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.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.
In case you were wondering why Jesus died, or how this teacher, preacher, and miracle worked so enraged those in power that they would seek his demise, these verses make it clear.
Pilate isn’t trying to pick a little fight with the Jewish religious leaders by tacking the inscription “The King of the Jews” over Jesus’ head. I’ve often read it that way, largely because of John. The Fourth Evangelist has a strong sense of irony, and in his account Pilate has inscribed over Jesus’ head the title “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” To which the religious authorities protest, but Pilate insists (John 19:19-22). From John’s point of view, you see, Pilate – the one who hides behind the first-century equivalent of postmodern equivocation, asking “What is Truth” (18:38) – inadvertently tells the truth in his tri-lingual announcement.
John’s irony is absent from Mark. In Mark the inscription is not a title but a charge, an accusation. Pilate is accusing Jesus, that is, of treason, of claiming the power that is rightfully Caesar’s, of offering himself as a rival king. Similarly, the two “bandits” crucified with Jesus are referred to with a Greek word that doesn’t mean simply thieves, but members of a brutal – and probably seditious – gang.
Jesus is dying, that is, as an enemy of the state. He so disrupted the civil and religious order that they wanted him dead. Why? By proclaiming that God is not on the side of the powerful – always the assumption of the powerful – but cares for all, and particularly for those in need, for those who have no one else to care for them.
I write this, of course, as one of “the powerful.” Not a Caesar, or even a governor, of course; maybe not even in the “1%,” but close enough that it makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps you who are reading feel the same way. If Jesus dies for the lost, the forsaken, for those in need, what can we do?
One way is to spiritualize the meaning of Jesus’ death. We are all in need at some point, all brought low, all feel forsaken. This is a legitimate interpretation. The existential sense of despair that each of us feels at various times – the loss of a loved on, the end of a relationship, loss of employment, struggles with depression – in these moments we feel, indeed, Godforsaken and are powerfully met in those times by the crucified Christ. Jesus dies for all.
But we need not wait for those moments. Indeed, whatever our station in life, whenever we reach out to another in need, another who feels lost and forsaken, and especially those who are most vulnerable, we will meet the Christ who dies for all, and especially for those in greatest need. According to Mark’s account of our Lord’s Passion, as we will see, God is most clearly revealed in such moments and beckons not just our attention but participation.
Prayer: Dear God, draw us to each other in our brokenness that we may meet each other in the solidarity of our need and discover you there, holding onto each and all of us, loving each and all of us, in the name and person of our Crucified Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.