Invite your friends and family. Dress comfortably. Listen with the ear of your heart. Feel free walk quietly through the sanctuary during the reading.
The importance of the final week in Jesus’ life is illustrated in Mark’s Gospel by the fact that six chapters – more than one third of the gospel – are dedicated to it.
This leaves only 10 chapters in Mark’s Gospel dedicated to telling about the rest of Jesus’ life. Mark offers no birth narrative or story of Jesus’ childhood. Starting at chapter 11 Mark chronicles each day of the last week of Jesus’ life. Here’s what to look for tonight:
This is the most important of the three annual Jewish pilgrimage festivals. By the time of Jesus, the exodus from bondage in Egypt had been celebrated for over a thousand years.
Jerusalem normally had 40,000 inhabitants. At Passover, as many as 300,000 Jewish pilgrims filled Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers entered the city on what is known to Christians as Palm Sunday and descended from the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem from the east.
The Palm Sunday Procession
Jesus rode on a colt. This is not incidental or accidental, but deliberate. This procession was a pre-planned demonstration. Jesus instructs his disciples that they will find a colt tied to a door, outside in the street, and they are to take it. This flashes back to Zechariah 9:9-10 that speaks of a future king who will ride into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey. He will banish all the weapons of war in the land – chariots, war horses and battle bows.
The point is not that Zechariah predicted Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but that Jesus enacted this passage on purpose for its symbolic value just as prophets from the Old Testament intentionally performed symbolic acts.
The Palm Sunday procession was an anti-Roman act, for Rome was the empire that ruled the land with violence. Jesus protested against the imperial powers and that were intertwined with the religious powers.
Monday of Holy Week
Jesus and his disciples travel back and forth from Bethany – a village outside Jerusalem where Martha and Mary and Lazarus lived. Jesus enters Jerusalem and overturns the tables of the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial doves.
The act did not occur in the temple. It occurred in the temple courts, which Herod the Great built as an expansion of the temple area some years before Jesus’ birth. The massive platform of the temple court was 1500 long and 900 feet wide. It was surrounded by porticoes and had marble columns and was one of the most impressive structures in the ancient Roman world.
After overturning the tables, Jesus says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers,” says Jesus, quoting from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:1-15, where Jeremiah indicts the temple leaders and rulers of Jerusalem for oppressing widows, orphans, aliens and vulnerable peoples.
The center of religious collaboration with the Roman imperial rule had distorted the Temple from being what it was meant to be – a house of prayer for all nations.
Jesus then curses the fig tree. It was not the season for fig trees, but Mark makes a point. Jesus returns the next day and the fig tree has withered away. Instead of the temple bearing fruit, it, like the fig tree, has withered away from what it was meant to be. The problem is not with Judaism, but with the temple authorities who have collaborated with the Empire.
Tuesday of Holy Week
Jesus returns to Jerusalem. The religious authorities – the chief priests, scribes and elders challenge Jesus and seek to discredit him. Jesus tells the parable of the Wicked Tenants. The story ends with the representatives of the authorities realizing that “he had told the parable against them.” The Herodians and the Pharisees ask Jesus a loaded question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”
They are trying to trap him. There is no good answer. An answer of “yes” or “no” will both pose problems for Jesus. Paying taxes to the Romans was accepted by the temple authorities, but it was deeply resented by the Jews, not only because of the money involved, but because it was a sign of submission to the imperial rule.
If Jesus said “Yes,” he risked alienating his followers. If he said “No,” he would be guilty of rejecting Roman rule and could be charged with sedition and treason. He asked for a denarius. This was a Roman coin that had Caesar’s image on it.
Jews were prohibited from carrying these. So the person who produced it discredited himself in front of Jesus’ followers. The head on the coin is Caesar, but the inscription said, “Son of God.” “Give to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s,” says Jesus. He implies that everything belongs to God and nothing to the emperor. He carefully evaded their trap.
