by: Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
Mark 15:31-36

During the season of Lent I invite you to look with me at a few of the faces around the cross. We do not know how many witnessed the Execution of Jesus, we do know that people responded in a variety of ways.

The vast majority of the crowd who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus regretted it and were saddened by it. They thought his death the bad end of a good man. No doubt many of them remembered it for the rest of their lives, like we who lost no loved ones in the tragedy remember the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The twelve, the women, and those who followed Jesus from Galilee took it harder. These were they who regarded Jesus not just as a prophet, but as the Messiah, the Son of God, who would deliver Israel from Roman occupation, and lead the nation into a new era of peace and prosperity. He was also their companion and friend. The grief of this second group was deeper than that of the first group but it did not last nearly so long. As Jesus himself once said to his them:

Truly, truly, I say unto you that you shall weep and lament…you shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. (John 16:20)

There were present those who rejoiced to see the death of Jesus—Jesus had also predicted their joy. (John 16:20) I am speaking of those that I have called “the Clergy.” Other have called them the “temple crowd,” “the status quo,” or “the rulers and elders of the people.” In the text before us Mark names from among this group “the chief priests” and “the scribes.”

Who were the chief priests, and how did they differ from those who were simply priests?

The priests—like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, served the Temple at most two weeks of the year. They lived lived all over Judea because they could not afford to live in the expensive neighborhoods of the city.

By contrasts, the chief priests occupied a more permanent place at the temple. The chief priests came from prominent families and they lived almost exclusively in Jerusalem. Most were Sadducees who recognized only the 5 Books associated with the name of Moses that comprised the Law They did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead or Eternal life. They wanted to grab all the gusto they could from life—by keeping the Law, because this life was all they expected. Some were Pharisees who recognized both the Law and the Prophets, and who believed in the Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal life. The Pharisees practiced a very strict code of holiness in this life in hopes of winning merit for the hereafter.

Then there was the “high priest” (singular)—like Annas or Caiaphas (John 18:24). Each year the chief priests who made the Sanhedrin got together and selected a high priest from among themselves who served just that year.

In the context of Mark’s gospel, we last encountered the high priest in chapter 14, wherein Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin. They have called a number of witnesses but none has given a particularly damning testimony. The trial is nearing the finish when the high priest ask Jesus, “Are you the son of the Blessed?” (Meaning “Are you the Son of God?”) Jesus answers, “I am!” He said more, but for now we need note only the response of the high priest. He tore his garments and says, “Why do we still needed witnesses?” He means that Jesus has just convicted himself by claiming to be the Son of God.

Of course, Mark is using a little dramatic irony here. We Christians who read and hear this story know that the roles are reversed. It is Jesus who is the Son of God and the legitimate high priest, and it is the elected high priest who is guilty of blasphemy because he does not recognize the one who stands before him.

Now do not think that I am making a general criticism of all high priest, chief, priest, priest, etc. There is no room for anti-Semitism here. We are talking about the conduct of a comparative handful of conspirators. Remember, Jesus himself was a Jew, and according to the New Testament he showed a great deal of respect for the office of high priest. The high priest had two duties and the gospels say that Jesus recognized both.

First, as we have seen, the high priest presided over the Sanhedrin which consisted of 70 elders who ruled the religious and political fortunes of the people. The Sanhedrin dated back to the time of the Exodus when Moses called upon 70 Elders to help him lead the people. (Exodus 24:1,24:9, Numbers 11:16, etc.) It was reinstated by Ezra after the Babylonian Captivity. Not only did Jesus appoint twelve disciples to be with him, which number was representative of the twelve tribes of Israel, but according to Luke 10:1f Jesus also appointed 70 others, and sent them out into the towns and cities where he himself was about to come to preach and enact the dawn of the Kingdom of God.

Second, the high priest represented the nation of Israel in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, when he made “atonement,” or “at-one-ment” between God and the People. The writer of the Hebrews observed that the high priests of Israel performed this duty “but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offered for himself and for the errors of the people.” (Hebrews 9:6) By Contrast, Jesus is “the high priest forever” (Hebrews 6:20) who “entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12)

In the New Testament Jesus is not only the sacrifice that is offered for the sins of the people—but the High Priest who takes the blood of the sacrifice into the heavenly holy of Holies. The imagery is straight out of the Jewish sacrificial system. The blood of the sacrifice provides “atonement” for our sins. There are other ways of saying it that we are forgiven, and restored to relationship with God through Christ, but they all flow from this connection.

Now let us return to our text. Mark says that the chief priests—which may have included the high priest and other members of the Sanhedrin, stood around the cross “and mocked Jesus to one another with the scribes.”

Scribes were lesser functionaries in the temple. They did not serve at the altar, but many were teachers of the Law. Like the chief priests, the elders, and the priests, some of them were Sadducees, and some of them were Pharisees; but at this juncture, the majority of both parties were united in their opposition to Jesus. The gospels record that Jesus came into contact with both groups and bested members of each in open debate.

