Passion 5: Mark 15:27-39
The Power of Love
Have you ever wondered why people, in times of disaster, open their hearts and give of themselves?
Love isn't really love until it has been put to the test. Both internal and external forces can challenge love. Love will either grow or wither, depending upon the response of those challenged. Does the person reach out and give love away, or does the person try to hold onto love as a prized possession?
In his final moments, Jesus was surrounded by enemies. Yet, as he breathed his last, he released the power of God's love: the Spirit. And with the Spirit, everything changed.
Mark concluded the Passion with the triple rejection, the time of darkness, and death of Jesus. In view of the past two studies, this was the climax of a sacred drama: the coronation of the Suffering Servant. In the trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus presented himself as God's chosen. In the trial before Pilate, the cheers of the mob confirmed his status. The soldiers "formally dressed" the Messiah and "enthroned" him on the cross. Now, he would hear from his court. Finally, as he committed his ultimate act as king, his status would be confirmed by God. This was his Son.
27 With HIM, they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 29 Passers-by were shaming HIM, shaking their heads and saying, "Aha! (Here is) the (ONE) destroying the Temple and building it in three days! 30 Save YOURSELF by coming down from the cross!" 31 In the same way, the chief priests, also mocking (HIM) with each other (along) with the scribes, were saying, "HE saved others. HE is not able to save HIMSELF. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross so we might see and believe!" And the ones crucified with HIM were reviling HIM.
15:28 "And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "He was reckoned with the transgressors." (RSV) Omitted in the best of the earliest manuscripts. This verse represents the editorial addition of an early Christian scribe.
The crucifixion of the two robbers echoed the request of John and James in Mark 10:37-41:
And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" And they said to him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." (RSV)
In the light of Psalm 22:16a (" . . . dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me . . . " RSV), only the evil could "sit" at his right and left at the advent of the Kingdom.
The scene was set for the "accolades" of the common people, the leadership, and those "closest" to the King. The "request" was the same: "Come down from the cross." Ironically, if Jesus did come down from the cross, he could not fulfill the role of the Suffering Servant. If he did come down from the cross, the people and leadership could not believe in him as God's Servant. He would have abdicated his throne. He would not longer be "King of Israel."
(An interesting side note: Mark inferred the Jewish leadership knew the implications of the title they used in 15:32. They did not use "King of the Jews," a distinction we noted earlier. If Jesus came down from the cross, they would have rejected him as God's Servant because he did not fulfill the role. But, they rejected him because he remained on the cross. In doing so, they rejected the fulfillment of God's will. And, they abdicated their role as leaders.)
The "accolades" became stronger as they reached closer to the "enthroned" Servant. The passers-by shamed him (literally "blasphemed" him; Mark recalled the charge of blasphemy the leadership made against Jesus in the trial before the Sanhedrin). The leadership mocked (or "sneered at) him (which recalled Psalm 22:7 "All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads." (RSV). Those crucified with Jesus "reviled" him; he was even distanced by those whom he came to serve! From the most distance to the closest, the cries of rejection become louder and more constant.
33 When it was the sixth hour, darkness happened over the entire countryside until the ninth hour. 34 At the ninth hour, JESUS cried out in a great sound, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" which, translated, is "My God, my God, why did you leave me?" 35 Some of those standing along side, having heard (HIS cry), were saying "Look! HE calls for Elijah!" 36 But, someone, having run and having filled a sponge of sour wine set around a reed, was offering HIM a drink, saying "Let us see if Elijah comes to lift HIM down."
15:33 "over the entire countryside" is literally "over the entire earth." Since this was an eschatological sign, darkness was the most important aspect, not its locality.
With the climax of the sacred drama, the signs of the end appeared: the darkness, the "moment," the look out for Elijah. These events formed one bookend Mark used to frame the death of the Servant.
Darkness was the first eschatological sign. It characterized the coming Day of Yahweh:
"Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light" Amos 5:18 RSV
"And on that day," says the Lord GOD, "I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight . . . I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day." Amos 8:9-10 RSV
The timing ("sixth hour . . . until the ninth hour" in Mark 15:33) represented the "moment" of the event ("kairos" in Greek). Combined with the darkness, the time of event marked the fulfillment of God's will for his Servant.
The time was at hand. And Jesus recognized his approaching demise. His cry, the first full line of Psalm 22 (Ps. 22:2) had a dual purpose. It was a cry of desperation from a dying man. But it also summed up the theological import of the moment. Since psalms were not numbered in the time of Jesus, Jews used the first line of a psalm to recall it, like modern people use the first line of a popular song to remember its lyrics and melody. The cry of Jesus ("My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?") reminded the people, the chief priests, and the condemned that, while the psalm described the fate of the rejected, it also celebrated God's vindication for that despised man. Within desperation, the seeds of hope were planted.
