Tag Archives: Crucifixion

Matthew 27: 32-55 The Crucifixion of Jesus

Reproduction of Carl Heinrich Bloch’s, Christ on the Cross (1870)

Matthew 27: 32-55

32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided[1]him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself.He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.'” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole landuntil three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Matthew’s description of the crucifixion resonates with the poetic language of the Hebrew Scriptures which help provide words that begin to make sense of the seemingly senseless violence committed against Jesus. Matthew wants the hearer of this narrative to understand something larger than the death of an innocent man is occurring here. Matthew is not looking to provide a theological explanation of the cross or an apologetic for a crucified Messiah. Instead, Matthew narrates the scene with the language of lament in the Psalms and Lamentations hovering in the background providing a rich set of words to bear witness to the moment as scripture and all of creation responds to the death of Jesus who is sentenced to die as the King of the Jews.

Jesus, perhaps weakened excessively by the flogging which was mentioned as a passing comment in verse 26, does not carry his own cross, instead Simon of Cyrene is compelled to take up Jesus’ cross. Matthew deletes the relationship of Simon to Alexander and Rufus which is present in Mark’s gospel and these names probably do not have connection to Matthew’s community. What is significant in Matthew’s narration that Simon of Cyrene is there to take up the cross of Jesus while Simon renamed Peter is absent. Peter and the remainder of the 11 male disciples are absent from this scene and have been unable to pick up their crosses in this moment. Even if Jesus is not physically unable to carry the cross, the transferring of the cross to Simon of Cyrene may be another way to humiliate Jesus by mocking him for weakness.

On arriving at Golgotha, Matthew now indicates Jesus is given wine mixed with gall to drink. The change from myrrh in Mark to gall in Matthew brings about two changes. First, as M. Eugene Boring can state, “Mark’s helpful narcotic becomes in Matthew a cruel joke.” (NIB VIII:490) and while it is one more humiliation in the process of crucifixion it also now echoes Psalm 69:21: “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they give me vinegar to drink.”[2] Psalm 69 is one of the lament psalms calling on God to answer the petitioner in the midst of persecution by one’s enemies, and these psalms move beyond the polite language of a worship space to the vulnerable cry for help in the midst of trouble. Perhaps in hearing in the crucifixion echoes of the Psalms of lament, Matthew is helping his community to access these powerful cries out for God’s action in the midst of persecution.

The following sentence introduces us to the dominant echo throughout the crucifixion scene, Psalm 22. The act of crucifying Jesus is merely referred to as a comment, but then the act of dividing clothing echoes Psalm 22:18: “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” A common question, that cannot be answered historically, is whether Matthew (and Mark) are bringing the narration of the crucifixion to echo Psalm 22, and for Matthew Psalm 69, because they are looking for a scriptural citation or whether the events themselves resonate strongly with the wording of these psalms which provide familiar phrases which help the author describe the event. My own opinion is that Matthew views the world in light of the imagery of scripture and as a scribe trained in the ways of the kingdom of heaven, he goes into the rich storehouse of scriptural images pulling out these treasured words which help him to adequately narrate this pivotal event in the story of Jesus.

The charge against Jesus, that he is ‘the King of the Jews,’ indicate that Rome mocks him as a political threat to the power of Pilate and, by extension, Rome. Jesus is just one more ‘messianic pretender’ in Rome’s view who continues to fan the flames of the rebellious elements of the population who are looking for God’s intervention through a kingly figure to end Rome’s imperial rule over Jerusalem and the provinces that once were the kingdom of Israel. For Matthew the identity of Jesus as the Son of David, Son of God and the Messiah/Christ are important to understanding Jesus, but the manner in which Jesus embodies each of these titles is more important than the title itself. Jesus is not the Christ/Messiah that many, even some of his own disciples, are expecting. The charge against Jesus ironically will echo many of the claims of Matthew’s gospel, but those terms have to be oriented around the life and words of Jesus.

Throughout the gospel of Matthew we have seen what Rowan Williams would describe as a “reorganization of religious language,” or Richard B. Hays would argue is a “’transfiguration,’ with emphasis on the figural dimension of Matthew’s interpretive vision.” (Hays 2016, 187) Matthew continues to pull together images from throughout the Hebrew Scriptures which both, in Matthew’s view, prefigure the events of Christ’s life but also are read in new, and often surprising ways, in light of the witness of Christ’s life. The plethora of imagery and scriptural references may be overwhelming for some readers, and many readers will engage the narrative without catching all the echoes in Matthew. Yet, Matthew in his transfiguration of the religious language of the Hebrew Scriptures is attempting to train new followers how to read the scriptures through the lens of the encounter with the God who is with us in Jesus.

The presence of the two bandits who are crucified on his left and right again call attention to the absence of his disciples, this time John and James the sons of Zebedee. In 20:20-23 the mother of James and John boldly comes to Jesus asking for her sons to occupy the place at the right and left when Jesus comes into his kingdom. James and John state they are able to drink the cup that Jesus will drink, but as the new covenant is initiated by his blood James and John are absent while two bandits who taunt Jesus, like the surrounding crowds and the chief priests and elders, now occupy the positions they claimed to be able to fill. Like Simon of Cyrene these two unnamed bandits now occupy the spots left vacant as the male disciples of Jesus fled after Jesus was handed over to the chief priests.

Matthew loves patterns of three, and this continues with the three groups that mock Jesus while ironically bearing witness to scripture’s witness to Jesus. First the passersby blaspheme Jesus, and the action of blaspheming Jesus while ‘wag their heads’ echoes Lamentations 2:15-16

All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; the hiss and wag their heads at daughter Jerusalem; “Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?” All your enemies open their mouths against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: “We have devoured her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; at last we have seen it!”

Now the language that lamented, in Lamentation’s poetry, the destruction of Jerusalem in now applied to the death of Jesus and in a daring reframing on this language ‘those who pass along the way’ are the people of Jerusalem who mock the one who is now standing in their stead. Also standing in the background in Psalm 22 which continues to echo throughout this section. In both the taunts of the ones passing by and the chief priests, scribes and elders:

All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in who he delights!” Psalm 22; 7-8

 Just as the passersby and the leaders are now recast to be those who rejoice over Jerusalem’s destruction (Lamentations) or the suffering of the righteous one (Psalm 22) they also echo Satan in the temptations. (4:1-11) Once Jesus was accused of being in league with Beelzebul by the Pharisees, (12:22-32) now Matthew places the mocking words when Satan challenged Jesus to come down from the temple are echoed by these leaders calling on him to come down from the cross. They continue to blaspheme the activity of the Spirit of God through Jesus, and they unknowingly find themselves echoing the demonic forces they once accused Jesus of being in league with.

