Mocking Jesus — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Have you ever been mocked for being a Jesus follower? If so, you’re in good company.

In 1857, explorers uncovered a bit of anti-Christian graffiti in a room of a building called the domus Gelotiana on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The hand-drawn cartoon depicts a person hanging on a cross. The figure has the head of a donkey rather than that of a human. The caption of the cartoon reads something like “Alexamenos worships his (or a) god.” At the foot of the cross is a figure, presumably said Alexamenos, raising a hand in salute or worship.

In the next room is an inscription that reads “Alexamenos is faithful.” This may be a reply or rebuttal to the graffiti in the first room. Of course, we cannot discern the tone either of the cartoon or the response. This may have been a hostile exchange. It may have been a bit of good-natured ribbing between friends. It may have been a way to identify the location of Alexamenos to authorities seeking to regulate or persecute Alexamanos and other Jesus followers. We can’t know for sure.

Photo by Rodrigo DelPer on Pexels.com

Scholars believe the graffito was drawn sometime in the late 100s to the early 200s of the Common Era, about a century after the four canonical gospels were put to the page. At this time, pagan writers regularly ridiculed Christians for worshipping a crucified and dishonored criminal. It may be that some of these pagan authors believed that Christians practiced donkey worship, an accusation applied to Jews before the Christian era.

Depicting a character with the head of an ass is a time-honored trope in the literature of lampooning. I am reminded, for example, of the fate of Nick Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bottom and his hapless colleagues provide the comic relief during the drama.

Bottom’s head is transformed by Puck into that of a donkey. In that guise, he becomes the object of infatuation for Titania, the fairy queen, who has been bewitched by a love potion. The situation provides no end of hilarity, mostly at Bottom’s expense. Bottom merits some of this treatment, in Shakespeare’s telling, because he has an inappropriately high opinion of himself and his own dramatic talents. The script takes him down a notch, and (as the Bard might say), all’s well that ends well.

Mockery is in the historical DNA of the Jesus followers movement (what I abbreviate as the JFM). This is especially true in the Markan composition. In his climactic “passion prediction” in Mark 10, Jesus declares that the Gentiles who execute Jesus will begin the process by mocking him and spitting on him. That description comes to pass in Mark 15:20 when the soldiers mock him as part of their practice of torture. Those who pass by the cross continue the mocking in Mark 15:31.

It was no worse treatment than a failed revolutionary messiah deserved. Jesus made it clear that members of the JFM could expect similar treatment in the future. In Mark 13, he tells the disciples that they can anticipate betrayals and beatings, interrogations and internment, humiliation and hatred. This sort of treatment, Jesus declares, is not a sign of failure but rather of faithfulness.

I don’t know about you, but I have rarely been subjected to mockery because I’m a Jesus follower. When I was in college, I took a three-year sojourn into philosophical atheism. I thought at the time that this was the only reasonable path for intelligent people. I discovered that I could not survive the existential vacuum such a perspective seemed to demand of me. After a bit of personal drama, I returned to the path of Jesus following.

Even then, I was not really “mocked.” An honored mentor received the news of my lapse from atheism with a rueful and puzzled shake of the head. Friends and classmates simply thought I had gone crazy in a new but not particularly novel sort of way. Other Jesus followers rejoiced that I had returned to the fold and hoped that I had learned my lesson. Only one of my former atheist compatriots had the integrity to call me “a stupid ass who exchanged hard truth for easy certainty.”

Coming back to the life of the Church did not subject me to ridicule. Instead, it was celebrated and rewarded. Obviously, it led me to my life’s work inside the confines of the Church. I’m not complaining in the least. I’m simply observing. In my experience, being identified as a Jesus follower presented no downside. No one was drawing donkey-headed cartoons to mock me and lampoon my faith. Instead, I was on the path to privilege and respectability.

That hardly sounds like mocking. It has nothing to do with dying. I am not sure I’ve ever gotten very far as a member of the JFM.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that persecution and pain are the means to demonstrate my belonging. The Christian gospels do not valorize victimhood or celebrate suffering. But the gospel accounts certainly remind us that faithful following is likely to get us into real trouble with the guarantors of the status quo. If our discipleship doesn’t get us into “good trouble,” we may need to wonder if we’re on the right path. Donkey-headed cartoons are not the goal of following Jesus, but they are often the outcome of such faithful following.

There is nothing attractive or virtuous about Jesus’ suffering and death in the Markan composition of the gospel. There’s lots of groaning and crying out. There’s lots of blood and screams. There’s plenty of mockery and humiliation. It’s not attractive or controlled. There’s lots of human cruelty and straight-up tyranny.

In the midst of it, however, something strange happens. The world gets turned upside down. In spite of the cruel ignorance of the torturers, “the reader understands that these characters’ actions and words point toward a truth unknown to them,” Joel Marcus writes, “royal garments and crowns rightfully do belong to Jesus, who will show his kingship precisely by not saving himself by dying on the cross. Although the degrading slave’s death of crucifixion seems to the mockers to be a decisive contradiction of the claim that Jesus is a king,” Marcus concludes, “the reader knows the opposite is true” (page 74).