The crowd's interest in Elijah and the offer of vinegary wine was the last insult in the drama. Within the narrative, as the moment of fulfillment (and revelation) approached, Mark needed to address one last thread: the expected coming of Elijah to reveal the Messiah. Since Elijah did not die (according to 2 Kings 2:1-18, he was swept into heaven on a fiery chariot), he was to precede the Day of Judgment:
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse." Malachi 4:6-7 (RSV)
But the crowd did not see Elijah, for they rejected Jesus as Messiah. For Mark, this rejection of the Messiah would lead to a judgment against the land (the destruction of Palestine in the Great Jewish Wars that occurred about the same time Mark wrote his gospel).
Someone in the crowd offered Jesus vinegary wine (with its strong odor and taste) in order to revive him, to extend his suffering. ("They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." Psalm 69:22 RSV) In their sport, they awaited the demise of Jesus with great sarcasm.
37 JESUS, having given off a great sound, breathed out (HIS last breath). 38 The veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. 39 The centurion, standing along side opposite HIM, having seen that HE breathed out (HIS last breathe), said, "Truly, this MAN was the SON OF GOD!"
15:39 "Son of God" could be translated "a son of divinity." In this latter sense, the centurion would have seen Jesus as a Greek folk hero, a man who pleased the gods. I preferred to translate it as an exclamation of faith because 1) the death of Jesus was the initial revelation of the Kingdom, 2) Jesus was (and is) the focal point of the Kingdom, and 3) the Gentiles (non-Jews represented the Roman officer) gladly received the Good News while Jesus' contemporaries did not. In fact, in Mark, Romans were the last to abandon Jesus in the Passion (Pilate); they were also the first to believe in him (the centurion). The first to abandon Jesus (his apostles) were the last to accept his resurrection.
Jesus shouted and died. The shout and dying breathe had eschatological significance to the early Christian community. For the shout, consider:
"The Lord ROARS from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake." Joel 3:16a (RSV)
"The Lord will ROAR from on high, and from his holy habitation utter his voice; he will ROAR mightily against his fold, and SHOUT, like those who tread grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth." Jeremiah 25:30 (RSV)
For the breath out, consider:
"The lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the BREATH of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming." 2 Thessalonians 2:8 (RSV)
In the context of the Lord's Baptism and Transfiguration, the divine shout was like thunder, roaring and rumbling the divine will. And the word for breath ("pneuma" in Greek) was the same word as Spirit. For Mark, the shout of Jesus signified the judgment of God on the Day of the Lord. His dying breath released the Spirit into the world, the divine life-force that would recreate the cosmos (see John 20:22). Both were signs of the end times.
With the release of the Spirit, everything changed. The veil of the sanctuary rent from top to bottom. And even those who murdered the Holy One came to believe.
Renting of a garment in the time of Jesus represented destruction of a trust. The underlining emotion could be rage, sorrow, or scandal. But, just like the garment could not be repaired, the relationship (even covenant) between the parties involved was forever broken. From this vantage point, renting also meant condemnation.
In Mark 14:61-64, Caiaphas, the chief priest, rent his garments after Jesus declared he was the Messiah. Through the destruction of his own clothing, Caiaphas rejected and condemned Jesus. Now the Spirit, expressing the Father's sorrow and rage, rent the garment of divine dwelling place. The Father rejected and condemned the hierarchy of the Temple. The torn veil, now beyond repair, also represented the absence of the divine in worship. The Spirit would soon dwell in Christian community. Their worship through the sacrifice of his Son would please the Father, not the empty ritual of the corrupt priesthood at Jerusalem.
Who witnessed Jesus breathing the Spirit out on the world? The centurion. True witness of God's activity in the world demanded a response. Only the unique Son of God could give the world God's very Spirit. And just as the Spirit "inspired" Jesus to ministry, it "inspired" the Roman to recognize Jesus for who he was. "Truly, this man was the Son of God!"
How has the Spirit helped you witness to Christ? How have you declared Jesus to be the "Son of God?"
In hindsight, the Passion presented a thumbnail view of God from a Christian perspective. He gave his Son to evil men so we could be free (remember Barabbas?). His Son gave himself to the whip and the cross, to the insults of the soldiers and the rebuke of those who he came to serve, so we might have hope even in desolation. And in death he gave us his Spirit, so we might give to others. Our God, then, is a God who gives, gives, gives...
When the author of 1 John 4:8 declared "God is love," he meant "God gives." We who call ourselves Christians are to do the same.
Reflect on the love God has poured upon you. How has God's love helped you to love others, even when you wanted to hold back? How has God's love helped you, when you felt you could not give any more?