About a week ago, I mentioned in a tweet that Sheila and I are teaching Sunday School out of The Last Week, a remarkable book by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan about the final days of Jesus’ life, as told in the Gospel of Mark.
If you are interested in marking the days of Holy Week through prayer and meditation, a great way to do it is by reading through Mark’s account. We have put together a brief devotional guide for our class to enable them to do just that, and I thought I would share it here.
Some Background. Jesus lived during tumultuous times in Roman-occupied Israel. The Romans, in cooperation with the authorities in the Jewish temple had set up a system of economic and political domination that caused a few, elite in the cities to become very rich, while economic conditions in the countryside were worsening dramatically. Jews had a love/hate relationship with the temple – they were dependent on the system of sacrifices that occurred there, but those in charge of the temple endorsed, and even benefitted from a harsh system of oppression. Jesus’ ministry was almost exclusively directed at the impoverished masses in the countryside. None of his ministry – except when he came to Jerusalem – took place among the wealthy landowners who inhabited the cities. His message was a political one – it taught of a “kingdom of God” in which, among other things, the poor were treated with justice. For Jesus to come to Jerusalem during a major feast, being hailed as a king by a large crowd of beaten-down followers, must have been a very frightening thing to those in charge of the temple.
What Happens During Mark’s “Passion Week”? Mark’s take on the “passion” of Jesus is different from what we might imagine. Jesus is passionate about justice for those who have been oppressed and marginalized by the corrupt temple authorities, and he is ultimately killed because he confronts this system, and refuses to back down. For Mark, the point is not the amount of suffering that Jesus underwent (this is normally what we think of as Jesus’ “passion”), rather Mark focuses on Jesus’ passion for God’s kingdom, and it is that passion that gets him killed. To walk through the Passion Week with Mark requires us to be confronted by the same Jesus, to reflect on the ways that we may ourselves be involved in modern-day versions of domination systems, and to contemplate what it means to oppose those systems. What role can we play in liberating those around us who also find themselves in the margins and shadows of society?
Here are our readings for this week:
Palm Sunday (Mark 11:1-11). Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a planned, political demonstration (see the story that immediately proceeds this in Mark 10:46-52 to see how Jesus had pre-arranged this event). It invokes Zecheriah
14:4 9:9, in which the King of Peace rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. It should contrasted with the intimidating display of force that is involved when a Roman Governor comes into town, mounted on a horse and surrounded by a regiment of a brutal, Roman-trained killing machine.
Monday (Mark 11:12-19). Jesus goes into the temple and shuts down the process of converting currency, something that is necessary for the temple system of sacrifices to take place. He condemns the temple authorities openly, accusing them of using the temple as a “den” while the undertake robbery outside the temple. To understand more about his reference to a “den of robbers,” read Jeremiah 7. If one engages in injustice outside the temple, one cannot expect to find God’s protection inside it. This story is sandwiched between a two-part story of a fig tree that is cursed by Jesus, and that then withers. It seems to suggest that, in the same way the fig tree is cursed by Jesus and then destroyed, so the temple – which is “cursed” by Jesus on this day – will meet its end.
Tuesday (Mark 11:20-13:37). In this long text, Jesus is confronted by the people in charge of the temple, who question his authority, and then attempt to humiliate him by asking “trick” questions that are designed to trap him in his words. It doesn’t work. Note especially Jesus’ story about the wicked tenants (12:1-12). Again, he is suggesting that the “end” of the temple has now come. At the end of the day (Chapter 13), Jesus foretells that the temple soon meet its destruction. The actual destruction of the temple in 70 CE was probably happening around the time Mark wrote his gospel.
Wednesday (Mark 14:1-11). On this day, a woman pours expensive perfume on Jesus in an act of devotion, an event that Mark views as Jesus’ preparation for burial – a sign that his fate is now sealed. Notice how, when the disciples object to such extravagance, Jesus makes a statement which assumes that his disciples will always be present in the midst of poverty (“The poor you will always have with you,” v. 7).
Thursday (Mark 14:12-72). Notice again the elaborate plans Jesus has already made for Passover, as his disciples are led, in almost a clandestine way, to the place where the meal is to be held. There, he tells them of his coming death, and its meaning, but alerts them that he will be raised, and that he will later meet them in Galilee. Note how everyone gradually deserts Jesus. Eventually, even Peter turns on him. Though later editors will add in additional stories, this is the last that we see or hear from any of the eleven in Mark’s original gospel.
Friday (Mark 15:1-47). Today, Jesus is executed and buried. Notice, during this reading, how God’s judgment now comes on the temple. The land becomes dark (see Amos 8:9), and the temple curtain is torn in two (15:38), seeming to suggest that God has “left” the temple. Jesus himself quotes from a scripture (Psalm 22), in which it at first appears that God has deserted him, but which later indicates that God will vindicate him. Even the Roman soldier, a symbol of the Imperial domination system, declares Jesus – not Caesar – to be the true Son of God (v. 39).
Saturday (Nothing). Nothing is said in Mark’s gospel about the Sabbath day. This is a day to sit in silence, reflecting on the sober, reality of Jesus’ mortality. He lies silent, in the tomb.