of the prisoner. The proclamation was physical: 1) whipping (from 15:15), 2) placing the crown of thorns on his head, and 3) beating him on the head with the reed. The humiliation was psychological: 1) stripping him and placing the purple robe on him, 2) the royal salute ("Welcome, King of the Jews"), and 3) kneeling before him to spit at him.
The physical torture had obvious effects. It softened the prisoner up, so he would not resist the final moments of execution. And it made the prisoner hideous to others; the proclamation of the crime would have maximum effect.
But, why did the soldiers humiliate Jesus in this way? In the culture of Jesus' time, honor was the highest virtue; shame was the most feared vice. The soldiers shamed Jesus with the trappings of the charge against him. They seemed to say: "Before you die, you can be our king and we will be your court." Since the soldiers were not Jewish, their play mocked Jesus, their lip-service was cynical, and their entertainment was cheap sport.
The soldiers were to prepare the prisoner to die the most horrible death imaginable, in the most public place available, and in the most humiliating way conceivable. The death was to be a sign to the general populace: do not transgress the rule of Rome.
From the view of the Christian community, however, the humiliation and torture served to fulfill Scripture, especially Isaiah's Suffering Servant image:
I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50:6-7) (RSV)
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-4) (RSV)
Since the suffering Jesus endured fulfilled the will of the Father, Jesus' shame was transformed into his glory. He suffered for God's people and for the establishment of the Kingdom. His shame became our honor, for now we are children of God. His hopelessness became our hope.
21 They forced (into service) a certain passer-by, Simon Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, who came from the country, so that he might lift up (and carry) the cross. 22 They escorted HIM to Golgatha place, which, translated, is "Skull Place." 23 And they were offering his wine mixed with myrrh, but HE did not accept (it). 24 They crucified HIM, and they divided up HIS clothing, throwing lots (to determine) who might take which (piece of clothing). 25 It was the third hour (when) they crucified HIM. 26 The sign (with) the legal charge (against) him was inscribed: "The King of the Jews."
15:21 "father of Alexander and Rufus" These two men must have been known to Mark's community, since their identity is not explained.
"who came from the country" was literally "...from the fields." Simon came from the rural area, or from a distant place Mark assumed was rural.
15:22 "Golgatha place, which, translated, is 'Skull Place.'" Golgatha is Aramaic. The place must have been a rock formation that looked like a skull.
"...so that he might lift up (and carry) the cross." The verb "lift up" implied carrying the cross to the place of execution.
15:24 "...throwing lots (to determine) who might take which (piece of clothing)." The soldiers gambled for each piece of clothing. Mark's description is almost a word-for-word of Psalm 22:19 from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament. He changed the pronoun reference from the first person singular ("I" or "me") to the third person singular male ("he" or "him").
15:25 "It was the third hour..." The third hour from sunrise would be 9:00 A.M. Mark's time frame of Jesus' crucifixion conflicts with John 19:14, where Jesus still stood in front of Pilate.
Jesus was so weakened by the torture, he could not carry the cross beam on his shoulders. So, the soldiers pressed one Simon from Cyrene into service. Under Roman law, soldiers had the right to press local people (who were not Roman citizens) into limited service without their consent. Simon, who just happened to be in Jerusalem at the time, was given the task of carrying the cross beam for Jesus.
Scholars throughout the centuries have speculated about the identity of Simon. Simon is a Greek name that has a Jewish equivalent (Simeon); scholars have speculated if Simon was a Hellenistic Jew. He had two sons with Greek names: Alexander and Rufus. He came from Cyrene, a city in Libya, that the Egyptians had settled by Jews in 300 B.C. Since Simon came in from the countryside, scholars assume he entered Jerusalem on agricultural business, not necessarily on pilgrimage (although that cannot be ruled out). If he was in the marketplace on business as the crucifixion procession passed by, he would have been the target of forced service.
