As soon as morning came, the chief priests held a council meeting with the elders, the legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin. They bound Jesus, took him off to Pilate, and handed him over. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate. ‘You have said it,’ replied Jesus. The chief priests laid many accusations against him. Pilate again interrogated him: ‘Aren’t you going to make any reply? Look how many things they’re accusing you of !’ But Jesus gave no reply at all, which astonished Pilate. The custom was that at festival time he used to release for them a single prisoner, whoever they would ask for. There was a man in prison named Barabbas, one of the revolutionaries who had committed murder during the uprising. So the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do what he normally did. ‘Do you want me’, answered Pilate, ‘to release for you “the king of the Jews”?’ He said this because he knew that the chief priests had handed him over out of envy. The chief priests stirred up the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead to be released to them. So Pilate once again asked them, ‘What then do you want me to do with the one you call “the king of the Jews”?’ ‘Crucify him!’ they shouted again. ‘Why?’ asked Pilate. ‘What has he done wrong?’ ‘Crucify him!’ they shouted all the louder. Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd; so he released Barabbas for them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard, that is, the Praetorium, and called together the whole squad. They dressed Jesus up in purple; then, weaving together a crown of thorns, they stuck it on him. They began to salute him: ‘Greetings, King of the Jews!’ And they hit him over the head with a staff, and spat at him, and knelt down to do him homage. Then, when they had mocked him, they took the purple robe off him, and put his own clothes back on. Then they led him off to crucify him. They compelled a man called Simon to carry Jesus’ cross. He was from Cyrene, and was coming in from out of town. He was the father of Alexander and Rufus. They took Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which in translation means ‘Skull’s Place’. They gave him a mixture of wine and myrrh, but he didn’t drink it. So they crucified him; they ‘parted his clothing between them, casting lots’ to see who would get what. It was about nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription, giving the charge, read: ‘The King of the Jews’. They also crucified two bandits alongside him, one on his right and one on his left. People who were passing by abused him. They shook their heads at him. ‘Hah!’ they said. ‘You were going to destroy the Temple, were you? And build it again in three days? Why don’t you rescue yourself, and come down from the cross?’ The chief priests and the lawyers were mocking him in the same way among themselves. ‘He rescued others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t rescue himself. Messiah, is he? King of Israel, did he say? Well, let’s see him come down from the cross! We’ll believe him when we see that!’ The two who were crucified alongside him taunted him as well. At midday there was darkness over all the land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus shouted out in a powerful voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’ When the bystanders heard it, some of them said, ‘He’s calling for Elijah!’ One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a pole, and gave it him to drink. ‘Well then,’ he declared, ‘let’s see if Elijah will come and take him down.’ But Jesus, with another loud shout, breathed his last. The Temple veil was torn in two, from top to bottom. When the centurion who was standing facing him saw that he died in this way, he said, ‘This fellow really was God’s son.’ Some women were watching from a distance. They included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome. They had followed Jesus in Galilee, and had attended to his needs. There were several other women, too, who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
We stopped the car outside the most unlikely looking house. One wall looked as if it was going to collapse at any moment. The door was hanging off on one hinge. An upstairs window was broken. There was a rustle in the bushes nearby, as though we had interrupted a rodent in its afternoon work. Could this really be the place?
We thought back through the last hour of the drive. We had followed all the signposts. We had taken all the turns. We had checked the mileage. There was no other house in sight. This must be the place. But . . . why?
The resolution of that story must wait for another time. But unless we feel something of that same sense of horror and bafflement as we read Mark 15, we are missing the point. We have followed all the signposts, from the voice at Jesus’ baptism through Peter’s blurting out that Jesus was the Messiah, through all the events of Jesus’ early public career, through the transfiguration, right up to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the crowds hailing him as king, and then, dramatically and ironically, Caiaphas asking if Jesus really was the Messiah and Jesus saying yes, and much more. He’s the king! He’s the Messiah! He’s the one Israel has been waiting for! We’ve taken all the right turnings. We’ve checked our calculations. This must be the moment. There is nobody else in sight. Either he’s the Messiah or nobody is.