Wednesday of Holy Week
The chief priests and scribes try to arrest Jesus by stealth. They dare not move against him with the crowd for fear of a riot. Their problem is solved when Judas comes and offers to betray Jesus when he is far from the crowd.
In between, Jesus is anointed for burial by an unnamed woman in the home of Simon the leper. His disciples are upset that she spends 300 denarius worth of ointment to anoint him. A denarius was equivalent to the average daily wage of a peasant. “The poor you will always have with you….,” says Jesus, who praises her, because she alone knows that he will soon die.
Jesus made plans for the Last Supper. It will be his last meal with the disciples. He will soon be betrayed, arrested, condemned and executed. During the meal, Jesus gives the bread and wine new symbolic meaning that will travel down through the centuries and profoundly affect our lives. This meal has the power to transform us spiritually. Each gospel mentions it, as does Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:23-26).
Mark adds the covenantal language. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Blood was used to seal a covenant. See Exodus 24:1-8, when God established a covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai and sealed it with blood dashed upon the people. This new covenant will be sealed with Jesus’ blood “poured out for many.”
Dawn has not yet broken when what is sometimes called “the Jewish trial” of Jesus takes place. In Mark’s Gospel, however, it is not the Jews who condemn Jesus, but “the temple authorities. These are the Jews who collaborated with Roman imperial rule.
The High Priest interrogates Jesus and names the two most important post-Easter affirmations about Jesus – the Messiah and the Son of God. “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Son of the Blessed One,” he asks. These are the titles used by Mark in verse one of his gospel to describe Jesus. We have come full circle.
The Jewish pilgrims are on Jesus’ side. That’s why the temple authorities needed Judas, who could betray Jesus when he was far from the crowds that were likely to riot and defend him. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate interrogates Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “You say so.” Then Jesus is silent, which was an act of defiance in the presence of a Roman authority.
Pilate’s custom was to release a prisoner at Passover. He offers Jesus, but the chief priests egged on by certain Jews allowed into the restricted area of the Roman governor’s courtyard, demand Barabbas, instead. He is an insurrectionist. Has the crowd gone mad?
Pilate has Jesus flogged. Then soldiers mockingly enthrone him, putting a crown of thorns on his forehead. They call him, “King of the Jews” and cast lots for his clothing.
Jesus is crucified with along two “bandits,” who are not petty thieves, but violent insurrectionists. The Romans reserved crucifixion for those who defied their rule.
Jesus cries out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? These are his only words from the cross in Mark. Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1, which speaks of a righteous person undergoing extraordinary suffering and his hope of vindication as he dies.
The temple is torn in two. The curtain that separated the most sacred part of the temple, the holy of holies, from the rest of the temple, where only the high priest could enter the holy of holies and only once a year, is destroyed. The meaning is clear. Judgment against the temple has taken place. The curtain is gone. God is now accessible to all.
The centurion at the cross says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” This is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that a human calls Jesus “God’s Son,” and it is spoken by a centurion who presumably thought of the emperor at “God’s Son.”
Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish council, asks Pilate for Jesus’ body in order to give him a decent burial. The request is unusual. Normally the body of a crucified person was not released for burial. It was commonly left on the cross for several days. Then, if anything, it was thrown into a common grave.
In the end, only the women remain. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Jesus, and Salome follow Joseph to see the tomb where Jesus was laid.
Easter Sunday Morning
Mark is brief. He tells the story of the resurrection in only eight verses. Matthew takes 20 verses. Luke takes 53 verses. John takes two chapters.
In the oldest copies of Mark’s Gospel the gospel ends at chapter 16, verse 8. The women fled from the tomb and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It’s a cliffhanger. The final eight verses were added to Mark over the next century.
Mark provides no stories of Jesus rising from the dead and appearing to his followers. Instead, Jesus tells the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you.” Go back to Galilee where it all began – there you will see him.
Mark leaves us with an empty tomb. Jesus has been raised. He is not there. Even a tomb sealed with a huge stone could not contain Jesus. He is risen!
We hope to see you tonight.