37. Mark 15:39
Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
What are we to make of this centurion? Some see him as a foreshadowing of the “mission to the Gentiles” that will take place in earnest with the ministry of Paul. Others believe that this scene represents the power of the cross to overcome disbelief, even the disbelief of one of those who put Jesus to death. Some, in contrast, assert that we should not take the centurion’s statement at face value but believe that he is actually being sarcastic, the final insult hurled at Jesus.
So what are we to make of this centurion?
I’m actually not sure, but I suspect the Evangelist’s point at this part of the drama is less about the centurion – sarcastic or sincere – and more about God. In particular, I think we encounter in the centurion’s remarks the very heart of Mark’s confession about the God we know in and through Jesus: God is seen most clearly not in acts of power but in vulnerability and suffering.
That may seem like a relatively innocuous statement, something we’re used to hearing and saying. But it’s easy to forget how ludicrous it sounded back in Jesus’ day. Most persons waiting for the Messiah expected someone who would come in power. And most persons not looking for the Messiah also assumed that any self-respecting god would come in power. Rome is the epitome of power in Jesus’ day, and so Mark’s depiction of the Romans hanging this would-be rebel on the cross appears to most of the world as just more evidence that “might makes right.” Moreover, Jesus’ humiliating death would look like the absolute defeat of any hopes for redemption that Jesus or his followers held.
But Mark and his early Christian community see things differently. God, this Gospel asserts, comes most fully in weakness, not power; in vulnerability, not might; in mercy, not judgment; and in tenderness and compassion, not in violence and death. Why does this matter? Because, no matter how we may arm ourselves, we are still vulnerable, fragile, and mortal human beings, destined to live and work and struggle and hope for a short time on this earth and then depart, to where none of knows for certain. God in Jesus, Mark asserts, meets us at these places – in our fear and uncertainty and pain and brokenness. Yes, that must have sounded ludicrous then; no wonder the Romans killed Jesus.
And I suspect that it still sounds ludicrous today. As a society, church, and as individuals, most of us still look for God to come in power – the power of a healing, of a growing church, of a nice car and home, of a raise and big pension, of a nation that is the most powerful on earth (today’s Rome, if you will). Don’t we also want a strong God to protect and promote us into a strong people? Yet all we get is this crucified rabbi who some people, including this unlikely witness, believed revealed the heart of God for a broken people.
What are we to make of this centurion and his crazy confession? Even more, what are we to make of the God he confesses?
Prayer: Dear God, draw our eyes back to the cross that we may see you and your love for us and all the world most clearly. And then send us into the world, eager to meet you in the suffering, brokenness, and need of those we meet. In Jesus’ name, Amen.