Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Passion according to St. Mark, Part One

2013 03 03 Sermon: Death of the Messiah, Part 4: 
The Passion according to St. Mark, first of two on Mark

Today we are going begin to look at Mark's account of the Death of the Messiah in some detail. We won’t be able to finish it today. As we saw last week, Mark, the earliest Gospel written, portrays a scene of stark human abandonment of Jesus. And Mark portrays a very human, very vulnerable Jesus. In the end, Mark shows that we all, even Jesus, have no choice but to depend on God. Mark, like no other Gospel writer, gives us deep insights into the hearts and minds of men and woman.

So we now see in Mark a very human and very vulnerable Jesus surrounded by disciples who are usually not very bright disciples. Mark's Jesus is very aware of what he must do, but he agonizes over it, and, at one point, begs God to let it pass him by.  But Mark's Jesus shows great courage in the face of personal fear and doubt and commits himself to God even knowing it will mean his death.  In the end he is abandoned by all who followed him, and Jesus even despairs that he has been abandoned by God. Of course, we know that was not so; but Mark gives absolutely no indication that Jesus knew that.

Jesus is aware from the beginning of Mark's Gospel that his preaching of the coming Kingdom of God is going to get him killed.  As early as the third chapter, Mark tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians were plotting to destroy him. And Jesus himself predicts His own violent death three times, long before the actual event.  Yet the disciples did not understand, failed to understand, refused to understand, and did not want to understand.

Then Jesus arrives in Jerusalem intent on purifying the Temple, and it all comes to a head as the priests and scribes plot to destroy him, exactly as the Pharisees and Herodians had been doing from the beginning. There are other hints.  A woman admirer anoints His body with oil, a sign of preparing him for His death.  Judas plots to betray him, and Jesus, aware of the plot, at the Last Supper indicates His willingness to pour out his blood as a sign of the New Covenant that God is offering to the people.

Thus, as he leaves the Upper Room and goes to pray on the Mount of Olives, Jesus understands the necessity of his suffering and death.  But the disciples do not understand and he knows that they do not, just as he knows that they will all abandon him, telling them that they all will be scattered.  They all deny any such possibility, but especially does Peter.  Yet Jesus tells Peter he will be particularly unfaithful and will deny Jesus three times.  On this gloomy note the Passion in Mark begins, and it will only get darker, until, on the following day, Jesus will die with no support at all from those who followed him.  He will die alone.

This unfolding tragic scenario is almost too much even for Jesus.  In Gethsemene Jesus confesses to the disciples, "My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death," and he asks them to stay near him while he goes to pray, admonishing them to stay awake. Then, he goes and prays, asking God that the cup of death might pass him by; yet saying that he will do the will of the Father regardless. There is no response from God, but Jesus accepts the will of God implied by the silence from heaven, and prepares to meet his enemies, knowing he will die. He is resigned to his fate, even as he is disturbed that the disciples can not even stay awake while he is in this agony.  They are physically present, but already have symbolically abandoned him while they sleep.

His total resignation to his fate is clear. Only in Mark does Jesus fail to respond to Judas' kiss, or to the striking of the slave of the High Priest on the ear by a bystander.  He does nothing to save himself, saying simply, "Let the Scriptures be fulfilled."

The disciples and all the followers flee. One, a young man, once intent on following him, flees so quickly and in such fear that he leaves his captors clinging to his clothes, running away naked, saving his skin, symbolic of the total abandonment of Jesus by all who intended to follow him. Jesus will face death, the ultimate evil, alone.  That is the clear message of Mark.

The pace now quickens and Mark takes us immediately to the trial by the Sanhedrin, the governing Jewish body in Jerusalem.  What goes on in the trial is juxtaposed sharply against what is happening in the courtyard outside the trial chamber. In the chamber the chief priests, elders and scribes hear testimony against Jesus, which Mark calls "false" testimony, which does not agree on a single factual detail.  We are not told the nature of the false testimony.  But the high priest is annoyed by both the ineptitude of the witnesses and the silence of Jesus.

Trying to force an answer from Jesus he asks, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One."  And, startlingly, Jesus answers for the first time in this Gospel, "I am."  Until now Jesus had made no such claim, even to his disciples, who are not present as he makes it now. He had always insisted that they figure out who he was for themselves, a task they badly bungled. We who have read Mark already know who he is from what God had said to him at his baptism.