The cry of Jesus from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” again echoes Psalm 22:1. The misunderstanding of the cry for Elijah is smoothed over by Matthew’s transliteration of the Hebrew ‘Eloi’ to a closer approximation of Elijah in Greek. Although Matthew may be the most Jewish of the gospels he is writing for a Greek speaking audience. Matthew has continually used the Greek Septuagint as his scriptural reference. We don’t know if Matthew had access to Hebrew scrolls of the scriptures or whether members in his community spoke in Hebrew, but his continued referencing of Greek and smoothing out of Hebrew words used in Mark indicates that the gospel was written to be spread through the Greek speaking world.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel Jesus has referred to himself as the Son of Man, and one of the expectations of the time was that Elijah would appear again to herald the Son of Man. Matthew understands that John the Baptist fulfilled this roll, but some of those at the cross understand this cry of desperation directed to God as an appeal for Elijah to come and initiate the coming of the kingdom of Heaven. There may be mixed opinions in the crowd, some may be continuing to mock Jesus as he remains on the cross, while others may have enough hope for the kingdom of heaven that they may be open to possibility of Elijah’s sudden appearance and vindication of Jesus’ claims. If they entertained a hope that Elijah would be the one to come and rescue Jesus, they are disappointed when he breathes his last without the prophet’s return. But this one sign that does not materialize as the crowd hopes, just like Jesus’ inability, or unwillingness, to come down from the cross, are not the only signs that point to what is occurring in this crucifixion.

Matthew wants his readers to understand that in the death of Christ they are witnessing a cosmic event. The heavens react to the crucifixion of the one who proclaimed the kingdom of heaven by becoming darkened for three hours while Jesus remains on the cross. The earth react to the death of the Son of Man by shaking and breaking open. The temple reacts to the death of the one who is ‘God with us’ by the veil of the temple which separates the Holy of Holies from the remainder of the temple is rent from top to bottom. Even the dead react as the Lord of life dies, and they emerge from their broken tombs to bear witness to many in the city. Even Rome’s emissary at the crucifixion can observe the signs at the death of the King of the Jews and declare, now without irony, “Truly[3] this man was God’s Son!”

The male disciples of Jesus are not present at the crucifixion, but women who had followed him from Galilee are. Although James and John are not present on the right and the left of Jesus, their mother is there looking on from a distance along with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Many people assume that Matthew, being the most Jewish gospel, by definition adopts a patriarchal and hierarchical attitude towards women, but the text of Matthew’s gospel points to a different reality for the women who were in proximity to Jesus. Matthew has included women, particularly women of questionable character in a patriarchal worldview, in the genealogy of Jesus, is the only gospel to portray women reclining at the table with Jesus and in Matthean church gatherings, often matches a masculine parable with a feminine parable, can commend a Canaanite woman as the example of ‘great faith’ in the gospel, and commend the activity of the woman who anoints him at the meal in Bethany as one whose good dead will be told in remembrance of her. (Corley 1993, 147-179) These women who have followed Jesus,[4]now take their place at the crucifixion in the absence of the male disciples. These women who have also been present at the table with Jesus, who have heard his words and seen his actions now bear witness to the crucifixion. These women disciples will also be the first to hear the message of the resurrection and will be charged with carrying this message to the male disciples to regather them to encounter the risen Christ in Galilee.

[1] Literally blasphemed (Greek blasphemeo) same word as in 26:65

[2] The connection is stronger in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible that Matthew quotes). The numbering in the Septuagint is slightly different than the Masoretic text (Hebrew) which English translations are based on. In Greek the Psalm reads, “And they gave gall in my food and for my thirst they gave me sour wine.”

[3] Frequently behind the word truly in Matthew is the Hebrew word amen, but here the Centurion uses the Greek altheia which is makes sense in the narrative since the Centurion would likely not be a Hebrew speaker.

[4] Had followed is the Greek akoloutheo which is often in Matthew a technical term for the activity of disciples. (Corley 1993, 173)

Matthew 17: 22-23 The Way of the Cross part 2

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 17: 22-23

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.

Matthew, like Mark, loves patterns of threes which is a frequently seen characteristic of literature written for to be heard primarily rather than read. This is the second and shortest of the three predictions of the passion in the gospel and they all either precede misunderstandings by the disciples about what it means to be followers of Jesus. In the first prediction Peter will rebuke Jesus and need to be told what discipleship will mean (16: 21-28), in this prediction there is an intermediary scene before the disciples ask who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (18:1-5) and the final prediction will be followed by the mother of James and John asking for places of honor in the kingdom (20: 17-28). The disciples show some understanding of this brief statement as they gather in Galilee, but until the resurrection they will continue to perceive only a portion of Jesus’ identity and path.

There is no location for the impending betrayal of ‘the Son of Man into the hands of men[1] unlike the previous prediction where Jerusalem is both their destination and where Jesus will encounter suffering. This statement of Jesus’ death in heard by the disciples and they understand that Jesus’ use of the title Son of Man is a reference to himself and they grasp enough to be greatly distressed about his upcoming betrayal and death. They are unable to understand his message about the resurrection. Even Peter, James and John who heard that the Son of Man was to suffer while coming down the mountain, even after experiencing the transfiguration of Jesus and the overwhelming presence of God on the mountain, share with the rest of the disciples the inability to consider the resurrection after three days as a possibility. Those hearing this narration are being prepared to make sense of the upcoming crucifixion and resurrection and this foreshadowing helps upcoming generations of disciples to make sense of the seeming senselessness of the cross and to anticipate the amazement of the resurrection.

[1] The Greek word anthropos lies behind the Man in Son of Man and human in human hands. The NRSV is correct in the translation of the term as Son of Man and humanity but it misses the world play between the two terms in Greek and how the betrayal of the ‘son of humanity’ is accomplished by ‘human hands.’

Matthew 16: 21-28 The Way of the Cross Part 1

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 16: 21-28

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Titles in Matthew’s gospel, while important and demonstrating some understanding of who Jesus is, can only take us so far. In the previous section we have the titles Son of Man, Messiah/Christ and son of the living God all applied to Jesus, as well as the prophetic identity assigned to Jesus by the crowds. But these titles only have meaning in the context of how Jesus will inhabit these titles: Jesus will be prophetic but is not limited to how John, Jeremiah or Elijah enacted that identity; Jesus will be Messiah/Christ/King but not in the way that Peter or many others expect; and Matthew continues to hint that the title Son of God and Son of Man reflect more than just one divinely appointed. People of great faith, like the Canaanite woman or the centurion may have unique insights into what Jesus’ presence means for their situation, but for those called to be disciples one can only understand Jesus’ identity in relation to his teaching and actions as they continue to follow his path.

The focus now turns to Jerusalem. Although the next couple chapters involve actions and teaching in Galilee, it becomes a farewell tour of places and locations where much of the ministry of Jesus has occurred, because now for the first time Jesus indicates Jerusalem as the final destination of his ministry. Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, and it is natural that the Messiah of the Jewish people should go to Jerusalem and take up the seat once occupied by David. Yet, Jesus does not describe the journey to Jerusalem as a coronation but rather a road of great suffering and death. This first of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering and death in Jerusalem drastically changes the triumphal scene of Peter’s confession. Even though we hear Jesus’ state he will rise after three days it isn’t surprising that this is not understood by his disciples any better than the sign of Jonah was understood by the Pharisees and Sadducees.

