A meditation I delivered for Good Friday:
Mark 15:1-20 As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.Were you there when the crowds shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom.Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy 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 spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do* with the man you call* the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters*); and they called together the whole cohort.And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
Jesus has been sentenced to death, and the crowd refuses to let him go free. I can picture this crowd, loudly pumping fists in the air, cheering and jeering, stirred up by any variety of emotions – anger at Jesus for not being a heroic liberator, bored and bloodthirsty - looking for entertainment, full of religious zeal that Jesus is a blasphemer and should suffer and die. Regardless of intent, the crowd will not be appeased by the release of Jesus, but instead demands – “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Then the soldiers beat him, mocked him and stripped him.
I am reminded of November 16, 1989, when the Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuria and seven others were assassinated by the military in El Salvador, because they stood up for the poor.
Ellacuria had coined the term “the crucified people” to describe the Latin American poor, for as he described it, an unjust society means death – through institutional poverty, repression, wars, and the stripping away of peoples’ culture. It is a challenging image, the poor on the cross, because it brings the crucifixion into contemporary times and opens us up to be implicated as those shouting “Crucify!”
Ellacuria also reminds us through this imagery that God is present on the cross with Jesus, present when the people turn on him and demand his death. God is present in the suffering of those facing poverty, war, and repression.
Also in the tradition of Ellacuria’s theology, James Cone draws comparisons between the cross and the lynching tree. The crowds shouting “Crucify him!” are parallel to the white mob’s cry of “lynch him!” Though they are not identical, the cross can help us understand the lynching tree, and see that when the crowd lynched a black man, they were lynching Jesus. This is a vivid and grotesque version of Matthew 25:40, “as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me.”
The cross reminds us that God is present with those who suffer violence and degradation. God have mercy.
This week has also been full of news stories of political, religious and cultural battles in the US. At least 26 states are debating legislation that would allow for discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people on the grounds of protecting religious freedom.
Passions are high on these bills. A pizza place in Indiana was quoted on air saying it would refuse to serve their food at a gay wedding, and there was so much fury on both sides of the question. Negative internet reviews were used as a platform to mock the restaurant and protest their comments. In counter protest, an online fundraising account was set up by a conservative media outlet and has raised almost a million dollars in a little over a day by people supporting the restaurant owners. I cannot help but hear this story, read the comments, and picture the chief priests and the crowd scene with Pilate: Ugly shouting and angry cries for justice on both sides.
Around the country there are also a bills being proposed that would criminalize trans people for using the bathroom for the gender they identify as. It is dehumanizing to have one’s need to pee questioned, and to be marked as suspicious and perverted.
And in California, even though the initiative will likely not even collect enough signatures for the ballot, a lawyer has submitted a petition that would call for gays and lesbians to be shot in the head. It doesn’t matter if it will not pass, it lies heavy on the heart, especially when people such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas tries to defend the religious freedom act of Indiana by arguing that at least it’s not Iran, where they hang gay men.
I don’t bring these stories up to be political. While Lutherans should be involved in the public sphere and I support healthy discourse and hard conversations about how laws are written and which should pass, I bring this up because of a comment posted by a friend on facebook who writes: “I'd just like to say that as a gay person, listening to the public squabble over my rights as a person and other's rights to treat me as less than equal is exhausting. If you have LGBT friends, give them a little extra love today because this stuff is soul sucking.” I appreciate that Bonnie Beadles-Bohling wrote that post. It has been a tough week to watch the back and forth attacks that have dehumanized and vilified people on both sides of the issue. It has been tough to be afraid of discrimination and hate growing in our world.
Biblical scholar Raymond Brown highlights that the chief priests gave Jesus over to Pilate out of jealousy, and the same Greek word, phthonos points to both envy and zeal. Brown writes that by warning us of the envy and zeal that lead the chief priests and crowds to crucify Jesus, the gospel writer Mark is cautioning the early church and us of “a divisive competitiveness among groups struggling for their own view point.” Sound familiar?
The same zeal that can inspire us to do good things can also cause us to try to out-do one another in our supposed faithfulness and holiness. It can lead us to forget the cross and the people we crucify.
Ignacio Ellacuria draws our attention to the poor in Latin America, James Cone draws our attention to racism in the United States, Bonnie Beadles-Bohling draws our attention to the experience in the LGBT community.
Were you there when the people chose to free a murderer and crucify Jesus? Were you there when we did not value his life, but sentenced him to die?
And when did we not value the life of another based on ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, education, income, or family status?
We need love, but we are surrounded by cries of Crucify! And we are about to crucify the one who is love, Jesus.