Friday, February 27, 2015

Mark’s Presentation of Jesus’ Death as an Act by and for God

The penultimate event in the Gospel of Mark is Jesus’ death. Yet, if one carefully reads Mark’s story of Jesus as the one who speaks and acts for God throughout the narrative, one gathers a clear understanding that Jesus speaks of his death as an act of God. Indeed, though Jesus is the beloved Son (1:11; 9:7), he submits to the will of God even when that means suffering and death.

Jesus alludes to his death as early as Mark 2:20 where he states, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away…”  The use of the passive verb a)parqh may allude to God’s actions in the taking away of Jesus. In Jesus’ first explicit passion prediction he gives to the disciples in 8:31, he states, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…” The use of dei, translated as must, implies the divine necessity of Jesus’ death as that which God wills. This idea may also be present when Jesus speaks of his death as that which “is written” (9:12), and that which fulfills scripture (14:49). Moreover, the use of paradi/dwmi, “handed over” in the passive in Jesus’ passion predictions of 9:31 and 10:3, as well as its use in 14:41, again implies that behind the plotting and activity of humans is the activity and approval of God in the handing over of Jesus for death. 

One other passage is clear to suggest this idea. In 14:27 Jesus predicts that when his time of suffering comes, those closest to him will desert him. He views this as a fulfillment of scripture, citing Zech 13:7 from the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. Yet a close examination reveals that in Zech 13:7, God commands the sword to smite his shepherd. In Jesus’ rendition of the verse, he uses a first person indicative verb, not a command. The “I” in Jesus’ citation of Zech 13:7 is clearly to be understood as God. Thus while the use of the LXX text is for the purpose of predicting the desertion of the disciples, the implication of God as the one who ultimately controls the fate of the shepherd Jesus is clear. 

The ransom saying of Mark 10:45 comes at the climactic point of the subsection of Mark where three explicit passion predictions are voiced by the Markan Jesus. It is important to notice, however, that the pattern of 10:32-45 is somewhat different from that of 8:33-9:1 and 9:30-50 in that in neither of these two passages does Jesus return to speak of his death. In 10:45, however, the narrator presents Jesus as not only returning to speak of his death, but also giving a new understanding of his death, one that defines the purpose of his death.  In doing so, he calls his audience to consider Jesus’ death as an act not only willed by God, but also as an act for God, on behalf of the many. 

It is clear from Jesus’ words about his death that he understands his death to be for others (a)nti\ pollw=n; “for {in the place of} many”). Yet in being a death for others, it is also presented as a ransom (lu/rpon) for God. Jesus defines the very purpose of his coming is to serve and to give his life as a ransom. In being a ransom, Jesus’ death is viewed here as that which is done in service not only for the many, but also in service to God. He offers his death in obedience to the will of God, as an act for God, to fulfill the purpose of God, the ransoming of the many.

The force of this offering within the narrative structure of Mark, in which God has entered on the way of victory, is the act which, although bringing suffering to the Son of God, brings victory for God. In the earlier encounters between Jesus and the demonic enemies of God, Jesus acts with authoritative power to overthrow them. Yet, the absence of any encounter with these demonic forces after the saying of 10:45 suggests that the victory of God over the demonic enemies of God will now come because of the faithful death of the Son; a death that serves as a ransom for those under the rule of God’s enemies. 

Closely connected to this understanding of the Markan Jesus’ words in 10:45 concerning his death is the saying which he speaks at the Passover meal in Mark 14:22-25. The presence of the word pollw=n (many) in 14:24, and the idea that the cup (poth/rion), a word link with 10:38-39, is his blood which is being poured out for many, not only presents a word association between the two sayings, but an association of ideas; Jesus giving his life. Yet the idea of covenant introduced in the Passover meal saying presents the Markan audience with further information about how the Markan Jesus understands his approaching death. 

Jesus speaks of his death as an act which he carries out in obedience to God, and as an act of God which establishes a new covenant between God and the people of God. Moreover, since Jesus interprets his death as establishing the new covenant between God and God’s people, his statement concerning his not drinking until he does so in the Kingdom of God, serves to present his death and resurrection as that which will usher in God’s final rule. Thus, as in the ransom saying of 10:45, Jesus is presented in the Passover meal as speaking about his death as an act for God establishing a covenant between God and God’s people.

The overall theological intention of the narrative presentation of Jesus’ death in Mark’s Gospel, then, is to show that redemption and salvation are God’s initiative and purpose, accomplished through the divinely ordained death of Jesus.

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