Passion Part 3: Mark 15:1-13


When was the last time you truly felt free? What did you do to deserve this feeling?

We who live Western democracies take political freedom for granted. We have these God-given rights to enjoy. Ensuring these rights, not enslaving the populace, defines the purpose of government.

Yet, we are creatures of enslavement. Are we really masters of our time, our livelihoods, or our relationships? Or, do they rule our lives? Sometimes it is hard to tell.

The most intimate way we know we are controlled is through our moral decisions. How many times have we regretted past decisions? How many times have our choices come back to haunt us? Even if we might not feel enslaved, we only need to look to others who are slaves to their "sin" and realize how close we were to making those choices. Take the results of immoral choices to their logical conclusion, and they lead to death. Death of spirit. Death of relationships. Death of life itself.

For Christians, all that changed on the cross. As Christ passed from life to death, we passed from death to life. To realize the importance and the freedom of the cross, let us walk that journey with Jesus, one more time.

Many scholars believe the Passion of Jesus stands as the earliest articulated memory of the community. From the agony in the garden to the burial of Jesus, the Passion is the longest continuing narrative found in the any of the gospels. While each evangelist added his own details and viewpoint, every Gospel author used the same structure and flow. Despite the panic of his followers, Jesus was arrested in an orderly fashion He was tried before the Sanhedrin and the Roman prefect. Both condemned him to death. He suffered and died on a cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem, between two common thieves. A few followers quickly buried him, so they could observe the Sabbath.

1 Immediately after sunrise, the chief priests with the elders, the scribes, and the entire council met in council. Having bound JESUS, they took (him) away and handed him over to Pilate.

15:1 "...the entire council..." was the Sanhedrin (mentioned in Mark 14:55), the ruling body over Jerusalem and surrounding area. This council had limited governing abilities. While they had the power of arrest in capital cases (indeed, the Romans expected such co-operation), only the Romans had the power to try and execute a prisoner.

The scene began with a transitional verse. The Sanhedrin met, formally arrested Jesus, and sent him to Pilate, where they hoped the fate of Jesus would be sealed.

Pontius Pilate ruled Judea proper as the Roman prefect from 26-36 A.D. Pilate came from lower Roman nobility (the equestrian rank not the higher, senatorial rank) and probably served as a military officer before he became prefect.

As prefect under the governor in Syria, Pilate commanded 10,000 non-Jewish troops (under Roman law, Jews were spared service in the army). 7,500 men were stationed at Caesarea, the Roman capitol of the province on the Mediterranean coast. One quarter of those troops served in Jerusalem, housed in barracks that had immediate access to the Temple courtyard. Pilate made an official visits to Jerusalem on regular intervals, especially on the Passover, the Jewish celebration of liberation, when over 100,000 pilgrims filled city.

The dismissal and appointment of the high priest was one of Pilate's prerogatives. In this way, he could influence the Sanhedrin's make-up and decision. Unlike the perfects before or after him, Pilate did not exercise this power; Caiaphas was the only high priest during Pilate's tenure.

The political landscape in Judea at the time remained calm. The short, but disastrous rule of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, forced the Jewish leaders to journey to Rome and appeal to the Emperor himself for direct rule. With the arrival of the first prefect, Valerius Gratus, Jerusalem and Rome began an uneasy but workable alliance. There were no reports of serious organized uprisings during this time. This alliance stood until the Herod Agrippa ascended the throne of his grandfather in 41 A.D.

Considering the length of his rule, the relative calm of the political scene in Judea, and the static culture that distrusted change, Pilate's peaceful rule insured Pax Romana touched the lives of even those in the frontier province of Judea.

2 Pilate asked HIM, "Are you the King of the Jews?" In answer, HE said, "(That is what) you say."

15:2 "In answer" was actually a participial phrase ("having answered"). "You say" was an enigmatic answer. Some scholars insist Jesus used the phrase to answer in the affirmative ("Yes, I am the Messiah"). Others maintain Jesus used the answer to acknowledge the charge ("That is what you say"). The second meaning was favored in the translations above.

As one of his duties, Pilate sat in judgement over prisoners. In the case of Roman citizens, certain protocols were followed: a formal trial with written reports and the right of the prisoner to appeal (see Paul's trial in Acts 22:24-23:11, 24:1-25:12). But Jesus was not a Roman citizen, so the trial could be reduced to a hearing and a judgment.

As the first question of inquiry, Pilate asked Jesus about a particular kingship over Judea. The title "King of the Jews" extended back to independence under the Maccabees in 162 B.C. The Hasmonean descendants of the Maccabees claimed this title (not "King of Israel"). Even Herod the Great preferred this title. Now, Pilate sat in the same judgment seat formally reserved for the "King of the Jews." So, when Pilate asked the question, he really asked Jesus: "Do you want my position of power?"