M. Eugene Boring insightfully recognized that Peter’s action of taking Jesus aside and rebuking him could be read as Peter misunderstanding what Messiahship meant to Jesus, personal love for the person of Jesus and wanting to spare him from suffering or both. (NIB VIII: 349) What Peter intends as a blessing, the Greek ileos is better translated ‘God be merciful’ rather than ‘God forbid’, asking God not to bring this suffering upon Jesus becomes instead a stumbling block. Words of mercy intended to protect God’s anointed instead become words of temptation to pull the chosen one from what is necessary. Peter may misunderstand, but his words evoke compassion for Jesus.

Yet, even these words of blessing can become twisted to attempt to alter the way that Jesus embodies the identity of Messiah and Son of God and to become a stumbling block (scandalon). The title of Satan returns us to the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4: 1-11, where the devil attempts to test Jesus’ identity as Son of God. The devil’s temptations to avoid suffering, to give a sign and to take up worldly power all seem at odds with this necessary path to Jerusalem where the only sign is the sign of Jonah and suffering will come from those who wield religious and political power. Satan as a title for the devil originates with ‘the satan’ which is used as a title in Job 1-2 for ‘the accuser.’ Now Peter, albeit unintentionally, occupies the role of accusing Jesus of misunderstanding his place. Now Jesus turns to Peter to correct him.

There is a contrast between Jesus’ dismissal of the devil in 4:10 and his words to Peter in 16:23. In both cases Jesus tells the tempting one to go away (hupage) but here Jesus adds a location “behind me.”  Peter is called to occupy the position of following Jesus as one who learns rather than being dismissed like the devil or left behind like Pharisees and Sadducees. Peter will have to learn that his understanding of divine and human things are incorrect and that God’s way will be learned by following this Messiah who moves towards the suffering and death rather than towards human conceptions of power and glory.

Jesus’ words to his followers about denying themselves, taking up their cross and following were challenging to his initial followers but perhaps even more so in our culture that avoids suffering at all costs. Leszak Kolakowsky’s description of our culture as “a culture of analgesics” where we are “entertaining ourselves to death” by our endless distractions (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 211) rings true. The modern world presents many ways to numb and distract ourselves away from our callings and to present us with alternatives to a life that is difficult but ultimately worth dedicating ourselves to. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in a Detroit speech in 1963 that, “I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live” resonates with this calling of the men and women who follow the path of Jesus to be willing to take up their own crosses, deny the distractions and stumbling blocks and well meaning friends who try to change their paths and to place their life in the service of something worth living and dying for.

In a culture of revenge, where violence is repaid with more violence, Jesus calls his disciples to a way of life that ‘turns the other cheek and loves one’s enemies.’ We, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, are called into a discipleship which walks the path that Jesus walks. The crosses we bear may be different, the suffering we endure may be unique to our position and our time, but we do this as part of a community of people who desire to follow Jesus. There may be times where those who are among us, often for well intentioned reasons, place a stumbling block before us or who point us to the myriad of distractions and numbing agents that are a part of our culture. There may be times where the tempter attempts to turn us away from the path that leads to the cross.  The word the NRSV translates as life is psuche which is normally rendered ‘soul.’ The Hebrew people didn’t have a concept of a ‘detachable’ soul which goes into the afterlife, but the ‘soul’ was the very essence of what one’s life. The concept of selling one’s ‘soul’ in Hebrew would be to betray the life one is called to live instead of being a transaction where one damned one’s immortal life.

Ultimately there is a hope beyond the present that this life of discipleship yearns towards, some experience of the kingdom of heaven’s infiltration into the earth. Jesus’ words about the coming of God to reward those who choose this life of denial to find their lives embodies a hope for God’s action to overturn the injustice of the world. In Jűrgen Moltmann’s memorable phrase, “A theology of the cross without the resurrection is hell itself.” (Moltmann, 1981, pp. 41-42) This path of suffering without hope would merely be some masochistic philosophy and this suffering should produce not only a hope, but in Paul’s words a ‘hope that does not disappoint us.’ (Romans 5:6) The path which involves taking up ones cross involves a hope that the follower will share in the glory of the Son of Man coming in his glory. How Jesus’ early disciples heard the promise that some of those standing there would not taste death before Jesus came in his kingdom could relate to the Transfiguration, paradoxically the cross, or the resurrection, but as those who still attempt to follow the path of the crucified Lord we also hope in our own way to experience both moments of insight into the glory of God and some future realization of the kingdom of heaven.

Psalm 22-A Desperate Cry to God

Marc Chagall, Solitude (1933)

Marc Chagall, Solitude (1933)

Psalm 22

<To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.>
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
 4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
 5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
 6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
 7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
 8 “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver– let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
 9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
 10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
 11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
 12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
 15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
 16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
 17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
 18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
 19 But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
 22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
 24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
 26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!
 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
 29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22 echoes heavily in the gospel writer’s telling of the crucifixion of Jesus and it forms a central part of the liturgy of holy week (closing the Maundy Thursday service and serving as the pivot into Good Friday). For both Jewish and Christian readers this Psalm of suffering and lament has been a place that can reflect the reality of the faithful life when God seems absent and God’s promises not to forsake seem far away. Many people are troubled when they read the language of the Psalms of Lament, particularly the vivid language of Psalm 22 because it seems unlike the language of faith. Yet, here in the place of suffering where the faithful one calls out to God and questions God’s seeming lack of intervention is a faithful (even if difficult) place. As Beth Tanner can state, “Crying out in pain and expressing trust are not incompatible.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 233) There will always be those, like Job’s friends in the book of Job, who want to equate suffering as proof of the suffering one’s unfaithfulness and demand a rigidly ordered world where the righteous prosper and the unrighteous are punished but the real world is seldom that tidy. My experience as well as my reading of the story of many of the saints of the church and the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish story reveal a very different dynamic: frequently those saints and ancestors in the faith do suffer, and often in ways that seem unreasonable, yet they can hold their suffering within the framework of a world where God still remains sovereign even if the world is often incomprehensible.

The Psalm begins with a cry to a known God, the one the sufferer calls out to is their God who they have known in the past, who has been present and active throughout their lives and who now seems absent. It is this absence of God’s presence that makes a space for the crisis of the sufferer and allows their oppressors to have their way. For the petitioner who cries out to God they trust that God is a God who hears, much as in the Exodus when God heard the cries of the Israelites, and the Psalmist calls upon this history of God’s action in the past on their behalf and on behalf of the people. The Psalmist contrasts the position of their ancestors ‘who trusted in you and were not put to shame’ and their own experience of being despised and scorned. The Psalmist oscillates between the ways in which God has acted in the past and their own experience of abandonment, terror and shame. The poetic language of this Psalm is particularly rich in representing their opponents as wild bulls, ravening lions, a pack of vicious dogs and their experience takes a toll on their own body in vivid ways: mouth dried up like a potsherd, being poured out like water and bones being out of joint with a heart that has melted like wax, and they are dying of hunger to the point where their bones stand out against their skin. The person places their petition to God in the direst terms possible, their petition is a matter of life and death and their only hope is for God to hear and act like God has heard and acted in the past and to honor God’s promise not to forsake.

