The movement of Jesus from Praetorium to the cross is known as the Via Dolorosa among the pious. But for the Romans, and in Mark’s story, it is something quite different. It is not only the depths of Christ’s sorrow and humiliation, but it is also imperial triumphalism and an imperial assertion of power.
Crucifixion was reserved for rebellious slaves, insurrectionists and crimes against the state. Crucifixion was a symbol of imperial power. The Empire imposed its will and maintained order through crucifixion. Crucifixion was as much a political testament as it was a criminal punishment. The Romans maintained their imperial power, at least in part, through the use of crucifixion as a deterrent against would-be liberators and, in the case of Palestine, would-be Messiahs.
Jesus was crucified with two “robbers” (lestas). While this term can have a broad meaning such as the “robbers” who assaulted the man on the road to Jericho in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in the context of crucifixion this does not refer to two burglars. Jesus used the term in Mark 14:48 when he questioned why the arrest party came in force with “swords and clubs” as against a “robber.” In the context of the passion story the term probably refers to a well-known feature of Palestinian banditry where a local leader basically lead a small group of armed men for his own purposes. They preyed on the rich and prepared the ground for insurrection. When the revolt came in 66 CE, two well-known social bandits came with their “armies” to defend Jerusalem. The two that hung on the right and left of Jesus were probably more like Pancho Villa than they were two jewel thieves.
The procession that led from Pilate to the cross was a display of imperial triumph. It as a different kind of triumphal procession than what Jesus had experienced earlier the week (Mark 11:1-9). This time Jesus is paraded before Jerusalem as a defeated, humiliated and tortured would-be liberator, a “king of the Jews.” This “king” was mocked by a whole battalion of imperial soldiers as a would-be “Caesar” (Mark 15:1-20) as they dressed him in purple, put a wreath crown on this head, hailed him as king and “worshipped” (paid homage) to him. The path to the cross was paved by imperial mockery and power. It was a demonstration of who was actually king–Caesar is Lord!
Jesus, perhaps due to two previous beatings (14:65; 15:15), was apparently unable to carry the crossbeam through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of execution. Simon of Cyrene was forced “to carry his cross.” From Cyrene in modern Libya, North Africa, he was probably a Jewish pilgrim to the Passover who happened to be present as Jesus passed by.
Why does Mark note this incidental detail? It is not incidental to Mark as he makes a significant theological point by including it. It seems clear that Alexander and Rufus were well-known to the community for whom Mark was written. They were disciples whose father carried the cross of Jesus. And there is the theological rub. Mark uses the same language here, “carry his cross” as he used in Mark 8:34. This Simon, rather than the Simon who denied Jesus three times, carried the cross of Jesus. Mark’s narrative book ends its story with the Simon who was the first discipled called (Mark 1:16) and the Simon who actually played the role of a disciple in the passion narrative (Mark 15:21). Discipleship entails cross-bearing.
Mark, without identifying it, follows a theological script. It is one of lament. The one described here shares the fate of the sufferer in Psalm 22. Three times Mark alludes to Psalm 22: (1) they cast lots for his garments (Psalm 22:18 /Mark 15:24); (2) Jesus is mocked by those who witness his humiliation (Psalm 22:7-8 / Mark 15:29-32); and Jesus quotes the opening line of the lament Psalm (Psalm 22:1 / Mark 15:34). Reading Mark 15 through the lens of Psalm 22 locates the mood of this section–it is one of rejection, humiliation, and abandonment. Mark does not describe the physical suffering of Jesus as much as he concentrates on public degradation of Jesus.
After describing how the imperial power has lifted Jesus upon a cross, Mark turns to his emphasis on degradation by paralleling the previous mocking by Rome (Mark 15:15-2o) with the mocking he receives at the hands of his own nation through the social bandits, the bystanders and the temple authorities. Mark uses the same word for “mocking” in 15:20 (Romans) that he uses in 15:31 (temple authorities).
Almost deliciously and yet ominously, Mark utilizes language that reminds readers of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The very status that James and John had requested, that is, “to be on the right and left hand” of Jesus (Mark 10:40) is the exactly the position the “robbers” take (Mark 15:28). Disciples not only take up their cross (like Simon did for Jesus) but they go to the cross with Jesus. But instead of disciples dying with him–in Mark’s narrative–mockers die with him. These mockers had pursued a different sort of kingdom than Jesus proclaimed; they used violent means. They mocked a king who refused their agenda even as they died the same death.
Just as Jesus died with those who pursued a kingdom for Israel through violence, so he was also mocked by those who maintained their kingdom for Israel through institutional and “temple” power. It is the voice of the temple authorities (chief priests) who name the language: “Christ, King of Israel.” They know his claim but reject it because the empire has defeated him. They had collaborated with that empire in order to maintain their own secure position. Even the bystanders recall the judicial witness against Jesus–he said he would build a temple. The chief priests and the bystanders (who were privy in some way to the court’s judgment and the testimony given) identify why Jesus is executed–it is about temple, messianic pretensions, and the power structure of the present Jewish authority.
Jesus announced salvation but what he now received was condemnation. He was condemned by the empire and he was condemned by his own nation. Rome executed him because he rivaled Caesar. The temple authorities executed him because he threatened the status quo. The “robbers” mocked him because he was a naive prophet who thought the power of Rome could be toppled through non-violence.
The first three hours of the cross are dark in mood though the sun shines in the sky. There is no hope. There is no comfort. There are no friends. All is lost. Nothing remains.
But….what happens next turns the tables…on the Romans, on the principalities and powers….it turns the cosmos right side up. More next week.