Jesus responded by returning the responsibility of the question back to Pilate. By saying, "That's your opinion," Jesus rejected the political ramifications of the question, yet, left open the greater issue of the Kingdom. This question and answer paralleled those of 14:62:

(During Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin,) the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" 62 And Jesus said, "I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." (RSV)

Notice the subtle shift in the question. When Caiaphas asked Jesus if he were the Messiah, he answered with a direct "YES" and a prediction of the coming Kingdom. When Pilate asked if he were "King of the Jews," Jesus rejected the notion. Why did Jesus answer in these ways? Simply because the Kingdom transcended political power. Yet, the Sanhedrin presented that answer to a Roman ignorant of the religious shades of meaning it implied.

3 The chief priests accused HIM of many things. 4 But Pilate again asked HIM, saying, "Do YOU answer (with silence)? Look at how many thing they charge YOU (with)?" 5 But Jesus no longer made any answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

15:4-5 "Do you answer (with silence)?" is literally "Do you not answer nothing?" Here the double negative adds to the emphatic nature of the question. "But Jesus no longer made any answer" is literally "no longer did Jesus answer nothing." The double negative in this sentence parallels the two negatives in the question. Pilate made an emphatic question. Jesus' silence was just as emphatic, leaving Pilate confused.

These verses ask two questions. First, why were the chief priests present at the hearing? And, why didn't Jesus answer their charges?

In light of the other gospels, Pilate appeared to be a weak man, an official that lacked principle. After all, he washed his hand of Jesus in Matthew 27:24, he washed his hands of Jesus' fate. While he lacked principle, did he lack backbone? Was he, in truth, a wile politician who knew when to stand and when to bend?

Within the patronage structure of the Empire, power depended as much on who knew who as who held office. Both Pilate and the Jewish leadership had friends within the Emperor's ruling family. Even though Pilate could remove Caiaphas, did he want to? Did he depend upon the chief priest and Sanhedrin for advice in Jewish matters while he kept the leadership at arm's length? Pilate had made mistakes judging the political landscape in Judea (discussed below), yet he survived. Using the party of the chief priest made good political sense as an advisory body (where they seem to function here), yet he asserted his independence to keep them in their place.

As advisers (the prosecution, so to speak), the high priests made many charges. Like the charges during the Sanhedrin trial, Jesus remained silent (see 14:60). Under the rules of law and the cultural norms at the time, silence equaled assent. Pilate emphatically asked Jesus to respond. Jesus emphatically stood silent. No wonder Pilate stood amazed!

But the silence of Jesus took on a deeper meaning. Through his silence, he fulfilled Isaiah 53:7

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. (RSV)

The Semitic culture of Jesus' time was based on the honor and shame. Reputation ruled and debate built up or tore down one's honor. Silence within this boisterous culture was not seen as weakness, however, but as inner strength. Silence allowed one to suffer physical defeat, but claim moral victory. Silence, then, became the ultimate means to claim one's place. In silence, Jesus claimed the status of Messiah as Isaiah's Suffering Servant.

6 Every (Passover) feast, he released to them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 There was bound with the rioters one (prisoner) called Barabbas, who committed murder in the riot.

15:6 "Every (Passover) festival" is literally "according to the festival (tradition)." Mark indicated a pardon was a yearly tradition. It is interesting to note that this tradition is only found in the gospels. No other historical documents from the time mention a Passover release.

15:7 "Barabbas" is Aramaic for "son of the father." There is an interesting parallel with this phrase and the title "Son of Man." Both can be titles, not names. Both can refer to the common person, the "Average Joe." One was benevolent (Son of Man), while the other was malevolent (Barabbas). One (the Son of Man) suffered death in place of the other ("son of the father"). Barabbas, then, was an title for anyone who sinned. In one way or another, we are all "Barabbas" those who riot against God.

However, there have been men named "Abba" in centuries following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Since Matthew 27:16 gave the first name of Barabbas (interestingly enough "Jesus"), the existence of a man named "Jesus son of Abba" could simply reflect a detail in the historical memory of the community.

Mark's readers might have been familiar with the riot mentioned in 15:7, but the incident remains a mystery. (Was this Mark's reference to the Jewish revolt against the Romans (the so-called "Great Jewish Wars") which occurred about the same time the gospel was written?)