Marcus notes that Jesus does not claim the title, “King of the Jews,” for himself. It is assigned to him by his mocking torturers and the contemptuous crowd. The titulus, the sign on the cross, “was meant not only to indicate the charge against Jesus,” Marcus suggests, “but also to continue the mockery that was intrinsic to the process of crucifixion” (page 83).

But what happens, Marcus asks, if the mockery itself is mocked? “And what happened,” he wonders, “if the prisoner mocked by crucifixion as a person of high status or a presumptive monarch responded to his torture with unaccountable dignity?” (pages 86-87). This may best account, for example, for the response from the centurion in Mark 15:39 – “Truly, this man was the son of God.”

The centurion’s confession “represents the Christological high point of Mark’s Gospel and echoes the repeated declaration that Jesus is God’s son,” Kelly Iverson notes. The confession contradicts Jesus’ opponents and is made just when their victory seems assured. And the statement itself has a phonetic and a rhythmic pattern that makes it both memorable and impactful. It comes at the end of a long, tense, and potentially disastrous narrative and creates the opportunity for the good news to break through that tension.

It is the very visibility of the cross and the dignity of the sufferer that bring about this unmasking. I can’t help but think about the televised images and video, for example, of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was the combination of Bull Connors’ cruelty and the nonviolent dignity of the protesters that filled our small screens. It was that combination which provoked the nationwide outrage that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation.

It is not that suffering as a victim is good in itself. However, bearing up under the weight of punishment with faith, hope, and love has the power to convert those who are watching – some of whom had previously been in the company of the mockers. Suddenly the joke was on them.

We Jesus followers believe that God ratifies this power to change the world by…changing the world. That’s what the Good News of Resurrection is all about. The powers of sin, death, and the Devil are turned upside down and inside out. The mockery of Creation – the captivity of all things under an alien power – is mocked by the Creator who deigns to be crucified. Suddenly the joke is on the jerks.

If I embrace that Good News and the power of the Resurrection, then I might be given the courage to resist the Powers by mocking the mockers. That would mean stepping out of my safe, establishment, institutional Church bubble and into the hurly-burly world of pagans in power. These days, a number of those pagans in power call themselves “Christians,” so the confrontation has become ever so much more complicated.

At the end of our year with the Markan composition, this is where we find ourselves. Will I put myself in places where someone wants to put an ass’s head on me and laugh themselves silly? Will I keep pushing until the laughter turns to rage and some wish to bash in my ass’s head? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I want to flee in fear like any self-respecting disciple in Mark’s account. But perhaps I’ll do better once in a while.

After all, my story is no more complete than Mark’s story…

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.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

IVERSON, KELLY R. “A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 130, no. 2, The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 329–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/41304204.

Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/27638347.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/05/why-dictators-dont-like-jokes/.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.

Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 5); November 21, 2021

Turn On the Applause Sign

How should one perform the mockery of a mockery? Let’s look at that performance critical question through the lens of Mark 15:39, the words of the centurion. I would commend the article by Kelly R. Iverson and note that the word “confession” is not taken at face value. After all, the question is precisely this. What is the nature of the centurion’s statement – dismissive snort, cynical rejection, confused wondering, faithful confession, or something else?

“While various grammatical and historical issues weigh on the interpretation of this statement,” Iverson writes, “the verse hinges on elements that are not readily obvious in the textual remains of Mark’s story” (page 329). He leads us to wonder about the “paralinguistic” and “extralinguistic” features of the performance – “the intonation of the storyteller’s voice, gestures, facial expression, and so on…” (page 330). These nonverbal features are not available to us in the written Markan composition.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Iverson reminds us of an important distinction at this point. I am not asking about what the centurion actually said and how he actually said it. That information is beyond our reach and may or may not have impacted how the Markan composer told the story. Instead, the intent is “to understand the force of the centurion’s statement as reflected in the Markan passion narrative” (page 330). We can take a real stab at that understanding, and Iverson’s article moves that conversation forward in helpful ways.

For years, I have leaned in the direction of hearing the centurion’s words as either a confused question or a cynical rejection. I have been in good company in that regard. Iverson, however, offers solid reasons based on the tools of performance criticism to hear and play the words of the centurion as a sincere confession of faith. But, as he notes, it could also appear to be such a sincere confession while actually being a confession of disbelief and mockery (page 332).

Iverson moves deeper into the analysis by examining the “metalinguistic commentary” in the Markan composition. Look at the Gospel of Mark and see how many times, when a character (especially Jesus, but not exclusively) speaks, there is a description of what the character says. Iverson points to Mark 1:25, where we hear that Jesus rebuked the demon and then told the demon to come out of the man. The description “he rebuked him” is the metalinguistic commentary that precedes the “and.”