The crucifixion party left the city to a place on a major road leading out of the city. "Golgotha" (Aramaic for "Skull") must have been a rock formation that looked like a human skull. Tradition claimed the site was outside the city at the time of the execution, but was brought into the city proper before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Excavations in and around Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher support these notions.
Someone offered Jesus a strong, spiced wine to dull the pain of execution. He refused, since he had made the pledge in Mark 14:25:
Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." (RSV)
When he refused the wine, he faced his death awaiting the Kingdom. It was not a sign of defiance, but one of prophetic awaiting.
The guards gambled for the clothes of Jesus. His personal possessions may have been the soldier's reward. But, Mark placed this detail at the crucifixion for thematic reasons. As mentioned above, 15:24 was a direct reference to Psalm 22:14. As such, it foreshadowed the final words of Jesus found in 15:34 ("My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" from Psalm 22:1). Psalm 22 was a song of promised vindication in the face of a hostile populace. Mark signaled hope, not hopelessness, the promise of victory, not shame.
Mark stated the crucifixion almost as an aside, since his audience already knew the fate of Jesus, and since the methods of crucifixion were well known at the time. So, how did the Romans crucify Jesus? Romans either tied or nailed the condemned. The wood used could be a pole or a scaffold or a cross. In the case of a cross, the prisoner was affixed to the horizontal beam, then raised into place on the vertical pole. The cross could be a "T" shape with no overhead extension, or a "telephone pole" shape (the traditional cross).
Many traditions picture Jesus on the cross in different ways. Our traditional "Latin" crucifix has three nails; early Spanish crucifixes had four nails. The Russian Orthodox crucifix has four nails and a un-level cross beam for the feet. Obviously, these differences can only be explained by custom, not by historical investigation. However, there is evidence that Roman's did crucified the condemned with nails in their wrists in the time of Jesus. And, there was at least one example of a condemned Jewish contemporary with his feet nailed to a cross.
Only Mark mentioned the crucifixion at the third hour (9:00 A.M.) Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention the darkness between the sixth hour (noon) and the ninth hour (3:00 P.M.) Why were these hours important, especially with the discrepancy found in John 19:14. Scholars speculate in two directions: thematic and liturgical. As a theme, the death of the Son marked the beginning of the end time. It was the eschatological moment because it was the eschatological event. Remember the difference in Greek between "chronos" (the flow of time) and "kairos" (memorable events that seem to freeze time in memory). Also remember Mark 1:15:
Jesus proclaimed, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."
This "time of fulfillment" Jesus spoke about was "kairos," the right time. The death of Jesus was God's right time, for it was the revelation of a self-giving, loving God. In the sacrifice of Jesus, Christians saw the Kingdom. By stressing the timing of events on that Passover, Mark highlighted the "kairos" of Christ's death.
The times could have also been the times of prayer for Mark's community. By placing these times into the chronology of Christ's death, Mark made these times sacred. These times of prayer now had the capacity of revealing God's new order.
To bring the scene to conclusion, the charge against Jesus was posted. Remember Jesus was condemned for political reasons: assuming the seat of power that belonged to Pilate. Only Caesar could bestow the title "King of the Jews." As prefect of Judea, Pilate exercised the power inherent in the title. Only, he could dismiss or appoint the high priest. But, he could only exercise that power in Rome's name. Anyone who claimed the title without the consent of Rome, revolted against the Empire. Hence, he would suffer the wrath of the Empire.
Since Jesus never claimed to be or acted as "the King of the Jews," the charge was unjust. Pilate saw that. So would others.
Have you ever mediated on the crucifix? What insights did you gain? Have you ever considered the paradox of Christianity the cross contains: one man's death led to humanity's life? How has that insight given you hope?
Sometimes hope is an confident expectation. Sometimes it is a reassurance of a hidden reality. Our hope in the cross is the latter. Salvation has already occurred. God's offer is already present. Our hope begins when we accept his offer. The moment we accept may be dark, but, in a moment, the light of dawn will appear. Our hope in God is justified.
Consider your hope in God's promises. How has it sustained you in the past? How will it help you in this next week?