25 March 2018
So much to write, so little time! In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars remarked on the seamlessness of Mark’s passion narrative. All the rest of his gospel seemed stitched together with crude devices like, “and immediately.” The passion narrative, however, was just that – a complete narrative. They took this to mean that his narrative was the recollection of an eyewitness. As the twentieth century advanced, and historical criticism did its work, scholars became less confident that we had before us a reliable account of actual events.
Burton Mack, in A Myth of Innocence, published in the 1980s showed that the passion narrative was entirely Mark’s composition from whole cloth, using elements of the Greek martyr myth and the Jewish wisdom tale to construct a coherent whole. That may be true, but it leaves us with the narrative to deal with. We hear it, or another writer’s interpretation of it, at least twice in the liturgical year, and it forms the basis of our Christian story. What do we make of it?
For Mark, Jesus’ death appears to be a political event. Absent from his telling is any theological interpretation of that death, so prevalent in Paul (Jesus died on account of our sins, e.g.). In Mark, Jesus dies as a result of the conspiracy of the Pharisees, scribes, and Temple priesthood for his challenge to the Temple institution and its compromises with Rome. And worse yet, even Jesus’ closest disciples do not understand his death.
Throughout the narrative, Mark points us to the political nature of his purpose. The soldiers dress Jesus in a purple cloak, something only a member of the household of Caesar could wear. The mock him, and Caesar’s soldiers did in a triumphal procession. And at the foot of the cross, the soldier, seeing how Jesus died, proclaimed, “Truly this man was divi filius!” Divi Filius is the Latin for houios tou theou, which we translate Son of God. A proper English translation would be “son of the divine,” which was a title the Caesars claimed for themselves. The centurion, alone of the participants in this tableau, understands the implications of Jesus’ death (as Mark would have us see it). Power is exactly upside down from what we expect.
But, still, what do we do with this? In the garden, Jesus prays, “God, for you all things are possible, please let this hour pass from me.” And yet it doesn’t. Are we to assume that God chooses Jesus’ violent death because God could have prevented it? That makes God into a monster. Or does it mean that Jesus makes the same mistake we do, thinking that God must act to prevent our suffering? If so, says the centurion, then you will miss God’s action in the world, because it doesn’t look like you expect. God has created the world with freedom so that it might be good, and the cost is that it is sometimes hard – humanity included – but that God trusts its goodness enough to enter it and walk with us through the worst even we can do. True power doesn’t look we would like it to. It is the power of love, even this far.