Dear Sisters and Brothers,
The Gospel of Mark speeds through many weeks and months of the life of Jesus, but the last hours before and during his public execution are thoroughly detailed.
Since the chief priests and other leaders like them had no legal standing to formally execute a prisoner, they needed to go to the Romans for Jesus to be condemned to crucifixion. The chief priests would not have been punished for murdering Jesus (since he was one of their own, from the Roman’s point of view), but the chief priests did not want to be seen as assassins. The chief priests wanted Jesus to suffer the shame of lethal “justice.”
After continued time in the hands of the chief priests, Jesus is bound and led to the Roman Commander’s quarters. Pontius Pilate (pronounced the same as Pilot) oversaw the Roman garrison of troops but would have been more of an administrator than a military man. His duties related to political matters and the control of occupied territory. He would have also served as a judge when dealing with civil issues regarding the small percentage of Roman citizens in his jurisdiction. This would have been the sort of position occupied by a person who wanted to rise in Imperial politics, but he was posted very far from the more prestigious positions closer to Rome. They Romans tended to choose very level-headed men for such positions.
Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”
But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
Then, as now, most prisoners were brought in proclaiming their innocence. It was very odd to have a prisoner who refused to make a clear statement one way or the other. Pilate is amazed and makes some effort to see that Jesus won’t be executed.
Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
Pilate refers to Jesus as “king of the Jews.” It is possible that he didn’t bother to learn Jesus’ name, or that he wanted to get a reaction from the crowd. “Jesus” or “Yeshua” (as it was said back then) was a very common first name among Jews, being the same name as the Hebrew “Joshua.”[It is not very important, but people tended to know the meaning of names better back then because names often still were regular words in common usage. It is a bit like when people today have names like Hope, Charity, Judge, or Joy. People would have simply known that “Pontius” meant “fifth” and “Pilate” meant “one who throws darts.” “Jesus” meant “God brings salvation.” “Barbabbas” meant “son of Abbas” but Abbas was just a word for father, so the name means “son of the father.”]
Barabbas was a Zealot or “freedom fighter” who had murdered someone other than a Roman soldier during an insurrection. The killer of a Roman soldier would have been quickly killed and not held for trial.
“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.
“Crucify him!” they shouted.
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Pontius Pilate had Jesus flogged (beaten with whips or sticks) to see if that was enough to appease the crowd’s desire to hurt Jesus, but since it was not, Jesus was sentenced to death on the cross with that day’s group of condemned men.
Estimations of the population of Jerusalem differ but the thought that the usual daily number of executions was at least three indicates that death at the hands of the Romans was a major threat to the Israelites. The Romans also killed many people in less public ways, so it is hard to imagine how violent the times were. Crucifixion wasn’t something special, it was a cruel and economical way of killing people.
The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
Many of the soldiers hated the people that they had been sent abroad to control. It was easier to justify their own cruelty by thinking of the Jews as animals worthy of disdain. So, the Roman soldiers hated the locals and welcomed the chance to beat and mock Jesus as a living effigy of a Jewish king. So, in a matter of hours, Jesus is beaten and humiliated by Jews and Gentiles; the people he came to save.
Floggings and physical cruelty were a common element of a legion’s discipline. They knew from personal experience how much pain you could inflict without killing a man. When it was time to take the prisoners to the place of execution, they led Jesus out.
In most stories that people tell, the “bad guys” are hurt back for their evil deeds, but Jesus does not seek harm for any of the Jews or Gentiles that hurt him. In fact, Jesus chose for all people to be saved from the consequences of their own bad behavior.
Questions to Ponder: To forgive someone for their cruelty does not mean that you approve of their cruel words or actions. Do you have a hard time resisting the desire to “get even?” What would have happened if Jesus cursed these Jews and Romans as he had cursed the fig tree? Why is mercy a better choice?