Sunday (Palm Sunday)

“They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” (v. 1b)

Mark 15:1-39 Sunday 25 March 2018

Psalm: Psalm 31


Background

The custom in the Church for centuries has been to hear a reading of the Passion narrative (sometimes the whole of the narrative) on the Sunday that begins Holy Week. In some traditions the Passion is sung, a custom that led to the great choral interpretations of the story that are often performed on this day. In others, different readers take different parts, with the congregation being asked to play the crowd.

This approach helps us to think about the events leading up to the death of Jesus from the perspective of the agents. Central amongst those is Pontius Pilate. The Apostles’ Creed that has been said by Christians for at least 17 centuries tells us that Jesus was “crucified [under Pontius Pilate], suffered, and was buried”. We pick up the story in today’s passage at the point that Jesus is handed over to Pilate. The scene is the Friday morning; Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane after the Last Supper and examined by the chief priests and the council overnight. The outcome of this (Mark tells us manifestly unjust proceeding) is that Jesus is found guilty of blasphemy and then taken to Pilate.  

Pilate is sometimes described in the Gospels as the Governor, but it appears that he was a procurator or prefect, a less exalted office in the structure of the Roman Empire. The Emperor wanted provinces like Judaea to be a source of revenue. Pilate’s job was to collect taxes with as little unrest as possible because unrest was expensive. Whether or not Jesus had offended against the Jewish law would not have interested Pilate in the least; that he might be a threat to public order or, worse, a revolutionary did, so the charge on which he examined Jesus was that he was “the King of the Jews” (v. 2).

The surprise in the story is the release of Barabbas. Pilate seems to have come to the conclusion that the best way to keep the peace was to show a selective leniency, whilst at the same time making a public display of those who challenged Rome’s authority. If a crucifixion was popular with the crowd, so much the better. Crucifixion was designed to be a deterrent – a humiliating, excruciatingly painful, and long drawn-out method of execution. The mockery of Jesus with a purple robe and a crown of thorns (verse 17) was also clearly designed to identify him as a pretender to political power.

The charge against Jesus was placed by Pilate over his head on the cross (verse 26). This explains the political thinking behind the execution, but the reader will recognise that it is ironic: the power of Rome recognising who Jesus really is. The irony is deepened by the words of the centurion with which our reading ends, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (v. 36), a phrase that echoes the opening verse of the Gospel (Mark 1:1).


To Ponder

  • How do you pray for those who exercise responsibility in government, either as elected representatives or as civil servants? What do you ask for them?
  • Mark’s Gospel uses a number of different titles for Jesus in this passage, sometimes on the lips of his enemies: Messiah, King of the Jews, King of Israel, Son of God. How have you come to understand who Jesus is?
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