“What if love was greater than…hate, war, fear, failure, brokenness, loss? What if love… came down? Gave hope to the broken? Came to die? Came to save?”
These words are from the video that introduced our new series. We’re staying in the book of Mark, but now we’re looking at the end of Jesus’ life and ministry. The goal of this series is to show us what love looks like. But before we look at what love is, we have to see what it is not.
We picked up the story in Mark 15:1-20, with a quick glance back to 14:61-62. In these verses, we see Jesus questioned by the high priest before all of the gathered religious authorities reach their decision about him. He is then handed over to Pilate for questioning, and, before the end of the passage, sentenced to crucifixion.
Pastor John highlighted four main points from these verses, and a fifth that we’ll look at later. He talked to us about:
The malice of the chief priests… We saw the religious leaders gathered at night, initially, but no decision could be made at night, according to their laws and codes. So they waited until “very early in the morning” to declare what they’d already decided to do with Jesus. But their code-keeping stopped there. Their anger toward Jesus caused them to rewrite codes that they lived by in the moment. They managed to twist the charge of blasphemy (which was not grounds for execution) into a charge of treason–an offense punishable by death. And we see them act immediately once they make a decision, rather than waiting the required 24 hours between sentencing and carrying out the sentence. We see throughout the gospels that the religious leaders had been looking for grounds to kill Jesus for a while. They never really found the grounds they searched for, but we see them here, finally overtaken by their hatred, anger, jealousy–and something else we’ll look at in a moment that I believe might have driven these more obvious emotions.
The political expediency of Pilate… Pilate was available so quickly because he had moved into Jerusalem during this time of Passover. He did this because it tended to be during Passover that riots and rebel activity were more likely to happen. His job depended on his ability to contain the community he oversaw, so he got closer to them during this time. Once Jesus was brought before him, he questioned him briefly, but then relinquished his authority to the masses, though he believed in Jesus’ innocence. Interesting side note–if anyone had grounds to be enraged by Jesus’ supposed acts of treason, it was Pilate. It was the Roman government he worked for that would have ultimately been threatened by a new “king” rising up onto the scene. And yet… we don’t see anger from Pilate. I believe he, too, was driven by something else…
The fury of the crowd… Pastor John said that there is a good chance of fatal error when the masses are left to make a decision. It is vital that we pay attention to this point. Crowds can be swayed. This crowd was. We see in Mark’s account that the chief priests “stirred up the crowd.” The Greek word for ‘stirred up’, as John pointed out, has the same root word as “earthquake”. The religious leaders (who this particular crowd was pretty loyal to) incited the crowd, and it was like an earthquake as their fury rose. What did the chief priests say that caused this reaction? We don’t know for sure–but we can make an educated guess…
It appears that part of Pilate’s decision to leave Jesus’ fate in the crowd’s hands had to do with his belief that they would surely choose his release over that of a known insurrectionist and murderer, the one called Barabbas. See, it was the custom for him to release a prisoner that the people requested during the Feast each year. Before they made their request, they were stirred up by the chief priests. It ended up that the crowd didn’t want Jesus–they surprised Pilate by, instead, asking for Barabbas.
Many of us have seen movies that depict Barabbas as a bit of a crazed lunatic, which makes it difficult to see what was really going on. A more accurate description of this man would be that he was a political leader to many who wanted to see some changes for the Jewish people. He was all about, as Pastor John articulated, “Making Israel Great Again.” He represented loyalty to their people, their ways–he was their nationalistic hope. He led an insurrection, during which he committed murder. He was not a bloodthirsty serial killer, as some of the images of him that have been painted would lead us to believe. The people were not concerned about his crimes–after all, it happened in the name of nationalistic pride, and riots and wars naturally come with casualties…
With this knowledge, it makes sense to assume that the priests stirred the crowd by playing on their political leanings. It is the fastest way to get a rise out of people. We experienced this as we listened to Pastor John on Sunday… He asked us to listen to him describe a few things and rate where our reactions landed on a 1-10 scale. He began by talking about spiritual things, the activity of our church and such. We were attentive as we listened, but the reaction landed within the lowest numbers on our scale. He moved to talking about personal things, how we feel when someone speaks negatively about who we are, our physical attributes and such. This topic moved us up the scale, but not too much.
Then, he began to speak politically. He brought up President Trump, the state of our nation, our feelings about our flag, etc… and the temperature of the room changed. The moment he mentioned politics, there was a palpable electricity in the air around us. People shifted in their seats, cleared their throats, whispered to those near them, laughed nervously… He didn’t take a position, or even speak specifically about a particular policy. All he had to do was mention politics, and we were stirred. (I don’t have time to go into this here, sadly, but the question begs answering–Why does politics have the power to stir our hearts and passions more than spiritual matters? It’s worth thinking about, and answering for ourselves. What is our religion, our faith, our loyalty most connected to? Where have we colluded with empire to the point where nothing riles us up as much as political matters do?)