For instance, in chapter 12, Mark recalls an instance when the Sadducees, who say that there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a loaded question. They said, “Teacher, Moses wrote that ‘if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but no child, the man must take his brother’s wife, and raise up children for his brother.’ Well, listen to this. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died he left no children; so the second took her. But he also died, leaving no children; and the third likewise. In fact, all seven had her, and none left any children; and, last of all, the woman also died. Now here it is, wait for it—in the resurrection whose wife will she be?” And Jesus answered, “As to the Resurrection of the Dead, you know you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to Moses, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ Listen, fellas, God is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:18-27)

According to Matthew 22:34 when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had bested the Sadducees they decided to give it a go, and he best them also. In some ways Jesus had a natural affinity with the Pharisees, because like them he believed in Resurrection; eventually, they, too, come in for his criticism.

One one occasion Jesus said they reminded him of “whitewashed tombs,” “pretty on the outside, but inwardly, full of dead men’s bones and uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27)

On another occasion Jesus said, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot make him unclean, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) He said, “It is what comes out of a man that make him unclean. For out of the heart of a man come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they are the things that make us unclean.” (Mark 7:18-23)

On another occasion Jesus spoke to the crowds saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

Then there was the biggie. Jesus told a parable about two men who went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee (who was supposed to be the best of men) and the other a tax collector (who was supposed to be the worst of men). Jesus said that the Pharisee stood and prayed like this, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” He said the tax collector prayed quite differently. He said, “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” Jesus then said to all who could hear him, “I tell you the truth, it was the tax collector who went down to his house justified, rather than the Pharisee; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

I have often heard it said that a man is not converted until he is converted right down to his pocketbook. Well, the Pharisee that Jesus spoke about had been converted, right down to his pocket book, and was a great tither. I have heard it said that a man become a real person of faith when he does follows the Bible. Well, the Pharisee that Jesus spoke about followed the Bible, to the letter. So here you have a man of the Word and a Tither, and according to Jesus, he was not doing right, he was doing wrong. He was great with the letter of the law but he had completely missed the spirit of the law.

Who knows were the chief priests and the scribes went wrong? They started out like most of us who are members of the clergy and work for the institutional church. They started out with high ideals. They started out wanting nothing more than to serve God and help people, but somewhere they went wrong. Not just one by one, but in-mass, as a group! That is the scary thing for any member of any group—to think that not only can one of us go wrong, but that after one of us has gone wrong, the rest of us are so wrong, that none of us can see how wrong we all are.

And as a member of the clergy all this falls on me, but I am not alone, because we are Protestants, and we believe in “the priesthood of all believers.” And you yourselves are a part of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1st Peter 2:9)

Now remember the tax collector, the one who went to his justified because he beat upon his breast and cried, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”

He reminds us that we are never closer to God that when we are on our knees: When we remember how sinful we are, and how holy God is. When we remember how weak we are, and how Great God is. When we remember how needy we are, and how supremely eager and able to meet our needs that God is.

Jesus stressed the importance of humility. No wonder the chief priests–who were exceedingly proud, stood around his cross and mocked him to one another and to the scribes, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

And after seeing to their satisfaction that they had put the last nail in the problem of Jesus, they went away from that place congratulating themselves that they had made a good end of a bad situation. No doubt they even assured one another that, come Monday morning, things would go back to normal at the temple. The money changers would set up the tables Jesus had broken down, and those who bought and sold birds and animals for the sacrifice would be back in business. And people would purchase their goods, and offer their sacrifices, and put their tithes into the temple treasury. The sky may have been dark that night, and some reported that the earth shook, but the temple crowd were not worried. They had a nice dinner waiting for them at home, and the Sabbath would be especially pleasant because it was Passover; and beyond everything else, they had a good retirement plan, and religious and social security.

There was just one problem. The sign on the cross, the one that was written in Latin, and Hebrew, and Greek, the one that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” well, that sign was placed in by Pilate in iron, but it turns out it was a double irony. Jesus really was, “the King of the Jews.” And though Jesus did not come down from the cross before the clergy went home for dinner, three days later, God did raise did raise him from death. His disciples were soon spreading the Story of His Resurrection all over town, saying that the Resurrection of the Dead had begun in King Jesus, and that created a new problem for the chief priests and scribes, and all the rest of the clergy and religious professionals, and, to use their own words, this new problem was “ worst than the first.” (Matthew 27:64) They soon discovered that a Crucified and Risen Christ who sits at the Right Hand of God, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, lives in the hearts of his people is even harder to control than the Prophet of Nazareth who taught that humility and patient waiting upon God was sometimes a surer path to God than just being a religious professional. This is as true for Christians as it was for Jews. Perhaps you remember how the apostle wrote, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1st Corinthians 9:27) That word of cautions still exist for preachers, and religious professionals, but not for us alone.


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