As with most of the Psalms of Lament, Psalm 22 allows us to see the reversal of the petitioner’s condition. In the middle of verse 21 the situation changes and the tone changes. The verse begins ‘save me from the mouth of the lions’ but then abruptly switches ‘from the horns of wild oxen you have rescued me’. We don’t know the time that elapses in this transition but the deliverance occurs and the prayer switches to one of praise. Since God has not despised or disdained, there is a hope for tomorrow. Those who sought the LORD now become those who praise, the poor whose bones could be counted can finally eat and be satisfied and the God who seemed to forsake has become the LORD who reigns over the nations. God’s action in the speaker’s generation ensures that another generation will be told about the God who watches over God’s faithful people and hears their complaints and prayers.

For the first tellers of the story of Jesus the resonant images of Psalm 22 probably helped to make sense of their experience of the crucifixion. For both Matthew and Mark the words Jesus speaks from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi lema sebachthani, my God, my God why have you forsaken me” would resonate with the beginning of this Psalm and the question of the righteous suffer. Even within the experience of that day where the soldiers cast lots for the garments of Jesus, the Psalm provides an easy connection for followers trying to make sense of the senseless suffering. The Psalms provided a language for their experience and words for their pain.

As important as Psalm 22 is for Christians in telling the story of the crucifixion both in scriptures and in the liturgy of Holy Week we cannot leave it only there. Psalm 22, and the psalms of lament more generally, are rich and powerful words that for generations of Jewish and Christians followers of God have given voice to a cry for deliverance. Whether it was the Jewish people in exile in Babylon, slaves crying out in suffering, or the person dealing with a devastating injury or illness that has robbed them of their sense of belonging we need to hear again that the God who we perceive has forsaken us can indeed hear our cry. We need to be able to claim that the experience of suffering and isolation need not be read as an implication of our own unfaithfulness or unrighteousness, but that indeed crying out to God in that time of suffering and isolation is itself a mighty cry of faith. Groaning words can indeed be powerful words when they reach the ears of the LORD who rules over the nations.

I Thirst

The Crucifixion as Seen from the Cross by James Tissot, 19th Century

The Crucifixion as Seen from the Cross by James Tissot, 19th Century

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill scripture),” I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. John 19: 28-29

I am the thirsty one who longs for the new wine of the kingdom of God
Once I filled the stone jars at the wedding of Cana with this rich elixir
So the guests of the bride and the guests of the bridegroom
Might savor this heavenly fermentation of the vine
Becoming drunk upon its sweetness
I am the thirsty one who longs for the inauguration of the royal banquet of resurrection
The dawning of the new age that comes with the rising of the Son of Man
But until that dawn arrive I sit suspended on the hill of death under the blackened sun
Waiting for the long night of death which will only end when light creeps above the horizon
On the first day of the new creation
I am the thirsty one whose disciples vied for the places of honor at the coming of the kingdom
Wanting to sit upon the right and the left
To drink of my cup and to endure the baptism which I must bear
Yet, at its initiation it is two bandits who occupy the places of honor in this place of shame
They will be the first to see the gates of heaven open to them beyond this terrestrial hell
I am the thirsty one who inaugurated the feast which is a foretaste of the feast to come
I could occupy the places of honor at the royal banquet
With cupbearers longing for the honor of tasting my wine and ensuring the quality of my meal
Yet, for their king they gave me poison to eat and vinegar to drink
And only the enemy soldier extends the stick filled with sour vinegar which might wet my lips
But does nothing to quench the thirst within
I am the thirsty one who becomes the door to enter into the halls of God
Through which the righteous must pass
The Passover lamb that was slaughtered and whose blood was lifted up upon branches of hyssop
To coat the doorpost and the lintel so that the angel of death might not pass beyond its boundary
And to preserve those who pass through and lead them to life
I am the thirsty one that is the vine upon which the fruit of the kingdom grows and flourishes
Many branches will be grafted into me to feed upon my life and to grow out of my love
In them the grapes will grow sweet and juicy ready to bring joy and celebration to the earth
Their fruit will be the harvest that produces the never ending drink for the kingdom
So that in every season and the nations of the earth might be refreshed

Neil White, 2016

Mark’s Portrait of the Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 5

Icon, St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes (1657)

Icon, St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes (1657)

Mark’s Portrait of the Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 5: Structure and Reading in Light of the Cross

This final entry on these windows into how Mark presents Jesus and his world to us deals with two large topics which could consume a lot of space on their own right, but since these are designed more as an introduction to the way Mark presents Jesus and his world they will be shown briefly as a way to suggest some further work. When we look at the Bible in general and the sixty six books that make up the canon of many people’s Bibles if we pay attention we realize that the people who composed the scriptures do not tell stories the way that we tell stories. In the modern world, stories are written for the eyes and paper is cheap (and digital print is nearly free). We live in a literate, or as some would argue post-literate culture. We live in a culture where literacy in at least one language is assumed, where education is available for men and women to be able to read and write at some level of proficiency and where information is available on diverse platforms and especially with the advent of the internet and digital connectivity we are able to access a wide variety of media from a variety of perspectives with very little effort compared to previous times and places. With the easy accessibility of the written word, some would argue we have even gone as far as living in a post-literate culture where everyone has the ability to read but due to the increasingly visual nature of communication many people no longer utilize their literacy to be a primary source of information but instead rely upon the continual availability of visual media to be their source of information to interpret their world. Regardless of whether we live in a literate or post-literate world we live in a far different world than the world of the writers of scripture, like the Gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark is written to an aural culture (aural having to do with the ear). Most people in the time of Mark’s gospel would not be highly literate or have access to written texts.  One of the reasons the scribes receive the highlighting they do in the gospels is that they are among those religious and political elites that were both literate and had access to the written texts. Visual images were present in the time of the gospels but they were permanent, and they would be placed onto stones or coins where they would combine physical images with textual information so that information could be communicated that way, but to lock in images this way was costly and time consuming. These images did not change and became a static part of people’s environment. Most information was communicated by speaking and in ancient cultures they had ears to hear far better than we did. They would be familiar, for example with large pieces of Torah or the prophets or the Psalms being read and or sung. They were able to listen for longer periods of time than we are used to listening for and they also knew how to structure speech so that it could be remembered. That does not mean that written texts were not consulted, merely that people’s memories also became saturated with the images of scriptures and the stories they heard primarily through the spoken word. When you are telling a spoken story, you tell it differently if you want people to remember the details and Mark’s Gospel is an excellent example of an aural piece of literature, a piece of work that is written more for the ear and less for the eye.

When you tell an aural story you don’t spend all of your time on details, you allow the person hearing the story to fill in the details of the world. When we read a novel, for example, we expect the author to narrate for us a description of the world and to paint us a picture with words about how something looked, tasted, smelled, sounded like, felt like, what feelings it evoked in the person and more. If you read the Biblical stories they are incredibly short when they give descriptions and when they do it is something to pay attention to. Mark is incredibly terse in how he tells his story, but it is also designed to be able to be memorized by a storyteller and told over and over again. The telling of Mark’s gospel takes about two hours from beginning to end and was memorable  enough to still be referred to over 2,000 years later.

