Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark (14:1-15:7)
“What can we learn about the events of Jesus’ last days? One thing is certain: he was condemned to death during the reign of Tiberius, by the governor Pontius Pilate. We have that information from Tacitus, the famous Roman historian (TheAnnals, 15, 44, 3). Flavius Josephus says the same thing and adds some interesting details: Jesus ‘attracted many Jews and many people of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation lodged by some of our leaders, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him did not stop loving him’ (Jewish Antiquities, 18, 3, 3). These details coincide with what we know from the Christian sources.
We can summarize them as follows: Jesus was executed on a cross; the sentence was handed down by the Roman governor; he had been accused earlier by the Jewish authorities; Jesus alone was crucified, with no attempt to eliminate his followers. This means that Jesus was considered dangerous because he denounced the roots of the prevailing system, but neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities saw him as the leader of an insurrectionist group; otherwise they would have taken action against the whole group. In this case it was enough to eliminate the leader, but at the same time they needed to terrorize his followers and sympathizers. Nothing could do that more effectively than a public crucifixion, witnessed by the crowds that filled the city” (José A Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, Revised Edition, translated by Margaret Wilde, Convivium Press, 2007/2015, 353).
There are remarkable similarities in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion and death. All of them make similar references to the following:
- The treachery of Judas – but only Luke and John link this with “Satan”
- Peter’s denial – the foretelling and the actual denials
- The prayer in the garden
- The arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane
- Jesus before the Sanhedrin
- Jesus before Pilate
- The crucifixion
- The burial
- The empty tomb
There are also some significant variations in the Gospel accounts, including the following:
- Only the synoptics tell of the actual moment of treachery of Judas, the preparation for the Passover, the institution of the Eucharistic meal, the moment Jesus is taken before Pilate, the mocking of Jesus on the cross.
- Only Matthew tells us of the death of Judas and the guard at the tomb. He is also the only one who has Judas join in the questioning as to who will betray Jesus. Interestingly enough, Judas calls Jesus “Rabbi”, the others call him “Lord”. In fact, Judas is the only one to call Jesus “Rabbi” in Matthew’s Gospel. (See also Acts 1:18-19, the only other place where Judas and his end are mentioned: “Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.”)
- Only Matthew, Mark and John tell us of the crowning with thorns.
- Only Matthew and John speak of the option for Barabbas – Matthew makes much more of it than John.
- Only Mark has the young man who runs off naked when Jesus is being arrested.
- John’s account of the actual death of Jesus differs from that of the synoptics; John alone places Mary the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross.
Mark is generally regarded as the earliest of the Gospels. Matthew and Luke have borrowed much from Mark – including his reporting of the passion. It seems reasonable, in turn, to assume that Mark himself is writing down a well-formed oral tradition concerning the last hours of Jesus’ life. One commentator writes: “All the Synoptic accounts of the passion, despite their internal variation, stand in some contrast to that of John. They emphasize the great distress and sorrow of Jesus the night before his death (Mark 14:33ff and parallels), and highlight the abuse and mocking he receives on the cross itself (Mark 15:29ff and parallels). Above all, with amazing frankness, Mark and Matthew report that Jesus died not with a cry of achievement on his lips, but with a howl of desolation (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46).” (Alan E Lewis, Between Cross & Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2001, 35.)
In Mark’s account, we sense the growing isolation of Jesus as chapter 14 unfolds – the longest chapter in Mark’s Gospel, being 72 verses long. The chapter opens with the conspiracy of “the chief priests and the scribes” and is followed by a series of vignettes that create an unforgiving sense of isolation:
- a “woman” comes into the house of Simon the leper – where Jesus is having a meal – and she anoints Jesus “for his burial”;
- Judas approaches the chief priests to arrange for Jesus’ betrayal;
- the last meal with his friends and during that meal he takes the bread and breaks it and says, “this is my body” and the cup and says “this is my blood”;
- at this same meal Judas’ treachery is foretold as is Peter’s denial;
- Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane and his friends sleep;
- Jesus is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin.
Chapter 15 takes us more deeply into the passion narrative. It tells us of the “trial” before Pilate, the crowning with thorns, Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, the crucifixion, the mockery by those who passed by, the death of Jesus, the presence of a small group of women and the burial by Joseph of Arimathea. The story is one of desolation and failure. This Friday is not “good”! One scholar speaks of Mark’s “unflattering account of Jesus’ godforsakenness and desolation” (Alan E Lewis, op cit, 36.) Lewis goes on to note that “this could never have been ‘invented’ by the Gospel writers but must be based on history” (Ibid).
“Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”: One commentator writes:
“Jesus knows his hours are numbered. But he is not planning to hide or flee. Instead he arranges a special farewell dinner with the men and women closest to him. It is a solemn and intimate moment for him and his disciples; he wants to experience it in all its depth. This is a well thought-out decision. Aware of his imminent death, he needs to convey to them his total trust in the Father, even in this hour. He wants to prepare them for the crushing blow that awaits them; his execution must not plunge them into sadness or hopelessness. They need to share the questions that they are all pondering: what will become of God’s reign without Jesus? What should they do? Where will they turn now, to nourish their hope for the coming reign of God?” (José Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation (translated by Margaret Wilde, Convivium Press, 2007/2015, 345-346).
