Mark 15:1-39 is the abbreviated Sunday readings for Palm Sunday. We begin Holy Week with the Palm Sunday celebration. Yet today’s reading has nothing to do with the palms strewn on the road before Jesus as he made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:8). In this passage, Jesus is brought before Pilate, who accedes to the demand of the riotous crowd. Jesus is scourged, then he carries his cross to Golgotha, and is crucified. Let’s consider some highlights of verses 1 to 39.
The King of the Jews
In Mark’s passage in chapter 15, we are told that the leaders of the Temple send Jesus to Pilate. Why would Pilate want to get involved in a religious dispute? As the passage makes clear, Pilate does not want to get involved with this case, because he knows that meddling in religious matters can incite a riot, or worse. We can infer that the Sanhedrin turn Jesus over to Pilate precisely because they do not want to render a verdict against Jesus without the political cover of the Roman authorities.
As the Sacred Author tells us in Mark 14:62, Jesus never uses the title King of the Jews to describe himself. But when cross-examined by the Sanhedrin, he does agree that he is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One. The Sanhedrin make the circumstantial case that as Jesus has called himself the Christ (to them, a blasphemy), then he must also be insisting that he inherits the mantle of David – that he is King of the Jews. Thus, Jesus is brought before a reluctant Pilate, who wants to find any excuse to release him. Pilate asks Jesus, Are you the King of the Jews?
Pilate Waivers, and the Crowd Chooses Between “the Sons of the Father”
Pilate, the procurator of Judea, desperately wants to avoid prosecuting someone who is not a civil criminal. The tension between Jesus and the Sanhedrin is, in Pilate’s view, a religious matter. So he tries to persuade the crowd that Jesus has done nothing wrong. Failing that, Pilate then offers to release a prisoner for the Passover Holidays. This ploy fails as well, as the crowd demands that Barabbas be released instead.
There is great irony here, as Barabbas, which means “Son of the Father” in Hebrew, is an insurgent. He is a violent criminal who stormed the Temple and tried to instigate a rebellion. In other words, Barabbas is a political threat to civil order. The crowd chooses to release the false “Son of the Father,” who is a public menace, and they instead insist that the true “Son of God,” who is innocent, be crucified.
Another is Asked to Carry the Cross
The Sacred Author Mark tells us that the Roman soldiers played up the image of Jesus as King of the Jews, giving him a crown of thorns and a purple cloak. After he is scourged and mocked, he is given the horizontal piece of the cross to carry to his place of crucifixion. Because he cannot carry it, Simon of Cyrene is asked to bear the cross for Jesus.
Much earlier in his ministry, Jesus told his disciples that If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mt. 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23). We can infer that Jesus uses the colloquialism take up the cross, because this barbaric form of capital punishment is known even in the furthest reaches of the Empire – in Galilee. The comment is all the more remarkable because all three of the Sacred Authors attest to Jesus predicting the type of death he will face. But Simon of Cyrene is the first person in the Gospels to accept, in a literal sense, the challenge to take up the cross.
Why Have You Forsaken Me?
At verse 34, Jesus asks My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? While some have suggested that Jesus expresses doubt from the cross, we know that Jesus is quoting psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? … My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
The psalm is prophetic. It speaks of a person who feels abandoned by God in his hour of need. Yet the psalm graphically anticipates that events of the crucifixion. In this passage, the psalmist laments his own death… they have pierced my hands ands my feet. And the psalm anticipates the fact that lots are cast for tunic of Jesus (Mk 15:24).
It would be wrong to presume that Psalm 22, whose first words are uttered by Jesus on the cross, sound a note of defeat. On the contrary, psalm 22 concludes by expressing confidence that the Lord will not disdain the suffering of the afflicted, but rather will deliver the righteous.
As soon as morning came,
the chief priests with the elders and the scribes,
that is, the whole Sanhedrin held a council.
They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.
Pilate questioned him,
“Are you the king of the Jews?”
He said to him in reply, “You say so.”
The chief priests accused him of many things.
Again Pilate questioned him,
“Have you no answer?
See how many things they accuse you of.”
Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them
one prisoner whom they requested.
A man called Barabbas was then in prison
along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion.
The crowd came forward and began to ask him
to do for them as he was accustomed.
“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”
For he knew that it was out of envy
that the chief priests had handed him over.
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd
to have him release Barabbas for them instead.
Pilate again said to them in reply,
“Then what do you want me to do
with the man you call the king of the Jews?”
They shouted again, “Crucify him.”
Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?”
They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.”
So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd,
released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged,
handed him over to be crucified.
The soldiers led him away inside the palace,
that is, the praetorium, and assembled the whole cohort.
They clothed him in purple and,
weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him.
They began to salute him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him.
They knelt before him in homage.
And when they had mocked him,
they stripped him of the purple cloak,
dressed him in his own clothes,
and led him out to crucify him.
They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon,
a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country,
the father of Alexander and Rufus,
to carry his cross.
They brought him to the place of Golgotha
—which is translated Place of the Skull —
They gave him wine drugged with myrrh,
but he did not take it.
Then they crucified him and divided his garments
by casting lots for them to see what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.
The inscription of the charge against him read,
“The King of the Jews.”
With him they crucified two revolutionaries,
one on his right and one on his left.
Those passing by reviled him,
shaking their heads and saying,
“Aha! You who would destroy the temple
and rebuild it in three days,
save yourself by coming down from the cross.”
Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes,
mocked him among themselves and said,
“He saved others; he cannot save himself.
Let the Christ, the King of Israel,
come down now from the cross
that we may see and believe.”
Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.
At noon darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
which is translated,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“Look, he is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed
and gave it to him to drink saying,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.
When the centurion who stood facing him
saw how he breathed his last he said,
“Truly this man was the Son of God!”