Thought for the day
There is a core similarity between the four accounts of the death of Jesus in the New Testament. However, they differ in sequence and in details, allowing various understandings of the cross to unfold. Because the death of Jesus was and is such a deeply mysterious and indeed perplexing event, different dimensions are explored and laid bare by different New Testament writers. None is more stark than Mark’s Gospel: all who knew Jesus have failed him; his only “helper” is a complete outsider, Simon, the unknown passer-by. The only acknowledgment comes from the unnamed Gentile soldier, accidentally present.
O Lord, we tell again of the death of your Messiah, Jesus the Christ. In his story we see the story of your love as you reach out to us in the darkness of tragic death and tremendous suffering. Touch our hearts again with your compassionate love that we may be return to you with all our hearts.
Mark 15:21 The soldiers forced a passerby to carry his cross, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country (he was the father of Alexander and Rufus). 22 They brought Jesus to a place called Golgotha (which is translated, “Place of the Skull”). 23 They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24 Then they crucified him and divided his clothes, throwing dice for them, to decide what each would take. 25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The king of the Jews.” 27 And they crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left. 29 Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way even the chief priests—together with the experts in the law —were mocking him among themselves: “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! 32 Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!” Those who were crucified with him also spoke abusively to him.
Mark 15:33 Now when it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 Around three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah!” 36 Then someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Leave him alone! Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down!” 37 But Jesus cried out with a loud voice and breathed his last. 38 And the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood in front of him, saw how he died, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 40 There were also women, watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 When he was in Galilee, they had followed him and given him support. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were there too.
Mark 15:42 Now when evening had already come, since it was the day of preparation (that is, the day before the Sabbath), 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a highly regarded member of the council, who was himself looking forward to the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised that he was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him if he had been dead for some time. 45 When Pilate was informed by the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 After Joseph bought a linen cloth and took down the body, he wrapped it in the linen and placed it in a tomb cut out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone across the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was placed.
The story of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and burial is told in all four Gospels and broadly the accounts are similar. However, there are differences both in small details and in larger scenes, as well as in sequence and theology. The writers use these differences to present in narrative form a variety of explorations and theologies of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Attention to the details provides clues as to what each of the Gospel writers wished to emphasise for the audience of the time of writing. Altogether, they form rich four-fold account for the believing reader.
Kind of writing
This is a large narrative made up of many scenes. It is very likely that the earliest account of Jesus’ life was precisely the story of his death and resurrection. This was the central faith event which motivated all the other memories of his teaching and ministry. It is very likely that in Mark’s account we have the earliest written version of the last week of Jesus’ life.
Old Testament background
Among the references to the OT, these stand out as especially significant here:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Psalms 22:1, 6-7, 18)
“They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Psalms 69:21)
New Testament foreground
There is a powerful foreground in Mark’s Gospel itself. As has often been observed, the narrative offered by Mark is in two great halves, chapters 1-8 leading to the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi (8:27) and chapters 9-16 leading to the confession of the centurion at the cross (15:39). This broad shape is anticipated in the first line of the Gospel which functions as a kind of title: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1).
The true confession of Jesus as the Messiah calls for correction so that the kind of Messiah he would be might be communicated. This is the substantial content of a bridge section, chs. 8-10, which this teaching is found coupled with a corresponding teaching on discipleship. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”” (Mark 9:30-31) “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”” (Mark 10:32-34)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-9)
Verses 21-24 Simon of Cyrene is known to the community and so his sons are mentioned. The drink was a gesture of pity to dull the awareness. V. 24 hints at the fulfilment of Psalm 22.
Verses 25-32 In this Gospel, the sequence is carefully marked: “As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” (Mark 15:1) “It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.” (Mark 15:25) “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.” (Mark 15:33) “When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath…” (Mark 15:42). The jeer about the Temple is interesting and may reflect back on the Temple Action in 11:15-19, as well as being a reference to a conversation at the trial (“Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” But even on this point their testimony did not agree.” [Mark 14:57-59]).
Verses 33-39 The darkness is symbolic, using apocalyptic imagery to say that something to with the end of time has taken place. The prayer of Jesus comes from a psalm of trust. Elijah was commonly expected to usher in the Messiah, so mention is ironic on the lips of the bystanders and theologically fitting for the faithful readers. The tearing of the Temple veil shows that the new access to God is through this Jesus. The centurion’s words fulfil the programme of Mark 1:1 and also illustrate that it is not insiders who have the best insight but outsiders.
Verses 40-41 This is unexpected—suddenly we are told Jesus was not totally without support. It is important that they are women (only); women will also be the first witnesses to the resurrection. A flashback across the ministry is also triggered.
Verses 42-47 This intriguing story suddenly brings on stage a faithful man, this time a Jew, matching the faith of the Gentile centurion. He respects the law about criminals mentioned in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 and so requests the right to bury Jesus. Again, the ministry is recalled by a mention of the kingdom of God. He performs minimal burial rites and closes the tomb. In Mark 16:1 Mary Magdalene will be mentioned again.
Pointers for prayer
1. The injustice and brutality of the Passion of Jesus make it a difficult story to read as good news. Yet in the midst of that cruelty the courageous, faithful and self-sacrificing love that Jesus shows for us shines through. Recall moments when the account of the passion has moved you in a special way. How have you experienced blessing through it?
2. Human love can also be painful. When have you experienced the courage, fidelity and self-sacrifice of others in their love of you? When have you shown that kind of love to others as a parent, a spouse, or a friend or in some other relationship?
3. We read the Passion story in the light of resurrection. What seemed a humiliating and shameful failure for Jesus was not the end of the story. Perhaps with hindsight you can look back on something that seemed like a tragedy at the time but out of that tragedy new life and new possibilities followed for you.
4. For each of us, there arise situations in which we feel things are outside our control and we are utterly helpless and powerless. We are not alone in this experience. In his Passion, Jesus is one with us in this human helplessness. When have you found that the presence of another helped you through a crisis? When have you been able to help another with your presence?
O God of eternal glory, you anointed Jesus your servant to bear our sins, to encourage the weary, to raise up and restore the fallen.
Keep before our eyes the splendour of the paschal mystery of Christ, and, by our sharing in the passion and resurrection, seal our lives with the victorious sign of his obedience and exaltation.
We ask this through Christ, our liberator from sin, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.