We are studying portions of Mark 15 (Mark 15:6-15, 25-26, and 33-39) for Sunday, June 9 – which is Pentecost, by the way – under the rubric “Jesus Seals the New Covenant.” [Discussion questions for the text are here.]
I’ve already gone on the theological record with my discomfort with this particular theological presentation of the study texts this quarter, so I won’t belabor that point, except to point out that, along with Karl Barth, I would affirm that “Jesus was not Plan B.” So, from my perspective, all this talk of “new” covenant is metaphorical, in the sense that I think this “new” covenant was the always already original one anyway.
OK, with that out of the way, here are my few notes on this text from the gospel of Mark:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re continuing in the Gospel of Mark from where we left off last week, having skipped over the events of Thursday night of Passion Week – Jesus’ arrest, trial at night by the high priest and elders (Mark 14:53-65), Peter’s denial and remorse (Mark 14:66-72), and Jesus’ being handed over to Pilate (Mark 15:1). This is not the first time Jesus has been “handed over” – Judas started it – and it won’t be the last, either (Mark 15:15). In this story, everyone is betraying Jesus.
The rest of the text incorporates some of the events of what Christians have come to call Good Friday.
Christians, of course, know this story very very well. We rehearse it annually as part of the most sacred time of the church year, the Holy Week that is the run up to Easter. That makes the text so familiar to us that we almost forget to read it when we read it. We’ll need to pay attention to this.
We also already know what the story means. We have learned that very very well, too, by hearing it over and over again in church, possibly as often as every single Sunday of our lives. No matter what our actual specific Christian theology is, this story will be at the center of it, or at least very close to it. We’ll need to pay attention to this, too.
[My point is: we might as well face it, we bring a lot to this text. We can’t help it. So letting the text speak to us involves the major challenge of listening to lots of different voices, including all the ones inside our heads, at the same time. Reading is always like that, but it seems to me that, in this case, it’s particularly intense, and the voices other than the still, small one we most want to hear are especially loud.]
CLOSER READING: In Mark 14:60-62, which is part of the background to our text, but not part of Sunday’s reading proper, there’s an episode where Jesus first refuses to answer, and then, upon re-questioning by the high priest, affirms that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One” and predicts the ultimate messianic vision of the Son of Man. Jesus’ silence reminds many readers of Isaiah 53:7-9. (I recall that Mark would have been familiar with that scripture when he was writing his gospel.)
I think we will want to recall this pattern – of silence, and then disclosure – as we keep reading; I will point out that Jesus seems to reverse the pattern with Pilate (Mark 15:2-5), but … in a kind of final silence brings about a full disclosure, at least for the centurion in verse 39. Since the relationship of silence to revelation is particularly characteristic and relevant in Mark’s gospel, I suspect this pattern is intentional, and intended to feel meaningful to us.
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the HOLY ONE been revealed? (Isaiah 53:1)
When I was a little girl, I used to feel kind of sorry for Pilate, because I felt like he was coerced by “all the people” who were being so mean, so he just “didn’t have a choice.” Now that I’m old and have read more history and endured more elections, I think, “yeah, poor poor Pilate, that poor Roman official who only had a whole army of highly disciplined and ruthless soldiers at his disposal and who didn’t hesitate to order them to crush rebels and order crucifixions whenever it suited him, SO bullied by the populace of the subject people whose land the Romans are occupying and whom he presumably held in complete imperialistic contempt …” Don’t make me laugh.
Mark, your transparent attempt at spin does not fool me any more.
No more, I suspect, than it ever fooled any early Christian readers who had actually met a Roman official. Which would have been all of them. Sometimes you just have to say what you have to say to get the book past the censors. That’s my theory these days.
Anyway, Pilate follows suit with Judas and the high/chief priests in verse 15 by “handing over” Jesus to be crucified.
Jesus is emphatically identified as King of the Jews by Pilate and others (vv2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32). While it’s a messianic title, it’s also a title that has historical reference points. One of those is David, who is also the author of psalms – which Jesus will quote in v34.
In v33, the darkness in the text affects the mood of the scene, and seems to mean everything that darkness always means in western literature. And possibly also what it means in Psalm 18:11. Just a thought. Because if we are attentive to the significance of Jesus’ citation of Psalm 22, we will recall that Psalm 22 is ultimately a psalm of complete victory. (I recall, again, that Mark, and Jesus, presumably knew their way around their own scripture, and do not use scripture references haphazardly.)
In v37-38, Jesus breathes out (breath, spirit) his last, and “the” curtain of the temple is torn in two. Sadly, however, I have learned that there would have been two curtains in the temple, one separating the holy part of the temple from less holy parts, like the outer court, which would even have been visible from the court of the Gentiles, and another one separating the innermost Holy of Holies from the holy place where the table and candlestick and altar would have been. So, which one was it? Most commentators identify it as the one between the Holy of Holies and the rest of the Temple, but the idea that it’s the one that separates the holier part of the temple from the impure Gentile gaze seems to be gaining ground recently.
I have to say, too, I wonder whether there is not something going on here with the notion of Jesus’ material body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and so being a kind of clothing or curtain that is torn to reveal …
Well, we know what it reveals to the centurion in v39: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” he says.