Open Mark 15.
This meditation on Mark 15 is from Tom Wright, Lent for Everyone: Mark, Year B (London: SPCK, 2012), 166–168:
How can this be the climax to the royal story, to Israel’s story, to the story of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven?
Perhaps we’ve made a mistake? Perhaps the ‘royal’ theme was only a feature of the earlier story, and perhaps Mark is now moving on to something else? No. Look through it again. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Do you want me to release for you “the king of the Jews”?’ ‘What shall I do with the one you call “the king of the Jews”?’ ‘Greetings, King of the Jews!’ ‘The inscription read: “The King of the Jews”.’ ‘Messiah, is he? King of Israel, did he say?’ And then—echoing all the way back to the royal announcement at the baptism—‘This fellow really was God’s son.’ No mistake. This is what Mark is telling us. This is where the king comes into his own, enthroned (as he warned James and John) with one on his right and the other on his left.
So what sense does it make?
Mark must mean, somehow, that this is how, finally, God was establishing his kingdom through Jesus and his work. He must mean that this is the event that made sense of all those advance signs of the kingdom—the healings, the exorcisms, the multiplication of loaves, and so on. This is the event that declared that God was God, that he was picking up the reins of power to rule on earth as in heaven. It must mean that. It can only mean that.
But it must, then, mean that the very nature of power, of God’s exercise of power, of the power that rules the world, has been so radically redefined that most people simply wouldn’t recognize it. As Isaiah said, who would have believed that he was ‘the Arm of the Lord’ (53:1)? This isn’t what power looks like in our world. Pontius Pilate is the one (surely, we think) who shows us what power looks like. But no: this was the whole point of Jesus’ answer to James and John, ending with his own reference to Isaiah 53. Power has been turned upside down. One wise old writer commented, thinking of St Paul’s eventual trial before Nero, that the time would come when people would call their sons ‘Paul’ and their dogs ‘Nero’. In the same way, the only thing people tend to know about Pilate today is that (in one of the other accounts) he washed his hands to signify innocence when in fact he was horribly guilty: not only guilty, in other words, but devious. Nobody sings hymns to Pilate, or offers him their love and allegiance.
But Jesus? It is, of course, the crucified Jesus who has drawn to himself people of all sorts, especially people in dire need. Countless thousands have read this story and have seen their own story mirrored in it: their own tale of injustice, their own horrible betrayal, their own false accusation, their own unjustified humiliation, their own suffering, their own death.
So how does it then ‘work’? All those theories about the meaning of the cross, the theories that have concentrated on Jesus standing in for us and taking what we deserved, have always run the risk of sounding both mechanical and, in themselves, somehow unfair. If you reduce the whole thing to a legalistic punishment which Jesus takes so we don’t, you have scaled the whole thing right down to a point, and (what’s more) a point which many, quite understandably, find either puzzling or repelling.
But widen the scale again. Let your eyes scan the entire horizon of Mark 15, revealing as it does the place where God’s people were in pain, the place where the whole world was in pain. The tectonic plates of the moral universe ground together in the Middle East, producing this massive clash of empires and aspirations, of hopes and fears, of injustice and accusation and horror and misery. Let your gaze take all that in, and then see the truth of which that narrowly defined formula (‘we deserve punishment; Jesus takes it instead’) is simply one focal point.
The great truth is this: that the one who embodied Israel’s God, coming in person to rescue and rule, came to the point where the pain of the world, and of Israel, was most sharply focused, and took it upon himself. Those countless thousands could most likely not explain why they somehow knew this. They might well not have realized that Israel was designed, in God’s plan, to represent humanity and the world, and that Jesus, as Messiah, was called to represent Israel. That is, so to speak, how it ‘works’. But that’s not necessarily how the story ‘works’ on those who read it. As John Bunyan said, it was a great mystery to him why the sight of the cross should so ease him of his burden. But ease him it did.
Artwork by Steve Browne, Easter 2017.