But . . . why? Why is he collapsing under the weight of the cross? Why is he hanging there on that cross? Why is his body broken, his head bleeding, his limbs pulled roughly apart and nailed to a plank? And what about those scavengers, the rats, the dogs, the birds, circling around and scenting carrion? How can this be the climax to the royal story, to Israel’s story, to the story of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven?
Perhaps we’ve made a mistake? Perhaps the ‘royal’ theme was only a feature of the earlier story, and perhaps Mark is now moving on to something else? No. Look through it again. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Do you want me to release for you “the king of the Jews”?’ ‘What shall I do with the one you call “the king of the Jews”?’ ‘Greetings, King of the Jews!’ ‘The inscription read: “The King of the Jews”.’ ‘Messiah, is he? King of Israel, did he say?’ And then – echoing all the way back to the royal announcement at the baptism – ‘This fellow really was God’s son.’ No mistake. This is what Mark is telling us. This is where the king comes into his own, enthroned (as he warned James and John) with one on his right and the other on his left.
So what sense does it make?
Mark must mean, somehow, that this is how, finally, God was establishing his kingdom through Jesus and his work. He must mean that this is the event that made sense of all those advance signs of the kingdom – the healings, the exorcisms, the multiplication of loaves, and so on. This is the event that declared that God was God, that he was picking up the reins of power to rule on earth as in heaven. It must mean that. It can only mean that.
But it must, then, mean that the very nature of power, of God’s exercise of power, of the power that rules the world, has been so radically redefined that most people simply wouldn’t recognize it. As Isaiah said, who would have believed that he was ‘the Arm of the Lord’ (53.1)? This isn’t what power looks like in our world. Pontius Pilate is the one (surely, we think) who shows us what power looks like. But no: this was the whole point of Jesus’ answer to James and John, ending with his own reference to Isaiah 53. Power has been turned upside down. One wise old writer commented, thinking of St Paul’s eventual trial before Nero, that the time would come when people would call their sons ‘Paul’ and their dogs ‘Nero’. In the same way, the only thing people tend to know about Pilate today is that (in one of the other accounts) he washed his hands to signify innocence when in fact he was horribly guilty: not only guilty, in other words, but devious. Nobody sings hymns to Pilate, or offers him their love and allegiance.
But Jesus? It is, of course, the crucified Jesus who has drawn to himself people of all sorts, especially people in dire need. Countless thousands have read this story and have seen their own story mirrored in it: their own tale of injustice, their own horrible betrayal, their own false accusation, their own unjustified humiliation, their own suffering, their own death.
So how does it then ‘work’? All those theories about the meaning of the cross, the theories that have concentrated on Jesus standing in for us and taking what we deserved, have always run the risk of sounding both mechanical and, in themselves, somehow unfair. If you reduce the whole thing to a legalistic punishment which Jesus takes so we don’t, you have scaled the whole thing right down to a point, and (what’s more) a point which many, quite understandably, find either puzzling or repelling.
But widen the scale again. Let your eyes scan the entire horizon of Mark 15, revealing as it does the place where God’s people were in pain, the place where the whole world was in pain. The tectonic plates of the moral universe ground together in the Middle East, producing this massive clash of empires and aspirations, of hopes and fears, of injustice and accusation and horror and misery. Let your gaze take all that in, and then see the truth of which that narrowly defined formula (‘we deserve punishment; Jesus takes it instead’) is simply one focal point.
The great truth is this: that the one who embodied Israel’s God, coming in person to rescue and rule, came to the point where the pain of the world, and of Israel, was most sharply focused, and took it upon himself. Those countless thousands could most likely not explain why they somehow knew this. They might well not have realized that Israel was designed, in God’s plan, to represent humanity and the world, and that Jesus, as Messiah, was called to represent Israel. That is, so to speak, how it ‘works’. But that’s not necessarily how the story ‘works’ on those who read it. As John Bunyan said, it was a great mystery to him why the sight of the cross should so ease him of his burden. But ease him it did.
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.