Now, imagine the crowd standing before Pilate being reminded of the nationalistic hope Barabbas represented. Perhaps they contrasted the direction Barabbas wanted to take their nation with the kingdom Jesus talked about bringing–an upside-down, inclusive kingdom that looked nothing like what they expected their Messiah would establish–where the last would be first and the meek and marginalized would be blessed. Could this have stirred them up? Absolutely. Because, once again, they preyed on something that lived beneath their outward fury, something that drove them–whether they knew it or not.
The “humor” of the soldiers… This group tortured and humiliated their prisoners. They represented the military might that people believed then–and believe still–was necessary to establish a kingdom. They replaced their humanity with humor as they mocked and mutilated Jesus. Once again, I believe there was something else driving them.
So what is it? What is this thing that I’ve eluded to in every character I’ve described?
Fear is powerful. And often, it is driving more obvious emotions. These groups may have been afraid for different reasons, but I believe they were all acting out of their fears. Fear, left unchecked, is deadly…
The chief priests and all of the other religious leaders saw what was happening as Jesus taught. His following grew, the loyalty of many was shifting from them and their laws to this new way that Jesus introduced. They heard him speak about establishing a new kingdom–one that threatened their power and control and everything they held dear. He introduced a new way of thinking, a way of living that they had never done before. If Jesus took over, everything would change. Do you think it’s a stretch to say that this stirred up their fears? How do we feel when the way we’re used to living is threatened? Is anger our first response, or is it driven by deeper fears?
Pilate appears to be fairly nonchalant during the whole process. But I don’t think he was–not really. His position and his own well-being depended on him keeping the Jews he presided over quiet. It’s why he moved closer to them during Passover. If he failed to put out the fires that started among them, he could be removed from his post…and worse. So, while he disagreed with the crowd’s decision, he knew that agreeing to do what they asked would appease the earthquake of their emotion, and maintain the “peace”.
The crowd… We would be wise to see ourselves in this group, though we might also identify with the religious leaders who were so afraid of change. When the chief priests stirred up the people, they were preying on their fears first. Their fear led to their fire and fury. Fire and fury is never the starting point. It is an expression of a deeper emotion. Sometimes, it is loyalty or love that leads us to anger. In this case, however, I believe the culprit is fear. The chief priests were not fans of Barabbas. He was a rebel, a problem. But not as big of a problem for them as Jesus. And they knew that they could work with what he stood for, and use it to provoke the emotions of the people. Jesus threatened the belief system that their lives were built upon. His new way felt, to many of them, like a betrayal of the religion they held dear, and of them as a nation. Because Jesus’ allegiance was not to Israel. His way would bring a new kingdom in an upside-down way–he was a threat to those who built their lives on power, success, and control. They were afraid. And the fear of the leaders certainly inflated the fears of the people. Anytime a leader operates out of a place of fear, it influences their followers–especially those most loyal to them.
Lastly, we have the soldiers. They had a job to do. A terrible job. Not doing any part of the job they were given would have cost them. Part of their job included carrying out executions. Maybe these men were bloodthirsty sadists who actually delighted in the taking of life. But maybe they weren’t… Maybe they were people who bore the image of God the same as everyone else–including the criminals they had to kill. Maybe they were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t carry out their orders. Maybe they were afraid that if they didn’t trade their own humanity for tortuous humor, they wouldn’t be able to carry out the inhumane act of taking life from another human being. I’ve known many soldiers throughout my life. I’ve never known one who doesn’t deal with some amount of fear, no matter how brave and strong they might be. I have to assume these soldiers who mocked and humiliated Jesus also dealt with fear.
Why did I spend so much time talking about fear? Because it’s dangerous. Because it changes how we see, it drives our decisions, and it robs us of our humanity when we let it overtake us. We cannot see the image of God in another–or in ourselves–when fear steers our ship. It leads to blind hatred without reason, and it changes us at our cores. It feeds on our vulnerability and grows like a ravenous weed in the soil of our souls. It leads us to say and do the unimaginable. We’ve seen how, over the last few years, fear of the “other” has led to growing hatred and violence in our own nation. Fear is powerful.
But there is a place where fear can’t live… something that drives it out. Every. Time.
Love… it is absent in this story… until we look at the fifth and final point Pastor John spoke about:
The silence of Jesus… The mystifying silence of Jesus in this passage speaks volumes. How was he able to stay silent, and to speak no words in his own defense? How was he able to stand as a suffering servant, with humble dignity, in the face of false accusation, humiliation, and eventually torture and even death? In a recent podcast, Father Richard Rohr said of Jesus, “He neither plays the victim, nor does he create victims. That is liberation–first of all from the self…” This is love. Self-emptying love that pours out for others. It is the only force powerful enough to scatter fear. Fear is always connected to self in some way. Loving like Jesus frees us from our fears by freeing us from ourselves. Jesus’ silence was the depths of love on display. And it spoke louder than the chief priests, louder than Pilate, louder than the furious crowd, and louder than the mocking soldiers. Because their voices were driven by fear. Jesus was driven by love…
Pastor John’s sermon, and Laura’s post above took a familiar passage and broke it down causing us to have to take a closer look. Most of us are familiar with this account of Jesus before Pilate. Nothing in the story was a surprise to us, but like we do with many familiar things, we read it from a detached place. The way that Pastor John broke it down made it impossible to stay detached….and it happened when he mentioned politics. Laura asked Why does politics have the power to stir our hearts and passions more than spiritual matters? It’s worth thinking about, and answering for ourselves. What is our religion, our faith, our loyalty most connected to? Where have we colluded with empire to the point where nothing riles us up as much as political matters do?