Mark introduced Barabbas, a figure with symbolic and thematic weight. As mentioned above, "Barabbas" meant "son of the father" in Aramaic. Ultimately, all humanity can trace our spiritual ancestry back to Adam, father of all humanity, the father of sin, enslaved to the Evil One, the first to taste death. As a symbol for everyone, Barabbas represented all weakened by Adam's disobedience.

Jesus, Son of the Father, did obey, even to death. This Passover was to be his passage from life to death. But the release of Barabbas represented humanity's passage from death to life! The festival that celebrated the freedom of the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement became a moment of humanity's liberation. Everyone, those who are Barabbas, sons and daughters of our father Adam, are now free, ransomed by the condemnation of God's Son! Those who follow the Son are now free from sin and death.

8 Having come up (to the praetorium where Pilate sat in judgment), the crowd began to ask (him) just as he (always) did for them. 9 Pilate answered them, "Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?" 10 For he knew that because of envy the chief priests had handed HIM over. 11 But the chief priests agitated the crowd so that he might release Barabbas to them instead. 12 Pilate again, having answered, said to them, "What, then, do you wish I should do with HIM you call 'King of the Jews?'" 13 They again shouted "Crucify him!"

15:8 The praetorium was the residence of the prefect. According to custom, the prefect lived in the palace of the former ruler. Two such residences existed in Jerusalem at the time: 1) the Fortress Antonia on the eastern wall of the city and 2) Herod's palace on the western wall. Both were build on high points in the city with quick assess to "hot spots" in case of riots. The Fortress Antonia with its immediate access to the Temple Mount housed the Roman cohort stationed in Jerusalem. (Housing infidels so close to the Temple caused distress among the populace, but the Temple authorities tolerated their presence). Both residences had been renovated by Herod at the same time he commissioned the rebuilding of the Temple.

Many scholars believe Pilate lived in Herod's palace along the western wall. The crowd in question "came up" from the lower part of the city to the residence on the high point. The residence had a balcony with a chair so the ruler could address the people and hold open court.

Mark introduced a new component into the Passion drama: the mob. Now the scene formed a triangle with Pilate facing the chief priests and the mob. Since mobs were always emotional and unpredictable, control, not suppression, was the key. Who controlled the mob? The chief priests.

Pilate had faced Jewish mobs before with mixed results. According to Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote for the Romans in the last part of the first century, Pilate controlled one mob with violence but lost control of another mob to non-violence.

Shortly after his appointment in 26 AD, Pilate had the Jerusalem cohort enter the city at night with their standards. These standards contained the image of the emperor Tiberius. Since the Jews worshiped a God without an image, an image that even remotely smacked of a foreign deity was deemed an act of idolatry. As the Roman troop were stationed so close to the Temple in the Fortress Antonia, their standards stood as a challenge to Judaism. Something had to be done!

Thousands of Jews marched on Caesarea. Surrounding Pilate's residence there, the mob began a non-violent stand-off. On the sixth day of the protest, Pilate ordered his troops to enclose the mob with an order: disperse or be killed. Then the mob did something extraordinary. They laid down to die, rather than see such an offense at their holy site. Astonished, Pilate relented. He pulled his troops back to allow the people to go home and removed the standards. The mob had won.

Another time, however, Pilate won. He procured moneys from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. This was a greater outrage that the standards, for that money was set aside for social welfare and public work projects within Jerusalem. Pilate had taken charitable contributions and used them like tax dollars. It was an act of stealing from God himself, and the people reacted rage.

This time, Pilate did not back down. Instead, he ordered his troops to dress as civilians, to mingle in the mob, and to club rioters indiscriminately. The counter-riot worked to disperse the mob, but at a high cost. Many Jews lost their lives in the attack and subsequent panic.

Clearly, Pilate learned his political skills quickly. He sensed when to give and when to push. In the case of Jesus, Pilate knew the accusations against the Master were an internal religious affair. Jesus did not pose a threat to Pilate's (or Rome's) authority. After all, the Temple guards had arrested only Jesus. None of his followers were on trial with him. One man could not cause that much trouble.

However, Pilate knew who controlled the mob. A riot on such a high holy day with so many pilgrims could get out of control. A cohort of 2,500 men could not control a city of 125,000. What was he to do?

Pilate stood in the midst of a moral dilemma: free the harmless and execute the guilty? Or give into the demands of his Jewish advisers and the mob they controlled? Don't we face the same pressures in our life: do the right thing or do the popular thing?

Even though we still face such pressures, how does God's gift of faith free us? Free us to do the right thing? Free us from the pain and spiritual consequences of doing the popular thing in the past? Why is the Sacrament of Reconciliation a celebration of that freedom?

How does faith change us from status of Barabbas to the status of God's Child?