The composer uses this commentary to make sure the listeners understand how the characters intend their words. “Thus, while the Gospel has been shaped by an oral culture and one might expect an absence of metalinguistic language,” Iverson writes, “just the opposite appears to be the case: Mark frequently includes the verbal forms that specify the manner and/or meaning of reported speech, even when such ‘editing in’ is largely unnecessary.” Thus, metalinguistic commentary is a feature of the Markan composition to keep in mind as we interpret the text.

Iverson observes that the Markan passion account contains numerous metalinguistic commentaries. In the passion account, these commentaries are attached without exception to those who mock, accuse, torture, and execute Jesus. As we observed in the previous post, the Markan script mocks the mockers through the use of thick and artful irony. “In Mark’s passion, the pervasive use of metalinguistic indicators seems to be a deliberate strategy to demarcate certain kinds of characters,” Iverson writes. “The absence of such language surrounding the Roman centurion is conspicuous and suggests a more favorable portrayal” (page 335).

In addition, the word translated as “truly” generally “functions in concert with assertions that are genuine and real” (page 330). In light of the general patterns in the Markan composition, Iverson argues that it is unlikely that the centurion’s confession is part of the mocking of Jesus. This is not a conclusive argument, but I find it persuasive enough to lead me further into the conversation.

Scholars have struggled, Iverson notes, to reconcile the centurion’s “confession” with the political and social position of a typical Roman centurion. But, Iverson argues, that is a conversation about what we might surmise the centurion actually said. That’s an historical rather than a literary or performance-critical question. But if we remember that the Markan composition was performed as an oral/aural event, we must bring a different set of interpretive lenses than those offered by historical investigation.

“The question thus becomes how the Markan story shapes the audience’s perception,” Iverson proposes, “and whether the evangelist attempts to subvert stereotypical assumptions about the Roman centurion” (page 339). I would suggest that this strategy is consistent with the Markan effort to make a mockery of mockery.

“One of the interesting features of Mark’s Gospel,” Iverson continues, “is that individuals who are otherwise associated with a particular character or group are occasionally depicted in a manner that defies audience expectations” (page 339). If we think for a bit, the examples multiply. Iverson points to the “good scribe” in Mark 12 and Joseph of Arimathea in Mark 15 as examples. The Syro-Phoenician woman, Jairus, and Bartimaeus also certainly fit this characterization.

“Mark’s selection of characters at this juncture appears to be a calculated attempt to subvert audience expectations,” Iverson argues. He proposes that the Markan composer treats the centurion in a similar fashion. I would point out that the centurion is another one of the “minor characters” who express trust in Jesus when the major characters fall short in that regard. Both of these factors argue in favor of the centurion’s authentic confession of faith.

The third section of Iverson’s article is entitled “Confession as an Audience Applause Line.” I have discussed “applause lines” in the Markan composition in some previous posts, but this takes the conversation a bit further. Iverson refers to Whitney Shiner’s 2003 book, Proclaiming the Gospel, in this regard, a work that I have referenced in some previous posts.

According to Shiner, a confession is a place in the composition where applause was expected from the first audiences. Such applause expresses appreciation, builds and strengthens community identity, and marks a division in the outline of the text. That third point means that Mark 15:40-41 really belongs with the next section of the narrative, the burial of Jesus.

Shiner points to three elements in applause lines in the Markan composition. Often these lines are associated with Jesus triumphing over opponents in some way. The ways in which the words are formed and phrases constructed often indicates a climax to be met with applause. And the applause is invited at natural breaks in the script. Mark 15:39 fits with each of these three criteria, according to Iverson, although Shiner himself doesn’t make that connection in the book.

The centurion’s confession “represents the Christological high point of Mark’s Gospel and echoes the repeated declaration that Jesus is God’s son,” Iverson notes. The confession contradicts Jesus’ opponents and is made just when their victory seems assured. And the statement itself has a phonetic and a rhythmic pattern that makes it both memorable and impactful. It comes at the end of a long, tense, and potentially disastrous narrative and creates the opportunity for the good news to break through that tension.

“In sum,” Iverson writes, “it seems that the participatory indicators that Shiner identifies are all evident in the centurion’s pronouncement, suggesting that the account has been deliberately structured to allow for the interjection of applause in response to the announcement of Jesus’ true identity” (page 344).

It may seem odd that the crucifixion narrative would conclude with an outburst of applause, and this is why, according to Shiner, he does not include it as an example of such a line. But Iverson has inspected some similar martyrological texts and notes that the suffering of martyrs often concludes with expressions of joy and hope in the face of apparent disaster and defeat. The same is true of the lament psalms in the Hebrew scriptures, which always end on a note of hope (including Psalm 22, put to work in the Markan composition in this chapter).

Iverson also takes us to the connection between crucifixion and exaltation examined in detail by Joel Marcus and notes that the subtext is not all gloom and doom. While the room would have been somber during the telling of the crucifixion narrative, the mockery of the mockers, culminating in the enthronement of Christ as King, would be reason for applause at the end of that part of the story.

