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Friday, April 10, 2009

Day Six: Jesus is Dead

At 9:00 a.m., labeled "The King of the Jews," Jesus is crucified. Passers by laughed at him and shouted "So! You who going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!" The religious leaders mocked, "He saved others, but he can't save himself."

From noon until 3:00 p.m. a darkness came over the land. At 3:00 p.m. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!" Finally, with a loud cry Jesus breathed his last breath.

The curtain of the temple was then torn in two from top to bottom. A centurion recognized that Jesus was the Son of God. And Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the yonger and of Joses, and Salome were still there, watching from a distance.

As evening was approaching, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and got Jesus' body. Joseph had Jesus placed into tomb.

The End.

Day Six: From the Temple to Rome

Before telling the story of Jesus being taken to Pilate, Mark takes care of the last loyal disciple. Peter was following from a distance. Three times he is asked if he was with Jesus. With increasing intensity he denies it, finally "[h]e began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, 'I don't know this many you're talking about.'" Just then the cock crowed, and Peter broke down and wept.

In Mark 15:1-20 we learn that the Sanhedrin takes Jesus to the Roman governor. This section is all about blaming the church establishment and excusing Rome for the execution of Jesus. No small task given that Jesus was crucified by Rome and not stoned by the Temple authorities. Nonetheless, Mark provides the following evidence for this: (1) Pilate is amazed that Jesus doesn't respond to the Temple authorities' charges; (2) Pilate offers to release a captive but that releast Barabbas, the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising, instead; and (3) Even after releasing Barabbas, Pilate doesn't want to kill Jesus but the crowd chants "crucify him!"

Details first. This was written shortly after Rome had destroyed Jerusalem, or during a violent uprising. This scripture makes it clear that Christians are different from Jews and that Rome shouldn't worry about Christians. The idea that a Roman governor would be swayed by the masses asking to crucify someone is not credible. And, note that Barabbas is Bar-abba, or son of abba, or son of the father, or . . . Son of God. The Israelites reject the way of Jesus, the true Messiah, in favor of this false Messiah of violent overthrow. When compared with the apacolyptic scriptures from earlier it makes sense.

Okay, but now what does the story mean? In Catholic mass the attendees shout, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" during this part of the passion. The story calls on the reader to remember how the people abandon Christ. It wasn't really the fault of the government for Jesus' execution, it was our fault for turning our back on him.

The world is full of evil, and at times we give up. We turn our backs on Jesus' ministry. The passage calls us to remember our apathy and the wickedness it causes. It ends with more mocking, with more humiliation for our Lord and Savior.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Day Five: Making It All Legal

Mark starts out with the Sanhedrin working to get a death penalty conviction against Jesus. Mark 14:53-65. Certainly, Jesus was a threat to the established church and they would want to see him go. They have a problem though, their witnesses can't keep their lies straight. So, the high priest just asks him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" After silence, Jesus answers the second time: I am.

Borg points out that there is ambiguity in the original text here, and this could as easily be translated "Am I?", which is more in line with how Luke and Mathew do it.

This is enough for the religious establishment and Jesus is mocked and beaten. No opportunity for Nathan Hale style last words, as he was taken in secret and kept from his followers. He is left to be spit on by his enemies.

I'm going to stop there, because Mark 15 begins "Very early in the morning."

We are entering the portion of the Passion often used for antisemitism. To that end, lets remember that all of the characters so far are Jews. The crowds that entered Jerusalem with him and cheered his word play while booing the representatives of the organized, established church were Jews. The bad guys in this story are not Jews, the bad guys are the adherents of organized religion who put their political power and rigid adherence to religious law ahead of the God's love. Does that make anyone uncomfortable? Certainly not the message the medieval church, or the modern fundamentalist church, would be comfortable with. It is the type of message that a group might want to avoid preaching on; the type of message that might tempt one to use a scapegoat to direct attention away from ones own wickedness.

Day Five: Mount of Olives

For me, this is the most emotion packed moment of the Passion. Jesus goes to Gethsemane and prays that he not have to die. Three times Jesus goes off to pray, to beg for another way. He knows that he can't run from what he's started now, but he doesn't want to die. He has been betrayed by Judas, and each time he returns his most trusted friends are asleep. How intensely lonely, to suffer like this and even those closest to you don't understand the significance of your suffering. Peter, James, John, even God, have not yet abandoned him, but Jesus wonders if they understand. Just then, Judas arrives with the authorities, and betrays Jesus with a kiss.

