The passion narratives of the Gospels are dramatic and absorbing. As many times as we may have heard or read them, they can still hold our attention, grip our imaginations. Liturgically, year after year, we find ourselves riveted by the unfolding drama as if we didn’t know what was coming next. Such is the power of good story-telling and the giftedness of a good story-teller.
As compelling as the narratives are, it is also important to step back a bit from the particulars and consider other elements of the story-telling process. Elements like: the Gospel writers’ own time and place; their shaping of other sources for their unique literary and theological purposes. In this year’s appointed Gospel reading for Palm/Passion Sunday, there’s an odd double-trial scene that raises interesting questions about these kinds of story-telling elements—about setting, context, and the Gospel writer’s agenda.
In the first scene (14:60-62) Jesus is interrogated by the Sanhedrin; in the second (15:2-4) by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. There is a striking symmetry between the two, even some word-for-word sameness. But why two trials?
One answer that has held sway through the centuries is this: An over-zealous Jewish Council, representative of the religious elite who had wrangled with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, was determined to be rid of him. They turned him over to a reluctant, indifferent Pilate whose hand was forced by a bloodthirsty crowd.
Ched Myers – a peerless interpreter of this Gospel – insists, to the contrary, that the parallelism of the two trials “strongly implicates both parties of the colonial apparatus as equally culpable—indeed collaborative—in the political railroading of Jesus.” Other scholarly (and popular) interpretations have read Mark as a kind of apologia to the Romans: an attempt to minimize the state’s responsibility in Jesus’ death and, as recounted above, to maximize the role of the Jewish authorities. Christianity’s long, tragic history of anti-Semitism is rooted in such readings.
But for Myers the double-trial in Mark’s passion narrative is all parody and political cartoon, and as such indicts the whole corrupt system—Roman and Jewish—of joint sovereignty. “The highest Jewish court in the land,” says Myers, “throws due process out the window in favor of a rigged hearing”: the chief priests’ frantic (and futile) lobbying of the masses they so reviled (v. 55); hired perjurers who can’t get their stories straight (v. 59). There is also the irony of Jesus convicting himself by “his subversive confession” (14:62, 15:2).
In the trial before Pilate the parody lies in “his ‘consultation’ with the Jewish crowds for a verdict and sentence,” a detail, if taken at face value, is inconceivable in the case of this Roman procurator, “whose tenure was infamous (and well-attested) for its stubbornness, provocation, and violence.” And the crowds in Mark’s literary lampoon? Fickle masses whom he caricatures as spellbound by Jesus’ teaching one minute (11:18), and screaming for his head the next (15:13-14).
“These literary hyperboles,” concludes Myers, “work together to indict the entire politico-legal process of colonial condominium.” And the astute reader of this Gospel will not be surprised by this: “Jesus has already ideologically repudiated the system that condemns him. The sharp edge of realism in the political cartoon recognizes the converse: The powers railroad Jesus because they know he is committed to their overthrow; in political trials, justice is subordinate to the need for conviction.”
Both trials are farces, and Mark’s narrative strategy is to send up their purported legitimacy. Satire as scathing political critique.
This is grim comedy on the way to Golgotha. Yet we can miss it when we neglect the drama’s historical setting, indeed when we fail to read the passion narratives and the Gospels in their entirety as the politically-charged stories they are.
But if Mark’s telling of the passion story is darkly comic, it isn’t funny. The calculated miscarriage of justice by the Sanhedrin and the spectacle of public execution by the state apparatus conspire to brutalize, condemn, shame, and kill—to “send a message” to would-be subversives with their own theo-political aspirations.
There’s also no humor in the chilling parallels between Mark’s (and Jesus’) historical era and our own. Our imperial context, like that of the Imperium Romanum, is a social-political-economic-moral crisis in which the abuses of power, economic injustice, contempt for the poor, and the destruction of the natural world are re-narrated into a fantasy for the privileged: the American dream as the Pax Americana. But it is a false peace, of course; as sham a construct as a mock trial in the backwaters of empire in first-century Palestine.
But the good news of the gospel is that empire does not have the last word. Mark’s sophisticated literary style makes dark comedy of Jesus’ journey to the cross. But it is Easter, thanks be to God, that will have the last laugh.