Iverson notes that the Markan composer is quite intentional in how the composer builds audience identification. It could have been through graphic descriptions of Jesus’ physical suffering. That would develop a kind of horrified sympathy (a la The Passion of the Christ). But that sympathy maintains distance rather than creates identification. The storyteller involves the audience in the emotional suffering of Jesus – something we can all identify with, and which reduces the distance between us and Jesus.

“In Marks story,” Iverson writes, “it is the contrast between the repeated mockery of Jesus and the centurion’s confession that prompts audience applause. The audience’s anger, generated by the cascade of mockery,” he concludes, “is redirected at the moment of confession into an eruption of applause and exultation” (page 349). The centurion’s confession becomes the audience’s confession.

Thus, we come as listeners to a full-circle connection in the Markan composition. It is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. At the foot of the cross, the centurion is drawn to affirm that good news. Now the scene is set in Mark for the unfolding of the rest of the story.

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.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

IVERSON, KELLY R. “A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 130, no. 2, The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 329–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/41304204.

Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/27638347.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/05/why-dictators-dont-like-jokes/.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.

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Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 4); November 21, 2021

Mocking the Mockery

I have examined at length the relationship between the Markan account of the crucifixion and contemporary reflections on the nature and significance of torture. Jesus as the victim of torture is celebrated this Sunday as the Messiah (Christ) and Son of God, in spite of his shame-filled and torturous death. What does this mean for us and how do we proclaim this reality in a way that can make any sense?

Joel Marcus offers an informative and provocative article describing crucifixion as “parodic exaltation.” Marcus is one of the most reliable commentators on the Markan composition as a literary product, and I’m always interested in what he has to say. He knows and notes that irony is one of the Markan composer’s favorite tools, whether the output is oral or written. Nowhere is that irony more evident or more pronounced than in the composer’s testimony to Jesus’ death by crucifixion.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

This irony is hardly limited to the Markan composition. “The central irony in the passion narratives of the Gospels,” he writes, “is that Jesus’ crucifixion turns out to be his elevation to kingship” (page 73). Perhaps it is a sign that we no longer hear the passion narratives in their fullness that this irony is lost on us and that we have to work so hard in preaching and teaching to recover that irony.

Marcus notes the particular way that the Markan composition expresses this irony. The composer does not refer once to Jesus as “king” until chapter 15. Then the composer refers to Jesus as “king” six times. Five of those six references come from the lips of Jesus’ opponents, and one is found on the titulus attached to the cross. None of these references is a serious attempt to identify Jesus’ status. All are part of the process of humiliation so integral to Jesus’ torture. That only increases the Markan irony.

Marcus notes additional ironic mockery in the text. The torturers dress him in “royal” clothes. They kneel before him in mock obeisance. “Jesus’ executioners also mock his pretensions to royalty,” Marcus writes, “by crucifying him between two other ‘brigands,’ thus parodying a king’s retinue” (pages 73-74). Of course, I would add, we listeners know that in fact these are the ones who have been somehow destined by God to “sit at the right and left hands in the kingdom.” The words in the Markan script make this conclusion certain.

In spite of the cruel ignorance of the torturers, “the reader understands that these characters’ actions and words point toward a truth unknown to them,” Marcus writes, “royal garments and crowns rightfully do belong to Jesus, who will show his kingship precisely by not saving himself by dying on the cross. Although the degrading slave’s death of crucifixion seems to the mockers to be a decisive contradiction of the claim that Jesus is a king,” Marcus concludes, “the reader knows the opposite is true” (page 74).

This ironic presentation is not exclusive to Mark. We know that it is expanded and enhanced most fully in John’s presentation of the gospel account. We may be convinced, however, that this ironic understanding of crucifixion is limited to Christian circles. Marcus argues that, in fact, there is a cultural history and context in the ancient Mediterranean that helps this ironic presentation make sense to ancient audiences.

A number of pagan and secular sources connect crucifixion to some sort of elevation. Marcus observes that first-century Mediterranean culture was extremely hierarchical and that this hierarchical was often described using metaphors of height to describe one’s place in the hierarchy. “It is striking and unexpected,” Marcus notes, “that in such a hierarchical context, the favorite mode of execution outside the arena would be one that placed the victim on a higher plane than his executioners and the onlookers whom his torture and death were meant to impress” (page 78).

The elevation made the victim more of a public spectacle, to be sure. “but in the ancient Greco-Roman context,” Marcus argues, “the idea of bringing a person down by raising him up must still have struck people as incongruous, and presumably those responsible for the practice would have been cognizant of this irony” (page 78).

Marcus wants to suggest that this irony was precisely the intended effect. He notes that those executed in this manner were often people who have somehow “gotten above themselves.” Being raised up on a cross was a way to mock this self-elevation. So, rebellious slaves, revolutionaries, brigands, and traitors were raised up in order to be brought down.

“Crucifixion was intended to unmask,” Marcus writes, “in a deliberately grotesque manner, the pretentions and arrogance of those who had exalted themselves beyond their station” (page 78). It was punishment designed to lower those who had somehow gotten “above their raising.” It was, like so many penalties in the ancient world, a punishment designed to fit the crime.