Structure in Mark’s Story

Mark uses structure in a lot of ways to propel the story along. Sometimes Mark wants people to hear a linkage between various events and so uses shared vocabulary to link one event to another.  And example of this is the linkage between the baptism story in Mark and the crucifixion story where the temple veil is torn. Mark uses a very unusual word for this- schizomenous  a word that only appears twice in the New Testament  and both occurrences are in Mark. Schizomenous refers to an irreparably tearing, the beginning of the work is where we get schizophrenia from, and it occurs on the front end of the story in the baptism with the heavens being ripped apart and at the end of the story where the temple veil is torn apart forming a linkage between the two event. Hearing this unusual word could create in the hearers a sense of wonder at the connection between the crucifixion and the baptism, between the temple veil and the veil of heaven and what it means that they are both now ripped apart. Through something as simple as shared vocabulary Mark is able to make a profound linkage between two events that a casual reader may miss.

Mark has a distinctive vocabulary as well that pushes the narrative along and like most storytellers has words that speed up the narrative or slow it down. Characteristic of Mark is the tendency to drive the narrative quickly, particularly with the word euthus, which is frequently translated immediately or at that time (which doesn’t carry the same level of urgency that the word is trying to convey.) Mark wants us to understand that things are happening quickly in this narrative and the terse manner of storytelling compels this even faster.

Mark also uses geographical features to give structure to the story. This not only helps in remembering the story by forming inclusions, it also links the stories together in very interesting linguistic ways. For example in Mark 4. 35-51 Jesus stills the storm as they journey across the water to Gerasene and in Mark 6. 45-52 Jesus now walks on water while the disciples are on the journey to Geneserret. The linkage in the two stories of wondering who then is this Jesus also brackets a section where this question comes up again, but the section ends with the disciples not understanding  and their hearts being hardened. In a similar way mountain scenes tend to reveal, although in sometimes hidden ways who Jesus is: for example Jesus goes up a mountain to set aside the 12 apostles, later going up to the mountain to be transfigured before Peter, James and John. At times the mountains point back to times in the story of Israel, like the temple mount with Solomon or the Mount of Olives with David entering from that direction, other times the connection is less concrete as the hill of Golgotha is contrasted with the Temple mount and yet in many respects for Mark’s Gospel Golgatha comes to occupy the space of the temple mount and becomes the place where the disciples flee from but the Transfiguration in reinterpreted.

Sometimes Mark will use similar stories to form an inclusion, a set of brackets to what is within and the transition to what is to come. For example there are two feeding stories in Mark, the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6. 30-42 and the feeding of 4,000 in Mark 8.1-10 and could be looked at like this:

Feeding 5, 000

Jesus walks on water

Jesus heals sick in Gennesaret

What makes clean and unclean

Healing of Syrophonecian’s daughter

Healing of the deaf man

Feeding 4,000


Now a lot more could be gone into with the breaking down and highlighting of how this structure is highlighting different parts of the story and how they go together but at the center of the story is a question about what is unclean and clean and it is surrounded by stories where Jesus heals and while the disciples do not understand the deaf man is enabled to hear.  Another example is the use of healing of blind men in 8.22-26 and 10.46-52 to mark the beginning and end of a section on the disciples seeing and not seeing before transitioning into the crucifixion narrative.


Mark is a master storyteller and uses all sorts of structural elements to add flavor to his terse story and to evoke from that structure and highlights a broader story of God and God’s people that the story is a part of. Mark may focus primarily on what Jesus does, but in what is said and what is alluded to he also wants us to enter into the mystery of who Jesus is. It is a tightly woven story with many linkages and often there is benefit from both the wide reading of the entire narrative as well as paying close attention to the individual pieces that compose the narrative quilt.

Reading Backwards from the Crucifixion

Reproduction of Carl Heinrich Bloch's, Christ on the Cross (1870)

Reproduction of Carl Heinrich Bloch’s, Christ on the Cross (1870)

Mark has been called a crucifixion narrative with an extended prologue, and six of the sixteen chapters of Mark deal with the final week of Jesus’ life. There are a variety of ways that the New Testament talks about the crucifixion, many times they want to explain what is happening in the crucifixion but Mark at best alludes to this and is much more interested in narrating the journey to the cross and beyond. Mark does not engage in any discussion about atonement theology or Jesus dying for our sins, in fact the closest he comes to that is in Mark 10.45 where he states “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus goes to a Roman cross, rejected by the leaders of the temple and executed as a low class political prisoner and Mark’s narrative understands the scandal of the crucifixion for the early followers of Christ in the Roman world but Mark also doesn’t back away from this part of the story, instead the rest of the story only makes sense in light of the crucifixion.

Beginning at the midpoint of the story in chapter 8, Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he is going to be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the scribes and be killed (see Mark 8.31, 9.31 and 10.33). Even before we arrive in the story in Jerusalem we are told over and over again where the story is going. Once in Jerusalem we encounter a story that is full of scriptural, political and religious overtones. Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, the way that David had entered the city in celebration in a way that intentionally echoes Zechariah 9.9, as the peaceful king who arrives on the donkey rather than the warhorse. It also has political implications as it implicitly mocks not only the pretensions of Kings like Herod Antipas in Jesus time, who ruled in Galilee, or Pontus Pilate and by extension Caesar.  Jesus immediately challenges the temple hierarchy and much of the story over the preceeding chapters (Mark 11 and 12) involves the various groups trying to shame Jesus and separate him from his authority with the crowds. Mark links a group of passages around money with the story of the widows mite leading into a long statement about times to come (and particularly the destruction of the temple) with another anonymous woman who anoints Jesus with very costly ointment of nard (and how that money could have been used) and then Judas being offered money to betray Jesus. These stories link together suggestively and it is an interesting contrast between the anonymous women and the infamous disciple but they stop short of being declarative. We, for example, are never given by Mark a reason why Judas betrays Jesus, although the other gospels will supply us with different reasons. The Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples becomes a new covenant and a new meal to be done to tell again a different and new story of God’s deliverance of God’s people. Playing with the resonant images of the festival Mark paints a powerful picture of what is getting ready to occur as we approach the crucifixion, although again in a suggestive and mysterious way.

Jesus again takes Peter, and James and John, like in the transfiguration, to Gethsemane and the three disciples again are unable to respond faithfully. The location links it back to the times when Jesus is declared the beloved Son and it is contrasted with the Father who does not respond to the prayer for the cup to be removed. Again, suggestively the language of cup also links back to the language of the meal where the cup is the blood of the covenant. Jesus is betrayed and taken into custody by the ominous crowd bearing clubs and swords and put on the stand for blasphemy. This is only a trial in the loosest of terms, but in the midst of the trial what has been hidden is made known when Jesus claims in front of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes his identity in terms of the words of Daniel 7 as the son of man. Jesus is handed over to Pilate and the charge against him becomes a political one, he is crucified as king of the Jews and a freedom fighter names Barabbas is released in his place. It is an interesting note that Barabbas means son of the father, and so one obedient Son of the Father is rejected for a rebellious one.

