Morning Musing: Mark 15:16-20

“The soldiers led him away into the palace (that is, the governor’s residence) and called the whole company together. They dressed him in a purple robe, twisted together a crown of thorns, and put it on him. And they began to salute him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ They were hitting him on the head with a stick and spitting on him. Getting down on their knees, they were paying him homage. After they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his clothes on him. They led him out to crucify him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

The news coming out of Afghanistan right now is pretty grim. Most recent was the story of a pregnant woman murdered with a knife in front of her family. Other stories are worse than that. The brutality and cruelty of the Taliban is grotesque. There’s simply no other way of putting it. Yet while they are the latest thugocracy on the block, they are hardly the first. When Hitler’s Third Reich held Germany in its iron grip, there were officers assigned to the concentration camps who would commit unspeakable atrocities against Jewish prisoners during the day, and go home at night to lovingly kiss their wives and tuck their children into bed. How does this kind of thing happen? The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this post, but as we continue working our way through the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, we see today that He was the victim of such a twisting of humanity.

When I was in college, I took a class on Missouri history. The professor had actually grown up with my dad and was a terrific teacher. One of the books we had to read was about Missouri’s most famous outlaw, Jesse James. The book was really well-written and has stuck with me in ways most of the other books I had to read for my classes did not. As a testament to that fact, it is still on my bookshelves at home. The book was more of a work of sociology than straight history, although the history was really good. It dug into James’ life pretty deeply to try and understand how and why he became who he did. The truth about James is that although he is often glamorized today along the same lines as other famous criminals, he was an exceedingly violent young man. There was very little about his actual life that was romantic or worth celebrating in spite of his romanticized outlaw brand.

The author did a lot of reporting what happened, but he also sought to answer a simple question: How does a young man become as brutally violent as he did? The author’s eventual answer was found in his exploration of the idea of violentization. James was regularly exposed to graphic and gory violence as a young man (starting as a teenager). This wasn’t just on a screen either. It was real and in front of him. He saw it and was invited to participate in it. Gradually, violence like this became normal for him. It was the way he saw the world work. He simply picked up on the habits he was so regularly exposed to and incorporated them into his life.

When Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified, he put Him in the hands of a group of men who were similarly shaped and even warped by violence. These men were professional executioners. Their job was to inflict as much pain and humiliation on their victims as they possibly could. They had mastered the…art…of bringing a person to the brink of death and then leaving him there for as long as possible. They wanted their victims to suffer the maximum amount of punishment possible for their crimes against the state. They also wanted to make a show for the rest of the population both for entertainment, but also for warning. The message was clear: Don’t do what these guys did or you’ll experience what they are experiencing.

And we should all be clear on something: What Jesus was experiencing was awful. The scene Mark describes here followed after Pilate had had Jesus beaten. More specifically, Jesus was scourged. This wasn’t just a normal beating. That word described a particular type of punishment where a prisoner was tied to a pole by his hands and a soldier beat him with a whip. This whip ended in a mop of leather strips into which were woven and tied various pieces of glass and sharp rocks. This meant that when the whip hit your back, it didn’t merely strike and bounce off. It gripped the skin and pulled gashes and chunks out when it was drawn back. The beating would last for 39 agonizing lashes or whenever the tormenter’s arm was finally tired. It was not uncommon for a victim to die from this abuse alone. When Pilate paraded the now beaten Jesus back in front of the crowds to ask one more time if they still preferred Barabbas over Jesus for the Passover prisoner release, the sight had to take the breath away from some of them. Standing before them now was not the man they had handed over to Pilate hours before. This was a mangled bag of flesh that was only still barely recognizable as a human being.

What Mark describes in these verses came after that. The abuse and humiliation from the guards continued. They were having a ball mocking Jesus. This man thought He was the king of the Jews? Let’s “honor” our king. At this point, there was nothing punitive about their actions any longer. This was just violence for the sake of violence. We’ll talk more tomorrow about what the cross was like, but this was bad enough. That Jesus survived to be crucified at all is a mark of just how strong He was physically before all of this began. A weaker man wouldn’t have made it this far.

With all of this in mind, here’s a fact that should absolutely take our breath away: At any point in this process Jesus could have put a stop to the whole thing. He commanded the hosts of heaven. He could have spoken a word and all of Heaven’s forces would have marshalled to rescue Him from the abuse He was facing. No doubt there were some warriors of Heaven with itchy trigger fingers that day.

This all just brings up a nagging question that we will end with today. Why did Jesus do it? Why did He willingly face what He did? Why did He allow Himself to experience such pain and abuse as this? Why did the preexistent, eternal, second member of the triune Godhead allow Himself to be mocked by soldiers who were in all likelihood enjoying immensely the torment they were causing? One word: Love. Jesus went through all of this and more because of His commitment to the Father’s plans and His abundant love for us. Before and behind and beside and within everything else you experience today, know this with absolute assurance: You are loved. You have always been loved. You always will be loved. And there’s nothing you can ever do about it. If you don’t already know Him, let me invite you to come and get to know better the God who loves you so.

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