In fact, Marcus notes, the very height of the cross “was often proportional to the insolence that the authorities ascribed to the victim” (page 79). He writes in summary, “crucifixion warns against the over-weening presumption that dares to fly too high, mocking the victim’s effrontery by raising and fixing him in a torturously elevated state until he expires – a form of death that drives the last nail, so to speak, into his lofty pretensions” (page 80). Marcus notes that this parodic dimension of Roman punishment was standard practice in many crimes and punishments and made perfect sense to those who witnessed Jesus’ execution.

Therefore, the connection between execution by exaltation and the ritual of mock enthronement is fairly straightforward in the first-century context. Marcus notes that Jesus does not claim the title, “King of the Jews,” for himself. It is assigned to him by his mocking torturers and the contemptuous crowd. The titulus “was meant not only to indicate the charge against Jesus,” Marcus suggests, “but also to continue the mockery that was intrinsic to the process of crucifixion” (page 83).

But what happens, Marcus asks, if the mockery itself is mocked? “And what happened,” he wonders, “if the prisoner mocked by crucifixion as a person of high status or a presumptive monarch responded to his torture with unaccountable dignity?” (pages 86-87). This may best account, for example, for the response from the centurion in Mark 15:39 – “Truly, this man was a son of God.”

“At such moments,” Marcus writes, “the ‘hidden transcript’ of resistance bursts into the open with electrifying power, so that mockery is reversed and the derided victim demands to be taken seriously.” Marcus notes that this can help us make sense of the tone early in chapter 15. It may be that Pilate looks at the tortured body of Jesus and says, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He suggests that Jesus responds with “the equally derisive rejoinder, ‘You say so’” (page 87).

Pilate, by his sneering reply, declares Jesus to be King. “Here the mockery that has transformed kingship into a joke encounters a sharper mockery that unmasks it,” Marcus concludes, “so that the derision of kingship is itself derided, and true royalty emerges through negation of the negation. For many early Christians,” he continues, “this reversal of a reversal, which turned penal mockery on its head, was probably the inner meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion” (page 87). In other words, the Romans intended to degrade Jesus by elevating him. Instead, they raised him up by lowering him down.

I would observe that this is the “Theology of the Cross” as Martin Luther intended to describe it. Too often, that “thin tradition” (as Douglas John Hall names it) has been used to glorify suffering and to valorize victimhood. That is a superficial and ultimately inaccurate reading of Luther’s meaning. Instead, the true theology of the cross asserts that God’s action is hidden under the form of its opposite. The cross reveals Jesus as King and unmasks the powers of this world as miserable failures.

It is the very visibility of the cross and the dignity of the sufferer that bring about this unmasking. I can’t help but think about the televised images and video, for example, of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was the combination of Bull Connors’ cruelty and the nonviolent dignity of the protesters that filled our small screens. It was that combination which provoked the nationwide outrage that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation.

It is not that suffering as a victim is good in itself. However, bearing up under the weight of punishment with faith, hope, and love has the power to convert those who are watching – some of whom had previously been in the company of the mockers. Suddenly the joke was on them…us. And many of us were challenged to repent and convert.

This is perhaps why autocrats go after the comedians early on in their regimes. “Revolutions are serious business,” write Popovic and Joksic. “Just recall the grumpy faces of 20th-century revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, Fidel, and Che. They could barely crack a smile. But fast-forward to the protests of the 21st century, and you see a new form of activism at work. The ominous scowls of revolutions past are replaced by humor and satire,” they continue. “Today’s non-violent activists are inciting a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage towards a new, more incisive form of activism rooted in fun: ‘Laughtivism.’”

While the cross is not a example of “Laughtivism,” it is an invitation to advocacy by irony. What if our sermons were more like Saturday Night Live and less like Sunday Morning Dead? I’m not skilled at that technique, but we live in a world filled with models. Maybe this week I’ll give it a try. How about you?

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.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/27638347.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). “The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma” (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/05/why-dictators-dont-like-jokes/.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.

Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 3); November 21, 2021

The Torn Curtain

Menéndez-Antuña reminds us that in the Markan composition, we hear that “Jesus breathes his last” (NRSV) two times in three verses (Mark 15:37,39). These two mentions sandwich the description of the tearing of the “curtain” or “veil” in the Temple. “But Jesus, emitting a great cry, expired. And the curtain of the Temple was torn into two from above to below. But when the centurion who was standing opposite him saw that he had expired in this way, he said, ‘Truly, this man was a Son of God’” (Mark 15:37-39, my translation).

One of the drawbacks of attending to these verses only in the broad and long readings of Holy Week is that we have neither the time nor the inclination to explore the details of the script. We find here yet another Markan sandwich or intercalation, albeit a small one compared to the others in the composition.

The Markan composer wants us to hear the intimate connection between Jesus’ expiration and the Temple’s exposure. I am using alliteration in this description because I think that was the intention of the Markan composer as well. It’s hard to capture in a translation (although I will keep trying). But both the verb forms in the verses for “to expire” and the verb for “to tear” begin with the same letter and are in the same tense and person. The Markan composer has devoted precise attention to the exquisite details of these verses.

