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I'm not referring to the gore and humiliation, which makes crucifixion repulsive no matter who the victim is.
Instead, my point has to do with considering the purpose or significance of Jesus' death. When you scratch at the surface of the claims Christians over the centuries have advanced about the cross -- that in it we glimpse redemptive suffering, faithful obedience even unto death, sacrificial love, etc. -- it doesn't take long to expose disconcerting questions. How can suffering ever be redemptive? What kind of divine Parent would demand such destructive obedience from a beloved Child? Why might an all-powerful and loving God need a sacrifice in order to express mercy?
The questions should spur us to reject simple explanations and should make us entertain more questions, even the uncomfortable ones. Be wary of anyone who comes up with too neat and tidy a theory about exactly how Jesus' death and resurrection changes the cosmos and God's disposition toward the world. For good reason the New Testament writings include a spectrum of metaphors, language, and claims to convey the significance of the cross. They guide our reflections on Jesus' death. But no single one of these, and no single statement, can suffice.
In Mark 9:30-37, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, one of several times he does so in Mark's account. On one level, his insights make perfect sense. Jesus certainly knew that those who, like him, assail deep-seated values and powerful people inevitably end up dead. On another level, the mention of his resurrection and the specificity of some of his statements about his death (like in Mark 10:33-34) suggest that the predictions function to reassure the Gospels' earliest readers that the fate of God's Messiah couldn't have been an accident or a defeat. Larger forces, a deeper purpose, must have been at work in it.
It was, in a way, God's own doing, according to Mark 9:31.
In Mark 9:31, Jesus indicates he "will be delivered into human hands" (translation: CEB), hands that will kill him. This statement doesn't refer exclusively to Judas, the person who will later hand him over to the authorities; rather, Jesus subtly implies that God initiates the whole process that finally results with him executed on a Roman cross.
This is not to say that God somehow plans, engineers or revels in Jesus' being destroyed in a particular way. But it does emphasize that Jesus will become subject to human power -- a power bent, in this case, by self-preserving arrogance. He will do so without the protections afforded him by his prerogatives as God's emissary.
Jesus will participate in the human condition without any advantage. He will experience some of humanity's most insidious displays of power, getting to know the worst of our potential up close.
And so the question lingers unanswered through time, waiting for us: Is God really OK with something like this? Couldn't God's relinquishment of Jesus be tantamount to moral negligence? After all, this is God we're talking about. Couldn't there be a neater, more peaceful solution?
Again, easy answers elude us, as maybe they should.
The Problem Of Violence
This passage deserves a place, alongside other parts of the New Testament, in larger conversations about the crucifixion. But we cannot expect this passage on its own to answer all the questions about the purpose or cause of Jesus' death. The same is true for questions about the character and motivations of God.
Instead of trying to rush to the bottom of those insoluble questions, we might first direct our focus to an audacious suggestion contained here: that there even can be any larger purpose or beneficial outcome to an event as horrible as a crucifixion. Could something appearing so utterly God-forsaken on the surface actually become an instrumental piece in God's active concern for humanity? Here the New Testament repeatedly insists: Yes.
Or, if we take seriously the Christian claim that God is also the one who is crucified, what happens when we consider God's willingness to suffer violence at the hands of a resistant world? God appears to be both complicit and victim at the cross, and that should catch our attention on a planet where violence is so prevalent and so often performed by people claiming to act on God's behalf.
When violence, whether religiously motivated or not, flares up like it has in the past week, it reminds us of humankind's ferocity and our entrenched proclivities for self-preservation.
It also leads us to ask, naturally, whether God gives a whit about the human plight. Does God like violence? Or is God finally overwhelmed by it? Or does God intend to solve the problem of human violence through divine violence? Every religion must grapple with these questions. They cannot be avoided if we intend to persist in hope for justice and reconciliation, things that rarely come about because people suddenly decide to lay down their weapons and try something new.
By their nature, promises keep us oriented toward the future, as we repent from past wrongs and look intently for new possibilities to emerge. But promises also become cheap, unless they mean something for the here and now.
And this is why Mark 9:34-37, containing Jesus' words in the aftermath of his prediction, is so important as we consider these things. Jesus calls his followers to relinquish their own desires for power and acclaim. Instead, they must welcome those who are vulnerable and overlooked, represented by the child Jesus sets in their midst. It's a sign that Jesus' death and his return in nail-scarred resurrection might open the door to different ways of living, to different ways of understanding the potential of human authority.
Is this all there is to seeing an end to violence and exploitation now? No. But it's a start.
For Further Reading:
- M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (The New Testament Library; Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), pages 277-78
- Sharyn Dowd and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, "The Significance of Jesus' Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience," Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006): 271-97
- Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 1974)
- Matthew L. Skinner, The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), pages 37-39
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.