The author then goes on to say – in agreement with most modern scholars – that it is not a Passover meal: “The description never once alludes to the Passover liturgy; it says nothing of the Paschal lamb or the bitter herbs that Jews eat that night; it does not ritually recall the departure from Egypt as the liturgy prescribes. Moreover, it would be unthinkable, on that evening when families are celebrating the most important meal in the Jewish calendar, for the chief priests and assistants to drop everything to arrest Jesus and arrange a late-night meeting to decide on the specific charges against him. …. Probably Jesus did make the Jerusalem pilgrimage to celebrate Passover with his disciples, but he could not fulfill his wish, because he was arrested and tried before then. He did have time to celebrate a farewell dinner, however” (Ibid). According to John 18:28, Jesus was in fact crucified on the day before Passover” (Ibid).
Mark – like Matthew and Luke – links the farewell meal explicitly to the Passover. This is natural enough given the timing and the historical and theological significance of the Passover. However, we need to be careful that we do not miss the deep and beautiful significance of Jesus asking for a last meal with his friends, men and women who had travelled with him and were loyal to him and his message. Meals and table fellowship in that culture were of great symbolic importance. And Jesus had compared the reign of God to a meal in which “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” take part – see Luke 14:15-24 and Matthew 22:2-10. Even Gentiles – like you and me – will take part in that banquet – see Luke 13:28-29 and Matthew 8:11-12.
But let the scriptures be fulfilled: This is the NRSV translation. NIV and NKJV translate: “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” These latter two translations bring out more strongly the sense of inevitability because this is the way God wants it. Yes, Jesus got offside with the religious authorities because he claimed to be “the Christ …. the Son of the Blessed One” (see Mark 14:61); and yes, Pilate – caretaker of the Pax Romana in Judea – would have had reason to be very anxious when the religious authorities brought Jesus before him and a restless crowd gathered. The question remains: How did the Gospel writers understand the reason for Jesus’ death? Clearly they – and the first Christians – saw his death not as part of a plan of the Jewish religious authorities nor as part of a plan of a Roman governor keen to get rid of a potential trouble maker but as part of a plan of God.
In fidelity to the Gospels we must speak of the liberating Cross not the consequential Cross. The cross is part This is what makes Christianity unique amongst world religions. Jesus is not first and foremost a moral exemplar or moral teacher. Jesus is first and foremost Redeemer and Saviour. Hans Kung writes: ““The cross …. is the element which radically distinguishes Christian faith and the Lord who is the object of this faith from other religions and their gods.” (Hans Kung, “What is the Christian Message?” in The Catholic Mind, 68 (December 1970), p.32).
Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, published a book entitled, Fascism: A Warning (London: William Collins, 2018). She was eleven when she escaped from Czechoslovakia with her parents and two siblings. She lost “three grandparents, and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins … among the millions of Jews who had died in the ultimate act of Fascism – the Holocaust” (Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning, London: William Collins, 2018, 2). Albright offers many insights that are wise and practical. For example: “I find it impossible to be coldly analytical on the subject of migrants and refugees, and I cannot respect politicians who try to win votes by kindling hatred” (Op cit, 185).
We human beings are anxious animals. To allay our anxiety we fabricate worlds – both public and private – where we feel in control. This often involves reducing reality to simple black and white issues. When the fabricated world is threatened our existential anxiety is awakened. We are then capable of irrational even absurd and sometimes violent behaviours. This is our instinct for fascism emerging. This instinct can be observed at work within the many ideologies – from the right and the left – at play in the world today. That includes the Church. The ideologues typically mask the anxiety with pious, righteous, high sounding language. The real issue remains the instinct for fascism.
How well we deal with this instinct for fascism – both as a society and as individuals – will determine our responses to many of the most critical questions facing the human family now. One of them is the issue of “otherness”. Madeleine Albright implies this in her observation concerning migrants and refugees. The question arises: Given that we do need control, how and where do we find the control? There is no simple answer to that question. However, today’s feast reminds us of an essential part of a Christian response.
Today is Palm Sunday. The Passion Narrative is proclaimed. We celebrate the revelation of God who is vulnerable: “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter …” (Isaiah 53:7). You and I and all people are made in the image and likeness of this God. What does that say about our being human? What might it suggest about how we can deal with our existential anxiety and the instinct for fascism?
Rowan Williams writes: “ ….. it is in the cross that we see the revelation of what it is that characterises God’s personal being, and so what is also possible for us: the cross reveals personality as ‘kenotic’. …. the renunciation of existing-for-oneself is our most authentically personal act and so also our most Godlike act” (Rowan Williams, Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, edited by Mike Higton, London: SCM Press, 2007, 14). And so, an obvious characteristic of the truly human will be “the absence of self-assertive, self-interested ‘individualism’” for these absences “are the fundamental notes of personal existence at its source, in God” (Ibid).
The devil appeals precisely to these traits, as it were calling them forth from the dark depths of our psyches – and thus activating the instinct for fascism: “you will be like gods” (Genesis 3:5). The best antidote is surrender to God, abandonment to his love, trust in his ways.