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Menéndez-Antuña reads this part of the script in two ways. He has first suggests that the tearing of the curtain is “a symbol referring to the world’s collapse in terms of Jesus’ relationship to the temple. I further propose,” he continues, “that it is a metaphor for the destruction of the victim’s body right at the moment of language’s annihilation” (page 19). Everybody has been talking up a storm to this point, he notes. But now one voice will be left in the silence – a voice that calls Jesus (whatever tone we might attribute to the centurion’s utterance) a “son of God.”

“The cry of dereliction (Mark 15:34), the tearing of the veil (Mark 15:38), and the victim’s outcry with his last breath (Mark 15: 37.39) bespeak literary moments when authorial imagination captures crushed victimhood,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “when the inevitable expressive nature of the author’s written word grasps the ineffable essence of the victim’s inner world” (page 20).

He has connected the torturous process of Jesus’ death to the lived experiences of victims of torture in Latin America in ways that most commentators would avoid at all costs. The result of this avoidance, he argues, is a limited understanding of the text and the experience of Jesus as the victim of torture. He argues that “qualified interpreters ultimately fail to take the crucifixion for what it really is: the peak of a long, painful, carefully articulated process of torture geared to destroy the victim’s inner and outer worlds, thoughts and language, flesh and bones, past and future” (page 21).

Why would we contemporary interpreters and preachers cooperate in this avoidance of the crucifixion as it really is? I think that one reason must be that we contemporary (White, Male, North American) interpreters and preachers find ourselves primarily on the side of the torturers rather than on the side of the victims. There is strong evidence, for example, of American material support for the Pinochet regime in Chile, perhaps extending to the active support of the torture program and policy. Numerous other examples of United States support for Latin American dictatorships can be cited and documented.

While the use of torture is illegal on American ground, that has not stopped us from using it on other pieces of property. That is the real rationale for offshore installations to hold suspected terrorists and other presumed threats to our national security. In such facilities, the techniques of waterboarding, stress positioning, forced nudity, threats to the individual and their family, sleep deprivation and loud music for days on end, prolonged solitary confinement and confinement in small spaces have been employed during the last twenty years.

Of course, we need not go offshore to remember and thus witness the use of torture by White Christian Americans. We need only remember the history of lynching Black people in this country since 1865. I would refer you to the report produced by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Lynching in America (Third Edition). That report documents nearly 4400 “racial terror lynchings” in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

“Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation,” the report writes, “a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.” These lynchings were given a variety of social justifications. But they were intended to control a subject population through the public application of torture and execution enacted on black bodies in that local community.

The phenomenon of “public spectacle lynchings” has the greatest similarity to the torture and death of Jesus as reported in the Markan composition. “At these often festive community gatherings,” the EJI report notes, “large crowds of whites watched and participated in the Black victims’ prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and burning at the stake.” One of those “public spectacle lynchings” took place in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, when in 1919 Will Brown was shot, his body hanged, drug through the streets and mutilated, and then burned beyond recognition.

It should be impossible for us contemporary White American Christians to reflect on Jesus’ torture and death without grappling yet again with the deep resemblance between that torture and death and the torture and death involved in lynching. If we cannot do it ourselves, James Cone has made the connection in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, one of the most important works of biblical interpretation and constructive theology in English in the twentieth century.

“Christians, both white and black, followed a crucified savior,” Cone writes. “What could pose a more blatant contradiction to such a religion than lynching? And yet,” he notes, “white Christians were silent in the face of this contradiction” (page 96). In fact, White Christians were not “silent” so much as celebratory. For example, there is the announcement in a 1919 New Orleans paper that “3,000 Will Burn Negro.” The headline declared that “John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon” (see the EJI report). Silence is not the word I would use here.

The magazine of the NAACP, The Crisis, made the connection between crucifixion and lynching with regularity. For example, when the magazine reported the lynching of Will Brown mentioned above, they made the connection with a photograph. In the December 1919 issue one can find a photo of Brown’s burned and mutilated body, surrounded by grinning and triumphant White Omaha men. The photo was captioned “The Crucifixion in Omaha.” You can find that photograph and the related report here.

“It was not easy for blacks to find a language to talk about Christianity publicly,” Cone writes, “because the Jesus they embraced was also, at least in name, embraced by whites who lynched black people. Indeed,” he continues, “it was white slaveholders, segregationists, and lynchers who defined the content of the Christian gospel” (page 118). Unless we White interpreters make the connections and acknowledge our history, we will continue to define the Christian gospel in a way that excludes the tortured and silences their voices.

This is a matter of the ethics of interpretation and of what Menéndez-Antuña refers to as “the ethics of accounting for torture” (page 21). “The historiographical question then comes into sharp focus,” he writes, “why do we, historians and literary critics, talk about torture in the past in ways we find ethically deficient when we talk about torture in the present?” (page 23). I think that’s a question for us as biblical interpreters and preachers as well.

