Good Friday: Mark Goes Minimalist

lent04A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.  (Mark 15:21-41)

Mark’s account of the death of Jesus starts with Simon of Cyrene assisting him with the cross.  All four of the Gospel accounts include this, but Mark adds one detail that the others pass over:  Simon of Cyrene is the father of Alexander and Rufus.

Why does Mark add this detail?  Because Alexander and Rufus were well-known in the community of believers to whom his Gospel was addressed.  More than likely, this Rufus is the same Rufus that Paul gives a shout-out to at the end of Romans (16:13).  Seeing the names of these two well-known members of their community in this scene would have put Mark’s audience right there in the middle of this story of Jesus’ suffering and death.  Recall that Mark’s audience is a community of believers in or near Rome that was facing intense persecution from the Roman empire for their faith.

When it comes to describing the death of Jesus, Mark only devotes four short sentences to it.  He does not go into any detail about what crucifixion is or what it means.  Mark has filled his Gospel account with seemingly insignificant details that establish its veracity, but here he goes all minimalist.

Why?  Because crucifixion is an excruciatingly ghastly affair.  (As a matter of fact, our word “excruciating” comes from the idea of crucifixion.)  If you’ve seen one crucifixion, you’ve seen the most horrible thing you will ever see for as long as you live, and you will wish to God that you had never seen it.

Crucifixion started at the time of Alexander the Great.  The Greeks of that time figured out that if you attach a person’s arms to a cross and let him hang there, he will be unable to breathe (because his legs will be hanging down, stretching his diaphragm and weighing it down) and he will be dead within an hour.  Attach weights to the person’s legs and he will be dead within fifteen minutes.

Along came the Romans, who figured out that if you nail the person’s ankles to the cross or put a wedge under his feet, he will be able to push up and breathe–not very well, but passably.  This stretches out the time of death to several hours, even days.  Days of sheer agony as he hangs there, immobilized as the sun beats down on him and his life drains away slowly  but surely.

Rome used crucifixion as a means to keep the message of its power in front of its people at all times.  Crucifixion was reserved only for the worst criminals and for rebels against Rome.  Crucifixions were held on well-traveled highways and at well-traveled bridges.  The message was clear:  Just try and do what these people did and see if you don’t end up like them.  People living in Roman occupied territories knew all the places in their area where crucifixions were held, and would go out of their way to avoid them.  Because once you’ve seen one crucifixion, you’ll wish to God you had never seen it.

Several centuries later, after the Roman empire–and with it, crucifixion–had passed out of existence, theologians would begin to talk about the Cross, about Jesus’ death and what it all meant.  But not Mark.  For him and anyone else living in that era, the pain was just too fresh.  So when Mark describes Jesus’ death, it is as if he says “They crucified him.  You’ve seen one of these before.  Let’s just not go there.”

Finally, note how Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.  Many have built a theology around this phrase, that in that moment God actually, literally forsook Jesus and turned His back on him.  It is as if the Trinity was literally ripped asunder in that moment.  It makes sense, kinda, sorta.  If Jesus had in that moment taken on all the sin in the world, then God in His holiness can’t stand to look at sin and He would have to turn His back on Jesus.  But what a view of God this leads to.  If God would turn His back on His own Son, then how much more should we who are so much less than him expect Him to turn His back on us if it suits Him.

Think about this.  If God had actually, literally forsaken Jesus when he was on the cross, then how could Jesus say a few minutes later, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46)?

Remember that in first century Israel every devout Jew knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards.  And they didn’t have chapters and verses–those are a relatively modern invention–so if they wanted to reference a familiar psalm they would say the first line.  That is what Jesus was doing here.  All he had to do was say the first line, and the rest of the psalm would come flooding back to the memory of any devout Jew who happened to be within earshot.  It is just like, in our day, saying “I have a dream”, or “I am not a crook”, or “We are the knights who say Ni”.

So any devout Jew who happened to hear Jesus say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would have immediately begun to recite the rest of Psalm 22 mentally, if not out loud.  For Jesus, this was his way of saying, “Look.  I am the fulfillment of this psalm.  I am the one to whom all of this points.”