This chapter is the climax of Mark’s Gospel. We have all read it, perhaps hundreds of times. Still, each time it strikes us anew with its horror, its injustice and its pathos. I hesitated to comment on it, and considered just letting the text speak for itself. But to be faithful to my task, I will try to offer a way of reflecting on this majestic text.
We will start by reflecting on one of the minor characters. I’ve no space to give the evidence here, but there is general agreement among scholars that Barabbas was most likely a political prisoner. He had been involved in a recent insurrection, aimed at overthrowing the Roman rule.
Many of the later translations, including the most respected, such as the New Revised Standard Version, when telling Matthew’s version of this story (Matthew 27:16-17), include a first name for the prisoner Barabbas. Several early Greek and Syriac manuscripts include the name Jesus as Barabbas’s first name. Bar-abbas, of course, means in Hebrew, “Son of a father”. So Pilate was offering a choice to the people: Jesus, ‘son of a father’, or Jesus who claimed to be the Son of the Father.
Perhaps there is an element here that we may have missed. Pilate is leading the people in a very wicked, cynical political joke, in which the Chief Priests and teachers of the law willingly connive with him. Who do you want released? Jesus Barabbas whom we already have in prison for actual insurrection? Or Jesus, who claims to be your King and the Son of the Father, but who hasn’t managed to achieve anything? He was captured without loss of life, and all his supporters have deserted him?
Imagine the political cartoonists of the day having fun with this. Jesus is the biggest failure in revolutionary history. He hasn’t killed a single Roman, he has no followers, and he’s a pathetic, bleeding, captive figure. Better to swap him for someone who at least is a real revolutionary and happens to have the same name.
We are well accustomed to Jesus being a figure of tragic suffering and injustice. Mel Gibson showed that well. But on this reading he is also a figure of wicked, sneering political shame and contemptuous laughter. We can imagine the priests who had cooked up this sham trial, laughing at the private joke they had arranged with Pilate.
With this background, we can understand why the soldiers made such fun of him. He was the political joke of the day. The whole palace and court were in stitches.
The joke quickly spread amongst the people, and Jesus lost any remaining dignity or respect that he might once have had. Those who hated him sniggered and sneered and cracked cruel jokes at his expense all day. “We got him at last! And how cleverly we got him! He was left looking a total idiot!”
Now we understand, too, the sneering comments of the priests, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” If ever you want a definition of irony, this is the best there is. They sneer at Jesus, saying that if only he would take himself down from the cross, they would believe in him. As if!
But if Jesus came down from the cross, he would no longer be able to do what he has to do. It is his being on the cross that makes him the Redeemer. Now we understand the Messianic prophecy in Psalm 22:6-8.
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
Have you ever suffered teasing and mocking? Have you ever felt as though you were the local joke? Have you ever been deeply embarrassed and ashamed for something you have done or been associated with, and have heard people sniggering about you, or sneering at you? Jesus has been there before you. Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. (Heb. 4:15 CET)
There is yet another ignominy that we might have missed. A man runs to give him some vinegar wine on a long pole, as Jesus appears to be thirsty and unable to speak. But this action is not motivated by kindness or mercy. After the man has given the drink, he says, “Now let’s leave him and see if Elijah comes to take him down”.
This is the most callous treatment! This is the child poking the animal that he and his cronies have been slowly killing with sticks and thrown stones, to see if it is still alive, to see if it will snarl just one more time. This is human cruelty at its worst. “Let’s keep him alive for a few more minutes just so we can have a bit more fun!”
Oh, my Jesus! How could we do that to you?!
Do you remember that a few days ago, we noted that Mark put the revelation of Jesus being the son of David, i.e. the Messiah, into the mouth of the Greek-Jew Bartimaeus (See March 22, Mark 10:46-52). This was the first part of the first sentence in Mark’s Gospel. We wondered then, who Mark might choose to tell us that Jesus is the son of God.
And here it is, in v39. A Greek-Jew recognised that Jesus is the Messiah; a Roman centurion recognised he is the Son of God. Mark’s first sentence gets even more revolutionary, as we realise that the nation to whom Jesus came would fail to recognise him, but the Gentile nations would see clearly who he was.
Mark tells us exactly when the centurion makes this comment. It comes just a split second after Jesus cries out his death-shout. It was at that precise moment that the curtain in the temple was torn in two. This event signified that access to the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, the place of redemption for sins, was now thrown open. No longer would it just be open to the Jewish High Priest once a year. Now it is open to everyone. And the Roman centurion was the first one to enter in, we might say, as he speaks this truth to the universe. “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
The deed is done. Christ is the Victor. Sinners are ransomed. Guilt and shame are washed away. The gates of heaven are flung open wide to the whole world.
But no-one knows that yet. Jesus is dead – and the women who loved him are watching in silence. In times of tragedy and pain, it is always the women who stand. And weep. And wait.
 Also the NET Bible, The Message, the 2011 NIV, while many others show it as a textual variant in their notes.