In Mark, the arrest is violent. Someone standing by Jesus cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant, but Jesus doesn't heal it, the cutter isn't a disciple, and Jesus doesn't tell the disciples not to fight. Rather, they all flee, even a young man who only escapes by leaving his cloak behind. Mark 14:43-52.

Jesus in custody and Thursday is still not over.

Day Five: The Passover Feast

On Thursday, Jesus sends his disciples to Jerusalem (the City) to find a room for them to use for the Passover celebration. Jesus and his disciples have their last meal together, with Judas still present. The Commentary points out the dizzying symbolism of this meal, which includes the words used by Christians today in Communion. The bread is Jesus' body offered for you; the wine is the blood of the new covenant.

What does it mean that Jesus offered his body to us? Does it mean it was willingly executed? Does it mean he gave his whole life to spreading a new truth that he was compelled to spread?

What is the new covenant? Is it forgiveness of sins, as the adherents of substitutional atonement would teach us? Is the new covenant that whoever believes in, has faith in, follows, Jesus will participate in eternal (not just everlasting but eternal) life? Is the new covenant the love of YHWH is unleashed on the world and not confined to a single ethnic group?

Academic note: Borg gently suggests that it is difficult to know the historical accuracy of the words Jesus used at the last supper with his disciples. It seems uncharacteristically politic of Borg. Perhaps the origin of the Eucharistic matra, which would have been established when the gospel of Mark was written, was a metaphor Jesus offered his disciples on that night. A second trip down academia, John puts the last supper as the day before Passover. In John, Jesus is executed at the very moment the lambs for Passover are slaughtered. Nice touch.

The supper concludes with the painful bits of denial. Jesus can no longer keep quiet about (1) his knowledge that Judas has struck a deal and (2) that the rest of his disciples will betray him. He sets up one of the most poignant moments of the Passion by telling Peter he will deny Christ three times before the cock crows. Mark 14:12-31.

And Thursday is not over yet.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Day Four: Tension Building

Mark 14:1 begins, "Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away," which means Wednesday. Thus, Mark continues his day by day account with the fourth day.

No trips to Jerusalem on this day. Rather Jesus remains in Bethany. What would it have been like? On Sunday was the big march. Then on Monday, another big scene in the temple. Finally, on Tuesday he was walking around the city bascially looking for an argument. The crowd around him was on his side. Was he trying to get himself killed?

According to Mark, while they are all relaxing an unidentified woman comes in and annoints Jesus' head with expensive oil. Typically nearsighted, the disciples rebuke her for wasting the money when it could have been used for the poor. Jesus responds:
"Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
Did she know what he was up to? Were there people in the crowd who knew that such acts would not go unpunished?

An academic note: Doesn't the context show how ridiculous it is when people use this scripture to justify ignoring the poor?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Day Three: Jesus Fights the Authority

When John Cougar fights the Authority, the authority always wins. On Tuesday, Jesus is doing a lot of fighting the authority. (Whether he wins, I suppose is pretty much the central question for anyone considering membership in the Christian Church.)

First, on the way back into town, Peter sees that the fig tree Jesus cursed the day before is dead. This is kind of a no excuses scripture I think. If you can't bear fruit when it is needed, even if you are not ready or the time isn't right otherwise, you are worthless. Reminds me of Jesus saying let the dead bury the dead.

Next, we have a series of verbal challenges for Jesus. It all begins with the temple authorities, and the first response is a dodge. The temple authorities themselves ask Jesus what gives him the right to stir things up so much. Rather than answer, he puts it on them and asks them whether John's baptism came from heaven or earth. The temple leaders read the crowd and recognize they can't really give an answer and be consistent with what they've said in the past. So they say they don't know, and thus Jesus gives not answer. Next Jesus goes on the offensive telling the parable of the vineyard. This is basically a straight up attack on the temple authorities, blaming them for the death of the prophets. According to Mark, "they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away."

The next verbal episode was not initiated by the chief priests, but the Pharisees, who Mark says the chief priests sent. They have come up with the trickiest of tricky questions, should the people pay their taxes? To this, Jesus executes sort of a half dodge. He turns the question into a lesson about God's authority. Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar, but give to God what is God's. He basically says, the tax question is a stupid question, what you need to be worried about his dedicating yourself, as a child of God, to God's kingdom.

Next up, the Sadduces, who by the way did not believe in an afterlife. They pose a paradox created by post-resurrection afterline. Jesus replies with some specifics, that frankly don't make much sense to me, but then again comes to "[God] is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" Mark 12:27.