The crucifixion narrative itself is often misunderstood in popular portrayals because of the excessive focus on the flogging. The flogging and the mocking by the soldiers is more to dishonor the person than to weaken them, the Romans wanted their victims not to be too weakened otherwise they would die too quickly on the cross.  Crucifixion was a slow and agonizing way to die as the body fights against the limits of pain and suffocation. The people who were crucified where stripped and placed up as examples of what the cost of defying Rome was and not only were their bodies tortured by the long and painful process of crucifixion their honor was to die as well. Yet, in classic Markan irony it is from the mocking mouths of many of those around the cross that truth is said. Even the final statement from the centurion that , “Truly this man was God’s Son!” could be read as a final ironic (but true)mockery or an unexpected statement of faith from an enemy (much like the demons or the Syro-Phonecian  woman).  Mark brings us into the mystery of this God forsaken moment and invites us to wonder once again about the mystery of who this Jesus is, and is Jesus separated from God, is Jesus taking on the role of Israel, what is the linkage between these words of Psalm 22 spoken from the cross to the promised presence of God.  Mark does not present nice easy answers, but invites us to go back to the story again and wonder who this Jesus is and what the kingdom of God means. By linking the crucifixion and the baptism we wonder again about this ‘Beloved son’ also being the forsaken one. We are invited into a mystery where words fail us and the truth can overwhelm us.

Mark leaves the story on an unsettled note, an unsettled resurrection where the women  flee in terror and amazement and say nothing to anyone for they were afraid. Perhaps this ending reflects the ongoing nature of the story in the Markan communities, or the inability to put into words the mystery that they were a part of.  Perhaps we are called to go back to the Transfiguration where the Peter, and James and John are terrified, or in the boat where Jesus passes by and tells them not to be afraid, or when the storm has subsided and they are in great awe. To me Mark asks us to go back to story after story and to wonder again, ‘Who then is this Jesus and what is this kingdom of God that has come near.’ What words can we use to describe this mystery and do we dare state what seems to be a reality that somehow in this Jesus that God has come down to be among us in the most unusual and unexpected of ways? Mark’s story point to the crucifixion and the crucifixion and resurrection points us back to re-enter the story and see things with eyes that can see and to hear it with ears that can hear.



Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World in which He Lived Part 2

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World in which He Lived Part 2: The Pax Romans and the Peace of Christ

Statue of Caesar Augustus

Statue of Caesar Augustus

In the 1990s and early 2000s there was a vast amount of writing done by New Testament scholars that was taking into account the world of the Roman empire and its impact on both Jesus and the gospel writers. Prior to this time it was no secret that the Roman empire was a part of the context of the gospels but nobody seemed to take seriously the implications of the language of the empire or the context of nations who had garrisons of Roman soldiers stationed in them or the reality of conflict between the Jewish people and Rome as a context for the writing of the gospels. Yet, once one begins to look hard at the gospels in this light it is hard to imagine not seeing the impact of Rome upon these communities and the way they viewed the world. The conflict that would emerge between the Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ would come out of two different views of what the world was all about and two different dreams of different kingdoms.

Roman Empire in 117AD

Roman Empire in 117AD

At the time of Jesus and at the time of the writing of the Gospel of Mark the Roman Empire was near the peak of its power and influence. The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE would stretch from modern day Portugal and Spain, through part of England, France, Italy, Greece, and the Balkans, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and the Northern Coast of Africa. Its impact is still felt today in many ways, even in language where the Romance (from Rome) languages of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French all share common vocabulary and form while the defiant Germanic tribes would not have a unified language until the time of the Reformation. Commerce flowed effectively throughout the empire which built extensive networks of roads and managed commerce in Latin in the Western half of the empire where Greek remained the language of the western half of the empire (hence the New Testament being written in the language of commerce of the people of the western half of the Roman empire rather than Hebrew or Aramaic). The very genre that we refer to these stories as being, gospel, takes their background as the proclamations of the Roman emperor when an area was conquered or a feast or major event was being declared. The Romans believed and executed peace through continued conquest. The heart of the Roman Empire was the legions that were, for their day, an effectively trained fighting force that worked together as units and not as individuals. The individual Roman legionnaire is not equipped well for one on one conflict, but rather the typical soldier’s primary weapon was a lance or spear and not the sword (swords were short and used for defensive measures) and their large shields not only covered the individual soldier but the soldier to their left. Discipline was essential to this type of fighting and the legions relied upon individual soldiers acting as a part of a unit and not as self contained warriors. For the Romans the idea that the U.S. Army used in its advertising a couple years ago, “an army of one” where the individual soldier was able to call upon the resources of the rest of the army as a force multiplier of their capabilities would have been unimaginable. The individual only existed as a part of the unit and only fought as an extension of the person to their right and left.

The time of Jesus was the time of Rome becoming the empire. Most people learned a little bit of Roman history in English class where they had to learn William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ where Julius comes and takes over the empire with his army and then is appointed Emperor and shortly executed. After Julius Caesar the empire erupts into a civil war between Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the south and Octavian, the son of Julius Caesar in the north. Octavian is victorious, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra vanquished, the empire is united and Octavian attains the title, Caesar Augustus son of the divine Julius. Throughout the empire this is the time of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome that is attained by the legions and other allied forces of Rome continuing to push the boundaries of the empire outward. Unlike modern warfare in America where we can talk about the economic cost of forces involved in conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq, which run into the billions of dollars, in the ancient world war was a profitable enterprise. Armies were financed by the spoils of war and by the addition of agricultural property (since most wealth was agriculturally or extraction (mining) related). In addition to providing revenue, the legions also served as one of the primary builders of roads throughout the empire and through their building and protection they enabled trade and taxation to flourish. Even though many of the individual Roman emperors may not have been successful the empire flourished in spite of their exuberance or sometimes madness. Whether it was Nero at the time of the execution of St. Paul and St. Peter and his suspected burning of much of Rome and using Christians as a convenient scapegoat or whether it was the year of four emperors, where Vespasian has to leave his command of the legions in the Jewish war to bring stability back to Rome and become Emperor the wheels of the empire continued to function.

Gladiators Crucified after the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE)

Gladiators Crucified after the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE)

There are two sides to the Roman Empire, the Corinthian column and the crucifixion. The Romans built incredible engineering structures from aqueducts to temples to coliseums. Their road network far outpaced anything else in the ancient world and some of these roads are still visible today, others became paved over to become roads used in the modern world. Yet, they reigned through fear. For all the beauty of Rome there is an intensely dark experience of life if one opposed Rome or where not one of its beneficiaries. Crucifixion was more than an instrument of death and simply trying to equate it to the electric chair or lethal injection miss the point that this was about not only killing the individual but wiping out their honor and instilling fear in the rest of the population. In our day we are, rightly, offended when ISIS, for example, has beheaded people it has captured and considers infidels. In the ancient world beheading was considered a humane and honorable way of death. This for example is why St. Paul, a Roman citizen according to tradition is beheaded while St. Peter, who is not a Roman citizen, is crucified. Crucifixion took an individual, placed them on the ways into and out of town to where the person was exhibited and made a public spectacle while they slowly died of suffocation. The Romans were good at this. They were not evil, not any more than any other empire of the day, but they were ruthless. If a person could be made an example of they would be, whether in the crosses or in the coliseums. The Romans did not put up with rebellion, like Babylon or Persia or Greece before them they knew responded quickly and brutally to any attempted uprising.