These are good questions to sit with. What are your initial reactions to political things? If anger comes up frequently–why? When I was in counseling a few years ago, my counselor pointed out that anger is often a secondary emotion and that underneath it is typically fear or sadness. We don’t often take the time to get to the underlying emotion because anger feels more powerful. Power can be addictive, yet Laura pointed out above that the power of the Religious Leaders, Pilate, the crowd, and the soldiers was actually a cover up for their fear. Uninvestigated anger, and uninvestigated fear leads to violence.
As I was listening to the sermon, I found myself wondering who I am in the story. I think that’s a good exercise for all of us. We each have within us the capacity for tremendous good, or evil. Sometimes we don’t recognize the evil for what it is, and because of our human nature, we typically like to paint ourselves in a favorable light, but we must be willing to look at ourselves truthfully, see those areas that are not in line with the character of Jesus, and lean into the Holy Spirit’s power to be convicted, counseled, and led into truth.
Are we the religious leaders? Have our traditions led us to a place where there are concrete barriers around our understanding of faith and of God, and anything outside those barriers is a threat to the foundation upon which we’ve built our lives?
Are we Pilate? We, like Pilate, can see that Jesus is unlike anyone else. We know deep within ourselves that to really follow Him will cost us something, and we’re not willing because we’d rather please our leaders and our crowd, yet at the same time we try to excuse ourselves from any responsibility in that decision.
Are we the crowd? Have we become followers of humans rather than followers of Christ? Have we fallen victim to “group think” which is defined as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”(Miriam Webster Dictionary)? There is much published material about “group think” and one of the characteristics is that it leads to irrational or dysfunctional decision making. People who fall prey to “group think” make group decisions without critical evaluation of different view points; they believe that whatever decision their group makes is the right decision, even if they have questions, they don’t feel like they can bring up a dissenting view point and therefore they justify the behaviors of whomever they are following in order to feel less inner conflict. Group think is easy for all of us to fall victim to, which is why it is so very important that we follow the advice of Jesus’ brother James who says “if any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault and it will be given to you…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1: 5, 19-20). We never see in Jesus’ ministry that He was “mainstream”. We must be willing to evaluate ourselves.
Are we Barabbas? Have we tried to force our nationalistic beliefs into becoming reality? Have we been willing to use or justify violence as a means to an end? Have we usurped the role of God and His ways and His timing in order to make anything “great again”? Have we viewed ourselves and our interests as superior to those of other image bearers? Have we lost our minds and hearts to nationalism?
Are we the soldiers? Whether the soldiers enjoyed what they did or not, they were quite obviously detached from seeing the image of God–the value, the divinity, and the preciousness of their victims. Whether they detached themselves as a means of self-protection, or sheer contempt because they thought they were superior, it did not appear to bother them to laugh inappropriately as they inflicted pain. What is our response to the pain of others, especially those who are different from us? Do they deserve it? Are we able to detach ourselves emotionally? Are we able to see the unique image of God in others? Do we value every human equally?
Are we Jesus? Jesus who didn’t fight back against the system–the earthly system. Jesus, who didn’t defend himself. Jesus who could have wiped everyone out in an instant and made himself King. (Remember the temptations at the beginning of his ministry?) Jesus who could have chosen earth’s violent corrupt ways, but instead chose the crazy way of unconditional love.
This morning in my devotional reading I read:
Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love...” (Delio, Making All Things New).
I have pictured myself many times at the foot of the cross. I have not, until this morning, pictured myself looking out from the cross. It changes everything. If I have been crucified with Christ (Galations 2:20), the vantage point of the cross is one I need to look through. We know that Jesus was looking at the crowd, the soldiers, his mother, his friends, all of them with love–with grace–with all encompassing forgiveness–no malice, no grasping for earthly power, no harsh words–just love and a desire for each one to be forgiven. Wow. Is that how I see? Is that how I love?
We can all be any of the human characters in Mark 15, it comes naturally. We absolutely can’t “be” Jesus in our own strength, but we have everything that we need in the Holy Spirit to live with godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). It’s His gift to us. May we seek the face, the wisdom, the ways of Jesus and look at those around us from the vantage point of the cross choosing to be instruments of peace in an incredibly divided world.