“A symbol of death and defeat,” Cone writes, “God turned [the cross] into a sign of liberation and new life. The cross is the most empowering symbol,” he argues, “of God’s loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross,” Cone concludes, “as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation” (page 156).

Of course, this means that we too (who claim to be Jesus followers) must embrace that loving solidarity with “the least of these.” At the moment one declares that necessity, however, the interpreter moves from preaching to meddling. This is why it is comfortable to hold the reality of Jesus’ cross at arm’s length and to maintain it as symbol, metaphor, theory, and jewelry.

Menéndez-Antuña is speaking about scholarly interpretation, but he could just as well describe much of my preaching when he writes, “To various degrees, however, these approaches overlook the irreducible reality of pain during torture, its inexpressibility and the dilemma that it poses to language. In other words,” he continues, “they decenter the victim’s pain and leave questions about the literary representation of agony unaddressed. And they do so,” he argues, “despite the text’s heavy emphasis on locating the victim at the center of the forces of torture” (pages 23-24).

If we take the Markan composition on its own terms, up close and personal, we will be changed. “Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross,” Cone writes, “is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people,” he says, “the losers and the down and out” (page 160). Perhaps that is why this text is submerged rather than studied.

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.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.

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Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 2); November 21, 2021

War of the Worlds

I can no longer read or hear the Markan account of Jesus’ crucifixion and slide easily over the details of public humiliation, systematic mocking, physical torture, state-sponsored terrorism, and orchestrated cruelty. In fact, to quote the title of both an article and a book by Adam Serwer, “the cruelty is the point.”

I don’t mean to suggest that we should gaze at the institutional violence in a pornographic sense. I leave that to Mel Gibson, for example, who indulged his torture fetish in the film, The Passion of the Christ. He employed the same longing, languorous gaze on the torture scenes in that film that he employed and encouraged in Braveheart and the Lethal Weapon series. The pornographic view of violence does not critique that violence but rather revels in it.

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That is not what I mean. It is, however, often the gaze employed by those who would see the suffering of Jesus as one of the “points” of the crucifixion. By this I don’t mean attention to the fact of Jesus’ suffering but rather attention to the “amount” of that suffering. I find that this voyeuristic gaze is employed as part of sermons rooted in the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory.

In this theoretical perspective, the amount of suffering is proportional to the depth of sin remedied. The greater the “debt of honor” to God, the more the Beloved Son must suffer to “pay off” that debt. I find that equation to be morally abhorrent, personally disgusting, and theologically deficient. I have discussed PSA elsewhere, but I think it is important to remind ourselves that this is not the theoretical framework of the Markan composer.

The cruelty is the “point” for those (primarily the Romans) who carry out Jesus’ show trial, mockery, torture, and execution. Roman citizens convicted of capital crimes were typically beheaded. This execution usually did not include the other elements of the process in Mark 15 unless the defendant was accused of some offense against the state.

Crucifixion was reserved for recalcitrant slaves, treasonous subjects, and those whom the Empire regarded as terrorists and brigands. The two “bandits” (Mark 15:27, NRSV) crucified at Jesus’ right and left hands were not likely to have been petty thieves. Instead, they were far more likely to be Zealots who attacked the Roman occupation forces to persuade them to leave Judea. Barabbas was another of these insurrectionists – who certainly would have seen themselves as “freedom fighters” in the mold of the Maccabees from two centuries earlier.

Therefore, crucifixion was more than an inefficient method for disposing of troublemakers. It was political theater performed on the bodies of the victims. This theater was intended to convince the rest of the populace that (in the words of a villainous science fiction enemy) “resistance is futile.” Cruelty was more the process than the point, in fact. The “point” was that complying and collaborating were far more comfortable that resisting and rebelling.

In his recent article, Luis Menéndez-Antuña reflects on the “intertextual” realities of Jesus’ crucifixion and contemporary testimonies by torture victims, specifically in Latin American contexts. “Although no one would question that the historical reality of crucifixion is a case of torture,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “there has been little sustained attention to crucifixion as torture. This is particularly true in the Gospel of Mark,” he continues,” where, as my argument shows, the literary rendering of the victim’s pain reflects what we know about torture from the experiences of those who have survived it” (page 2).

Menéndez-Antuña notes that the Markan composition “represents torture in one of its purest forms. Capture and interrogation, physical abuse, humiliation, and deliberately inflicting pain in intensifying ways are constitutive elements of torture” (page 4). If we compare his list to the events in Mark 15, we can see that he is correct. More than that, we can see that torture is a much larger process than the physical suffering inflicted at the time of execution.

The first question Menéndez-Antuña addresses is why we, as interpreters, should bother with this analysis of Mark 15 as an account of torture. Most of the commentary on the Passion accounts in my experience has created an impersonal and analytic distance between my life and the reality of the Cross. That is an intentional, if obscured, working of privilege, since I don’t find myself in any place where public political torture is even a possibility. Most dominant-culture scholarship keeps the reality of torture in Mark 15 at a comfortable distance.

