Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 1); November 21, 2021

Why Mark 15?

Why do I want to study Mark 15 rather than the lectionary-appointed verses from John 18?

The only other time this section of the Markan composition appears in the Revised Common Lectionary is on the Sunday of the Passion in Year B. On that Sunday in many congregations, the message is omitted in favor of a comprehensive reading of the Passion account.

I support that practice wholeheartedly on that Sunday. Since many of our Lutheran tribe these days focus on the individual dimension of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday and skip Good Friday worship altogether, Passion Sunday is likely the only time during the year when they might hear the entire Passion account. Dramatic readings of the text, especially with close attention to the orality/aurality of the Markan composition will be more effective than any sermon could be on that day.

Photo by Isabella Mendes on Pexels.com

The downside of Passion Sunday reading practice is that we get very little chance to interpret and proclaim the cross-shaped Reign of Christ as portrayed in the Markan composition. If preaching is included in the worship on Passion/Palm Sunday, it is more likely to focus on the Triumphal Entry than on the broad sweep of the Passion story or the brutality of the crucifixion. I did that, in fact, in my blog post for Passion Sunday, 2021, and would like to address the deficiency I created.

The Johannine lection and our reading from the Markan composition have many things in common, so the study of one text can assist in the interpretation of the other. However, that lection is truncated to the point of distortion. At the very least, it should include Pilate’s question in verse 38. I am wary of the anti-Jewish potential in that text (a problem in every Passion week text, of course), the potential for this text to lead to “other-worldly” interpretations of the Reign of Christ, and the potential for this text to be interpreted exclusively rather than inclusively.

I’m not suggesting that the Markan composition has fewer issues in regard to the previous paragraph. In fact, Mark 15 has those issues in common with John 18 and requires the same cautious attention. If that is the case, then we might as well stick with the gospel account for the year and rely on some of the work we’ve done in the past weeks to build some firewalls against these errors.

I want to digress for a moment. I have often wondered why we are saddled with a three-year lectionary in the traditions that follow such a schedule of readings. I know the historical reasons for this practice, but those reasons are no longer regarded as valid. The Markan composition is not an abbreviated or defective account of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (no matter what some of the early Church fathers might have thought).

The Markan composition is shorter but has no lack of depth or complexity. I would rather give the Gospel of John its own year rather than shortchange both Mark and John to sustain a three-year schedule.

That being said, we should not miss the opportunity to reflect on the Cross in some depth outside of the bounds and discipline of Holy Week. We have more than enough tendency to skip over the Passion story and get to Easter as quickly as possible. I want to take this opportunity for reflection and proclamation in the absence of that pressure to get to the happy ending immediately. And I want to give the Markan composition as much airtime as possible.

The question above is related to but not the same as another homiletical issue for those of us in liturgical, church year, traditions. Do I preach the “day” or the “text”? My inclination, which is a matter purely of personal preference, is to preach the text. Opportunities to describe the day will present themselves in the text. They also appear in the Propers of a liturgical tradition in the prayers and eucharistic liturgy. Therefore, I think that the “day” can take care of itself for the most part.

Last week, we performed and interpreted Mark’s Apocalyptic Discourse. That discourse was Jesus’ final teaching to the disciples. In it he “uncovered” for them what was really happening underneath the surface events of his life and upcoming death. Now that uncovering continues in the Markan passion account.

Michael Chan notes in his workingpreacher.org commentary that “the suffering of Jesus was revelatory in several ways.” His suffering, Chan suggests, revealed that his disciples and friends abandoned him in his time of trial. They did not, I would observe, live out the words of the Apocalyptic Discourse, that the one who patiently endures to the end will be saved. “His suffering,” Chan writes, “revealed the fragility of his friends’ loyalty and courage.”