Last up is a lawyer. He asks a relatively easy question, "What is the greatest commandment?" Jesus nails it, and the lawyer recognizes as much. So Jesus says to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

That closes out this scene that is sort of like a bad movie where the villians stand in a circle around the hero and then rush at him one at time. He beats up villian one and then comes villian two and so on.

What I notice is how often Jesus focuses the discussion back on the here and now. He rejects talk about taxes, and after life, and biblical trivia and instead talks about the Kingdom of God, which is altogether unlike the Kingdom of Ceasar and which is at hand. It is difficult to read these exchanges and still come away thinking that Jesus meant the afterlife when he spoke of the Kingdom. Not to say he didn't believe in an afterlife--the exchange with the Sadduces indicates he did--but the Kingdom of God was not about the afterlife. It was connected to this March on Jerusalem that he had started.

Having beat back his enemies in verbal debate, Jesus begins teaching. He talks about how the widow's mite is worth more than the offerings of the wealthy.

The day closes out with an apocolyptic vision of the near future, and a warning to the disciples not to follow false prophets. Mark 13 When Mark's audience read this bit, I am sure their heads were nodding along. They were reading in a time when Jerusalem either had been destroyed, or when there were rebels attempting to chase Rome from the streets of Jerusalem.

I have confessed before that I've yet to find meaning in apacolyptic scripture. But one thing that is even more clear from Christ's words here than in Revelation is that Christ was not talking about the distant future. He was talking about events that would occur before the end of that generation.

The other thing that seems clear to me, is that Mark is contrasting the revolution that Jesus envisions--which presumably was successful in the author's eyes--with the revolt that would ultimately be beaten down by Rome.

At the end of Tuesday, it was back to Bethany.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Day Two: You Don't Want to See Me When I'm Angry

On the as yet unnamed Palm Sunday, Jesus finished the day in front of the temple. He looked around a bit, according to Mark, but since it was late, he left and went out to Bethany, which was only a mile and a half away from Jerusalem.

Here is what happens on Monday (Mark 11:12-19):

1. On the way back in town Jesus stops to get some figs from a tree
2. Fig tree has no fruit, because it is out of season, so Jesus curses the tree
3. Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers
4. Jesus stops anyone from moving through the temple courtyard with merchandise
5. Before leaving the town again, Jesus delivers one of the great lines of the Bible, "Is it not written, 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

Both the Commentary and Borg agree that the robbers are not the money changers. They were regulated and performing a service. According to Mark, at least in the eyes of the temple establishment, the robbers referred to the temple establishment. The Commentary notes that JC Superstar notwithstanding, robbers cannot be translated thieves. The connotation is that of a violent law breaker, perhaps even a leader of revolt. Although, the best reading is probably that the slur is directed at the temple leaders--the religious Establishment.

I notice that Jesus did not take time to understand the point that the temple leaders had and work to incorporate their theology into his. He turned their tables upside down, said they weren't doing God's work, and if that resulted in him getting to trouble, then so be it.

I'm just saying.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Day One: Entry into Jerusalem

The week begins with a protest march.

I’ve been present for large protest marches, and they are really something to be a part of. I recall being a legal observer for a march that was on ASU’s campus (I believe around the debate that was held there during the 2004 presidential race.) At one point the chant “This is what democracy looks like” was echoing off the campus buildings as the crowd was moving at quite a clip. There was a collective enthusiasm that infected me.

Surely to be with Jesus courageously pushing into the heart of the establishment must have been thrilling. Here’s the way I think of it. Link

A couple of nuggets from Borg: Why was Jesus on a donkey? Mark makes it clear that it was on purpose. Mathew takes the next step and quotes Zechariah 9:9-10, Borg points out that this is not an act predicted by Zechariah that serves as mystical evidence the Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Rather this is a very intentional prophetic act by Jesus, which reminds his audience of the story in the Jewish tradition of a humble king setting them free. Jesus’ act is challenging the establishment, and his reference to the Zechariah scripture through his actions is not accidental.

The second bit that I find fascinating is what Borg says Rome would have been doing. “On or about the same day, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate rode into the city from the opposite side, the west, at the head of a very different kind of procession: imperial cavalry and foot soldiers arriving to reinforce the garrison on the Temple Mount.” I love this contrast.

The stage is set. The Religious establishment is simultaneously oppressed and reinforced by Rome as the humble country preacher enters the city with motley crew of hillbillies, whores, and outsiders.