“My argument,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “shows how, contrary to these claims, sustained attention to the phenomenology of torture, to the literary analysis of its witnessing, and to the testimonies of those who have survived, enhances literary analysis rather than obscuring it” (page 5). While I don’t advocate another exercise in voyeuristic violence from the pulpit, as an interpreter I must come to terms with what is being reported and performed in the Markan composition if I am to faithfully proclaim the text.

Menéndez-Antuña has an extended dialogue with the work of Elaine Scarry in her 1988 book, The Body in Pain. Scarry describes three phenomena at work in torture – inflicting pain in increasing intensity, objectifying the pain and making it publicly visible, and the pain being viewed not as pain but rather as power. She argues that torture includes both the infliction of physical pain and the conduct of verbal interrogation. Menéndez-Antuña notes that “both components work to achieve the ultimate effect of torture: the destruction of language and ultimately the erasure of a world” (page 6).

Therefore, the purpose of torture is the destruction of any world that might be an alternative to the world of the people “in charge.” As Menéndez-Antuña notes, the ethical status of torture is often debated in terms of whether it is “productive” or not. This discussion assumes that the goal of torture is to obtain important information or intelligence. In this theoretical framework, it is, in principle, possible to find a “justification” for torture, if only the information produced is of sufficient intelligence value. Thus, the victim’s pain becomes a means to achieve the torturer’s ends, and the victim ceases to be regarded as fully human.

The reality, however, is that this application of interrogation and pain generally reduces the victim to whimpering incoherence. “Pain is world-destroying,” Menéndez-Antuña writes. “The moment the torturer drills the victim’s nerves, their conscious world empties. The destruction of language accompanies world-destruction,” he argues, “because pain is essentially non-linguistic” (page 7). Menéndez-Antuña points to the silent darkness of Mark 15:33 to illustrate this reality on a cosmic scale.

It should be clear from even a superficial reading of the Markan account that the purpose of Jesus’ torture is not to extract information. The purpose of this process is to destroy Jesus and the alternative world which he proclaims and performs. “Torture condenses a process,” Menéndez-Antuña, “where oppositional visions of future worlds collide, hence the torturer’s ultimate goal of annihilating the victim’s project for a new reality” (page 9). “Annihilating the victim’s project for a new reality” – that sounds like the response we read in the Markan composition to “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Menéndez-Antuña examines two elements of the makeup of Jesus’ new reality – discipleship and the temple. I’ll describe the former in a few sentences. Discipleship, at least in the Markan composition, is a move from the old world into a new one. The disciples struggle, and ultimately fail, to inhabit this new world. Thus, the report of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus is one of the ways to illustrate the world-destruction the torturers intend to enact. In the face of that destruction, Peter can only weep in despair.

The temptation to hold the victim responsible for their own suffering is always just beneath the surface of any experience of inflicted pain. Menéndez-Antuña argues for great caution in how we describe the relationship between Jesus’ actions and the actions of the torturers. If we see his actions as “triggers” for the torture process, we can end up ratifying the reasons the torturers give for their conduct. He argues that “considering the accusation as the origin of torture risks accepting the logics of torture itself” (page 16).

An historical description of Jesus’ ministry and the Roman response may well show that Jesus’ aggressive actions during Holy Week led to his execution. “But when it comes to the narrative and literary representation,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “to locate the etiology of torture in the victim’s actions is to reinscribe a justification of torture” (page 16). In other words, it is not the victim who is somehow to blame but rather the old world which is refusing to die that is responsible for the torture.

In his torture and death, therefore, Jesus stands with every victim who envisions and seeks to enact the new world of God’s wholeness, justice, and hope (whether that vision is framed in terms of the Gospel or not). The parties responsible for the suffering are the representatives of the old world, bent on maintaining the power they have in that old regime. We must always resist the easy option of blaming the victims for their own suffering.

If only, for example, the protestors in the Black Lives Matter movement wouldn’t engage in demonstrations and disobedience, they wouldn’t be arrested, assaulted, and abused. Their behavior, the argument goes, triggered the response. Therefore, that response is, at least partially, their fault, the argument continues. If that is the case, then Jesus’ crucifixion is his own damn fault as well. If he had just stuck to prayers and piety, no one would have gotten hurt.

This is always the thinly veiled threat when we preachers hear that we need to keep politics out of the pulpit. If we don’t know enough to keep our mouths shut and just do “theology,” there will be unpleasant consequences – for us, for our families, and for those who might share our views in the congregation. While physical violence is not the “go to” strategy these days for white preachers, reputational, financial, social, and institutional violence are ready substitutes. These consequences may not be “torture,” but they are no less real.

The intention of Jesus’ torture and death was to demonstrate that this is what “the King of the Jews” looks like – tortured to death in a process that culminates in a cross. The Markan composition wants us to see that, ironically, the Romans got that part right. More on that next time.

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.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.

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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.

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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.