His death revealed the “profound cruelty” of the Imperial system and those religious leaders who supported or at least accommodated that system. “In Jesus’ suffering we can see the dangerous synergy that can occur between corrupt state power and ‘mob’ justice,” Chan continues. “The trial of Jesus exposed how the legal system of the time could be manipulated to serve corrupt interests.”

I cannot avoid the intersections with and similarities between Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and the treatment of Black Americans both past and present. There has certainly been a “synergy…between corrupt state power and ‘mob’ justice” in that history and in the present. You might want to read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, Brian Stevenson’s Just Mercy, or Sherrilyn Ifill’s On the Courthouse Lawn. I will probably refer to all of these books in the posts this week.

Right now, however, I am working my way through Burton and Defner’s new book, Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Allow me to quote from their introduction.

“Americans recognize [the Supreme Court] as the institution that ended segregation, guarantees fair trials, and protects free speech and the right to vote. But the reality is more complicated, especially in the area of race and civil rights. In this area, those accomplishments date from a short period in history, from the 1930s to the early 1970s. Before that time, the Supreme Court spent much of its history ignoring or suppressing those rights, and in the half century since the early 1970s the Court’s record on civil rights has retreated far more than it has advanced” (page 1).

Crucifixion, in whatever guise, reveals the collaboration of systems and structures to keep the privileged in power and the oppressed in their place. This was true in first-century Judea. It was true in the United States following the failure of Reconstruction. And it is true in the ways the system is undergirding White Christian Nationalism today. One has only to follow, for example, the trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery to see these systems and structures in operation.

The structural and systemic response is not inevitable, however. I think Mark 15 can be read chiastically, as has been the case with other texts in the Markan composition. The purpose of this analysis is to identify the “center” of the section in the account. Here’s my rough and ready analysis of Mark 15.

Markan TextThemeMain players
1-5Jerusalem authorities and PilateAuthorities
6-15BarabbasThe crowd
16-20Hail, King of the JewsSoldiers
21-24Pick up your crossSimon of Cyrene
25-39Hail, King of the JewsCenturion
40-41The depositionThe Women
42-47The BurialJoseph of Arimathea

The center of this scene is the moment when Simon of Cyrene (the “other Simon” who does not abandon Jesus) picks up Jesus’ cross. When that happens, people begin to change, at least in the Markan composition. The centurion declares, or wonders if, “this man was the Son of God.” The women follow Jesus not only to the cross but to the tomb. And Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council who was waiting for the coming Reign of God, arranges for proper burial.

All of the skills and strategies of the Markan composer are on display here. In addition to the chiastic structure, we have another “minor character,” Simon of Cyrene, who embodies authentic discipleship. His act is surrounded by the witness and serving of the women, most of whom remain nameless, although Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses are named at the end of the text. The male disciples have fled, but the women have endured steadfastly to the end.

Yet another “minor character” makes the announcement that brings us back to the first verses of the Markan account. This account is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “Jesus’ messianic identity only became apparent at the moment of his death and to the most unlikely of people,” Michael Chan writes, “It is humbling to realize that most of Jesus’ contemporaries were unable to comprehend his messianic mission, even when Jesus stated his messianic identity explicitly (14:62).”

The text is filled with irony as the true nature of Jesus’ royal rule is uncovered and revealed. Jesus is, indeed, the “King of the Jews.” Pilate becomes a prophet and is astonished by this strange character in front of him. Barabbas, (the name means “son of the father”) is released and the Beloved Son suffers and dies.

The soldiers return his clothes and then take them away. The two who occupy seats in the Kingdom are now at Jesus’ right and left on their own crosses. The temple is invaded, and the centurion sees the truth. The stone that the builders rejected is laid to rest in a tomb hewn out of rock. I am sure you can find more items for this inventory.

The One who came not to be served but to serve has given his life as a ransom for many. That’s how the Markan composer urges us to experience Christ the King.

References and Resources

Alexamenos graffito: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito.

Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/not-without-gods-power.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/commentary-on-mark-151-47.

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