But far more damning to Jesus is that he does not stop there but says that he will be seated at God's right hand and will come again on the clouds of heaven.  This is too much for the high priest, who declares that statement blasphemy, (which it was to their belief) whereupon all of the members of the Sanhedrin condemn him as deserving of death.  Some then spit on him and blindfold him, beating him and screaming at him to prophesy.  All of which is ironic for that is precisely what he has just done, and none of them believed it! Thus, the themes which have already emerged earlier in the Gospel here coalesce: destroying the Temple, acknowledging Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.  Yet, in Mark, still, nobody believes it.

In stark contrast to Jesus' faithful willingness to go the last mile for God is the scene outside the chamber of the Sanhedrin, in the court yard, where Peter has hesitantly followed Jesus at a distance.  In the chamber, Jesus confesses who he is; while outside his prime disciple denies him. As predicted by Jesus, Peter denies him not once, but three times, finally swearing an oath that he does not even know Jesus.  When the cock crows, Peter realizes his sin, and weeps.

The irony is complete: Jesus is beaten and ordered to prophesy which he has already done but none believed him, and, meanwhile, another of his prophesies is coming true in the court yard.

Rather than kill Jesus themselves by stoning, the Sanhedrin bind him and hand him over to Pilate, the Roman Governor.  Mark gives us no indication why. But the effect is dramatic and interesting, if usually unnoticed.  Up to now the condemnations against Jesus have been theological: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?"  "Do you intend to destroy the Temple?"  These are religious questions. But Pilate cares nothing about such questions.  His concerns are strictly political, reflecting the concern of Rome for stability in this conquered land: "Are you the King of the Jews?" is Pilate’s question.

Now, neither Jesus nor anyone else has ever made such a claim about Jesus.  Jesus refuses to take the bait, answering only "You say so;" which isn't an answer because Pilate has not said that he thought that to be true.  Pilate pushes him to say something, to answer the many charges the Jewish leaders have brought against him.  But Jesus says nothing. At this point there is no indication that the Sanhedrin has convinced Pilate to do anything with Jesus; but it is here that the crowd comes into play.

It was the custom to release one prisoner to the crowd at Passover and Pilate asked the crowd did they wish to have the "King of the Jews," Jesus, released, or Barabbas, a rebel, part of an insurrection against Roman rule.  The crowd demanded Barabbas. We are not told why.

Pilate, wishing perhaps to remove the decision from himself, asks them what to do with Jesus and they all shout "Crucify him!"  And Pilate, apparently surprised at the harshness of their verdict says, "Why?  What evil has he done?"  They gave no answer; shouting again, "Crucify him!"  Again, we are not told why. Nor does Mark tell us anything of Pilate's thoughts, but only that, to satisfy the crowd, he released Jesus to be flogged and then crucified.

Once again, in this scene as in the others, no one looks good except Jesus. Pilate appears weak, threatened by the crowd.  He makes no attempt to get to the bottom of the issue; certainly he makes no attempt to achieve any kind of justice: he simply wants the problem to go away.

First the disciple, Judas, betrays him, then the disciples all run away; Peter denies him; witnesses accuse him falsely; the high priest condemns him anyway, as does the Sanhedrin to a man; the crowd turns against him, Pilate sentences him to flogging and crucifixion; the soldiers beat him, mock him, spit on him (as had the Sanhedrin) and lead him to his death.

Thus, both trials end in betrayal and mockery.  And all: disciples, Jewish leaders, crowd, Roman Governor, and Roman soldiers share in the drama of shame and guilt, of desertion, betrayal, accusation, and condemnation of the Son of God, which inevitably leads to the death He has foretold.  Mark wants to drive that point home and does so with dramatic clarity.

The soldiers enlist Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross, implying that the beating had made it impossible for Jesus to carry it Himself.   On reaching Golgotha they offer him a bitter drink, which he refuses, and then they crucify him!!!

And here is where we must stop for today. Perhaps that is best, for we need to let that image of stark total betrayal and abandonment by every single person he ever knew or cared for settle into our hearts. It should give us pause to think that the Son of God should endure such treatment. But, we must ask ourselves: in those circumstances, do we dare think we would have behaved any better?

We continue with our look at Mark’s account of the Passion next week, beginning at the crucifixion.

God bless.