First Century Palestine

First Century Palestine

At the time of Jesus’ birth Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Idumea, Perea, the Decapolis were all under the reign of Herod the Great. Herod, like the Romans was a study in the contrasts of the age. Herod did build some incredible structures including the temple in Jerusalem that Jesus would encounter in his day as well as great fortresses like Masada which would play into the Jewish War after Jesus’ death but in the time of the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Herod during the civil war was one of the few leaders who chose the wrong side (he sided with Anthony and Cleopatra) and maintained his position and actually increased his power after he went and directly appealed to Caesar Augustus. Herod was a shrewd politician within the Roman world but also very paranoid, killing some of his own sons who he perceived as threats to his power.  When he died shortly after the birth of Jesus the empire was divided among his sons (many of which who are also named Herod), but many proved to be ineffective administrators. At the time of Jesus ministry, Herod Antipas reigns in Galilee and Perea, but Jerusalem is under a Roman administrator, Pontus Pilate.

The first Jewish-Roman War, 66-73 CE, where the Judeans rose up in revolt against the Roman Empire and enjoyed a brief success, embarrassing Legion XII Fulminata at the Battle of Beth Horon, but the Romans responded decisively sending in Vespasian with his son Titus as second in command. By 69 the Romans are have defeated much of the resistance in Galilee and have moved into Judea, but Vespasian is called back to Rome to become the emperor and his son Titus completes the campaign. After a seven month siege, Jerusalem falls to Rome in 70 CE and mop up operations continue, including the final stand of the Jewish rebels at the mountain stronghold of Masada in 73-74. The result of the campaign would be a destroyed Jerusalem and temple and a demoralized Judean and Galilean people. The Christians would be scattered throughout the empire, not taking an active part in the Jewish war by this point but by the end of the Jewish War the connection of the early followers of Jesus were no longer being considered by many as a part of the Jewish religion.

Section of the Arch of Titus showing the Spoils of Jerusalem

Section of the Arch of Titus showing the Spoils of Jerusalem

The Romans were also very good at publicizing their victories. Whether on public structures like the Arch of Titus, or through commemorations or through the coins of the empire like the ones below where Emperor Vespasian is on one side and the Judea is shown as a conquered woman on the other. The Romans wanted people to see and understand that their empire was now at the apex of history. That resistance to the Roman regime would end up with defeat and that the way forward was to accept the Pax Romana that was offered. It is into this world that the gospels speak of the kingdom of God or as Paul’s letter’s can say the peace of Christ.

Coins Depicting Emperor Vespasian on one side and the Captivity of Judea on the other

Coins Depicting Emperor Vespasian on one side and the Captivity of Judea on the other

My Name is Legion

1They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2Andwhen he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wretched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding;12and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.”13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered into the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. 14The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened.15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had the legion; and they were afraid.16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. Mark 5: 1-20

Tiles of Legion X Fretensis showing a Pig as a part of their emblem

Tiles of Legion X Fretensis showing a Pig as a part of their emblem

This is one of those passages that captured my attention for a long time and I always wondered about the demons using the title of Legion in a context of Roman rule. The reading is made stronger when one realizes that Legion X Fretensis has the swine as one of its major emblems, and Legion X Fretensis was one of the major legions involved in the Jewish War. So what is happening here? Is the demon trying to pick a fight between Jesus and Rome? Is the Roman Empire demonic? There were certainly Jews who believed so. For me the text is suggestive of the questions that were certainly swirling around the heads of the readers of Mark as they wondered how they were to navigate the reality of the Roman empire, but it is also an exorcism which is a central part of the spirit filled ancient world we mentioned in the previous post on Mark.  There is much more that could be said but at this point I am going to leave this ambiguous just as Mark does. Mark does a far better job of suggesting and hinting at things but prefers to leave us with a mystery to wrestle with.

There are many places where the reality of Rome plays a foil in the story, for example when Jesus sets aside the 12 apostles on the mountain in chapter 3 he is suggestively setting up a new nation of Israel, what part will they play in the empire of Rome? When Herod Antipas, a Roman puppet king orders the beheading of John the Baptist is this one more way in which the Pax Romana is ill at ease with the kingdom of God? When Jesus feeds 5,000 and 4,000 in Mark is this also a political act which works against the control of the food supply and distribution by the empire? Perhaps this is one of the factors behind Mark’s messianic secret where Jesus never allows people to speak of him as the Messiah until the end of the story and the crucifixion?  The calling of tax collectors to be a part of the kingdom of God and away from the taxation mechanism of Caesar is certainly a political act. If Judas Iscariot’s name is a part of the Sicarii, a group of Jewish assassins who targeted Romans, which is not conclusive but an interesting question, it poses a very interesting dynamic within this group of 12. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem certainly among other things also parodies the entry processions of Roman emperors and dignitaries as well as the Herodian kings. One of the challenges to Jesus in Jerusalem is over paying taxes to Caesar; Jesus spends almost all of chapter 13 talking about the destruction of the temple and the effects of the Jewish War. Jesus is put on trial ultimately before Pilate, a roman administrator and crucified on a Roman cross by Roman soldiers. The empire has a part to play in the narrative. It is the world in which the gospels are heard and which Jesus did his ministry. Next time we will look at the Jewish setting of the gospels and the world of second temple Judaism.  

Father Forgive Them…A Poem for Good Friday

El Greco, Christ on the Cross (1588)

El Greco, Christ on the Cross (1588)

Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing
Your people chose to listen to the voices that fill the air of this noisy world
The calls of the gods of violence and might they have answered
And in the kiln of conflict the green wood is drying awaiting the spark
Of these angry gods of war and rebellion that are never satiated
Though rivers of blood and the screams of the innocent stream out
Poured out as a libation making the profane sacred and the sacred profane
In the days to come they will cry to the hills to cover them in their terror
Calling the barren blessed and the ones lost in natural disasters lucky
Because of the wrath of their gods that rejoice in the conflict of the nations

Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing
Dividing the world into the righteous and unrighteous, the holy and the mundane
Those who are blessed and those who are cursed, offering to gods of privilege
Those who can be excluded and kept out by their blood and their birth
By the language they speak, the hue of skin or hair, who they love or how they act
They bear the projected fear of the mob by sickness or disease or demonization
Confined to the outskirts of the city, to the graveyards, the asylums and prisons
They are prevented from having a place at the table and the temple
The very outcasts that I once rescued from their sojourn as pariahs
The poor who received good news and the captives that were set free
Now instead of the favor of the Lord receiving the scorn of these tribal gods

Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing
They may be full and laughing and rich now but they live in spiritual destitution
The concerns of the world and the lure of wealth have choked the seed
God’s kingdom came among them and they never saw it snatched away
They have offered their lives to the cruel gods of mammon and security
Offering their lives in to quench the unending thirst for acquisition
Joining house to house, starving the widows and the orphans and yet
Their appetites only yearn to consume more for that is what they are
They are consumers whose lives are built upon the things that in turn consume
I have yearned to gather them together under my wings as a hen
But they would not come for their lives were built around shrines of their own making
Fouling their own nests and poisoning the waters of their children
In their hunger to feed these insatiable gods that delight in their indentured servitude

Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing
Their fathers and mothers didn’t have ears to hear the prophets you sent
And they have not the eyes to see the Son in their midst, and so they cast me out
They rejected the cornerstone and crafted idols of stone and ideology to offer their lives to
Instead of peace they chose war, instead of love they chose hate
They believe they have never been slaves to anyone as they ignore their yoke
Locked into the world of their fears and isolation, cursing what they do not know
They mock me to ‘save myself’ but it is their lives I cry out to save
It is their world that has the sun blotted out; their veils which are torn in two
They and their children will bear the burden of appeasing the gods they chose
Conflict and alienation and slavery may be the path that they have chosen for their own
Yet, Father it is you who pull light from darkness and life from the maw of death
Whose rejected kingdom is at hand and who breathes the life into the new creation
It is into your hand that I commend my spirit and their shattered world as well
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give unto the righteous and the unrighteous their daily bread
And forgive them their trespasses for they do not know what they are doing

Neil White, 2015

The Rejected Kingdom- A Sermon on the Crucifixion in Mark’s Gospel

Time Heal All Wounds, by kparks@deviantart.com

Time Heal All Wounds, by kparks@deviantart.com


33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Mark 15: 33-39

When I began seminary one of the first books that I was required to read was Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean which follows Andreas, a first century merchant who kept walking through the places where Jesus had been, hearing the echoes of his passing, seeing the effects that he had on people. He never meets Jesus while before the crucifixion but I enjoyed this scholars attempt to wonder what it might be like on the ground in ancient Palestine at the time of Jesus. Through the story the author tries to figure out who is this Jesus and why did he die, and those are questions that Christians and others who live in the wake of this Galilean have wondered for two thousand years. In the words of the Appalachian carol ‘I Wonder As I Wander’

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor ord’n’ry people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

And each of the gospels wonder as they wander with Jesus, narrating his story in their own way. They pull on their experiences, on the stories they’ve heard, on the things they’ve seen, on the world they understand in light of their scriptures and they call us into the mystery as well. So as we wonder about the cross and why Jesus did die we come to Mark’s gospel and one answer, and that is that God had a dream that was rejected. Jesus comes and proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand, that God has a vision for the world and that because of this the world was changing. It was not a new dream, the prophets had pointed to it, the psalms sang of it, and the law envisioned it, but just as the people had never accepted the prophets in their own time they did not receive the son. But why would people reject this dream? Why would they turn away from God’s calling and desire? Why would they choose something else than the kingdom of God?

Well in part because this dream challenged the reality had grown up experiencing. It challenged people’s practices, how they could judge and exclude one another, who they could ignore, who they could exploit. It challenged the temple and the religious, for healing was coming from a source other than them. Jesus didn’t do the right things, hang out with the right people, and show the right people the proper deference. Who did he think he was? It challenged the Romans and the powerful of the day, it didn’t believe that a person’s value was based on their power or position, it didn’t occupy strongholds or build armies but it did undercut the threat of violence. It challenged the rich and the wealthy because it told people to place their trust not in wealth or possessions or land but instead in the presence of God who had come down to be a part of the world. It called people away from their trades, their homes, their families and their lives. It made lepers clean and allowed the blind to see and yet those with eyes to see and ears to hear were few indeed. It lifted up the weak and the widow, the outcast and the orphan, the foreigner and the forgotten. It imagined a place where the first where last and the last were first where people found a new community in being gathered together around this Galilean. It taught people to love and that aroused hate.

Why did Jesus die, well on the ground level there are a number of answers: fear, power, authority, security. The religious of Jesus’ day felt that he was a blasphemer and a heretic, the Romans crucified him as a rebel and he dies on a cross viewed as a traitor to both Israel and Rome. He dies because the dream was rejected, the kingdom cast aside and its king crowned with thorns. Jesus dies to kill the messenger and destroy the message. Crucified to erase his honor, name and memory from all traces of history. But in this crazy dream where the first are last and the last are first, where the irony of Jesus’ mocking title hung over him on the cross is somehow true, where one consigned to be forgotten becomes remembered far beyond any other figure of any day or time, this mystery of the message lives on in us. We are those who come today and wonder as we wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die. And while there are many answers to this question and what happened on this day will continue to defy our attempts to lock it down and so we come together and we wonder about the mystery of the cross and the one who went to the cross. We learn to dream God’s dreams, to live in God’s kingdoms, and to be transformed by the message and the messenger who died on the cross and yet live.

Images for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday

I’m returning to this project after a short break where I was doing a series that didn’t line up with the lectionary readings over lent.  There are a lot of images for this part of Holy Week and depending on how one approaches Maundy Thursday and Good Friday would determine what types of images one seeks (ex. footwashing or last supper on Thursday, stations of the cross or crucifixion on Good Friday) I have tried to gather some interesting images that I have not used elsewhere (for example see my poem Stay Here and Keep Watch)

Palm Sunday

Coptic Icon, Entry into Jerusalem

Coptic Icon, Entry into Jerusalem

Duccio dr Buonisegna, the Entry into Jerusalem (1308-11)

Duccio dr Buonisegna, the Entry into Jerusalem (1308-11)

Fresco in the Parish Church of Zirl, Austria of Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday

Fresco in the Parish Church of Zirl, Austria of Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday

James Tissot, The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem (1886-1902)

James Tissot, The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem (1886-1902)

Maundy Thursday

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (www.artbible.net/home/Accueil/-Joh-13,01_The feetwashing_Le lavement des pieds/19 Brown Jessus Washing Peter s Feet lon)

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (www.artbible.net/home/Accueil/-Joh-13,01_The feetwashing_Le lavement des pieds/19 Brown Jessus Washing Peter s Feet lon)

Anonymous the Feetwashing (Google image)

Anonymous the Feetwashing (Google image)

Unknown artist, from Vie de Jesus Mafa

Unknown artist, from Vie de Jesus Mafa

Good Friday

El Greco, Christ on the Cross (1588)

El Greco, Christ on the Cross (1588)

Trinity with Christ Crucified, Austrian abour 1410

Trinity with Christ Crucified, Austrian abour 1410

Crucifixion by tatertot101010@deviantart.com

Crucifixion by tatertot101010@deviantart.com

Time Heal All Wounds, by kparks@deviantart.com

Time Heal All Wounds, by kparks@deviantart.com