It’s funny how trends seem to recycle over time. Apparently, the coming trend in clothing for men and women is loose-fitting, baggy shirts and pants. All of you senior citizens will soon have to abandon your skinny jeans. As if. If we were smart, we would have kept our bell-bottom jeans from the 1970’s. Then, again, if we were smart, we wouldn’t have dressed like that in the 1970’s.
Trends in religion recycle, as well. Mark’s Gospel, for example, was written to address two misleading religious trends that had become popular in Mark’s church congregation. Both trends were addressed in the Passion Narrative that we read today. The two ideas were unrelated to one another, with the exception that both were misunderstandings of the person and work of Jesus.
Jesus, as portrayed in Mark’s Passion Narrative, can be understood as an innocent man who was persecuted unjustly. The Gospel says that Jesus’ accusers had to rely on false testimony in order to make him appear guilty. (Mk. 14:56) There is, however, nothing remarkable about this. Everyone, including inveterate criminals, considers themselves to be innocent. One of the trendy misunderstandings about Jesus was that he was a really nice guy who ended in the wrong place at the wrong time. From this point of view, belief in Jesus amounts to no more than belief in one’s own alleged innocence. The first trend that Mark’s Gospel intended to refute was that nice guys often finish last but are always guaranteed an eternal reward from God.
There is a second false perspective on Jesus’ life addressed by Mark. In Mark’s Passion Narrative, Jesus can also be understood as having been somewhat aloof from worldly affairs, as if injustice and suffering were incapable of touching him. When he was accused of sedition against the Roman Empire, Jesus ignored the accusation and remained silent. (Mk. 15:5) The second trendy misunderstanding of Jesus portrayed Jesus as divine, other-worldly, neither human nor affected by human affairs.
The two misunderstandings of Jesus took the Church’s belief about Jesus, namely, that he is the Incarnate Son of God, and chose only one aspect of Jesus’ identity. To some, he was merely human and to others, he was purely divine. Mark goes to great lengths to demonstrate that these trendy notions are entirely false. The Gospel quotes Psalm 22 which describes the salvation which God would offer all creation through God’s Chosen Servant.
The two false trends that were popular during Mark’s lifetime have been recycled from time to time during the intervening centuries; they have become popular, again, in our time. It is popular today to think of Jesus as an admirable person who welcomed children and said nice things to poor people; the so-called salvation offered by this Jesus amounts to little more than being impressed by his unjust sufferings on the Cross. It is also popular today to view Jesus as a magician or wonder-worker whose greatest feat was to defy death by returning magically from the grave as if death had never touched him. Mark’s Gospel wants to make it clear that Jesus is neither a mere ethical example to be imitated nor a friendly spirit visiting from another plane. The urgency with which Mark’s Gospel makes this proclamation is the result of the fact that salvation is neither a matter of behaving politely nor believing in a “pie in the sky after you die” reward.
Jesus was the one who sacrificed his equality with God in order to become the man who was singly capable of being obedient to God. (Phil. 2:6-8) Because of his humility, not only did he receive back his divine status, but he was able to lift all humanity up to a renewed state of obedience to God. (Phil. 2:9-11) Jesus is God’s Chosen One, chosen to take on human nature and raise it to communion with God. The salvation God offers in the person of Jesus is not salvation from this world, but salvation in this world.
There are many religious trends that come and go. Some of those trends say that the Cross of Jesus should evoke a strong emotional response. Others say that the Cross was an anomaly in an otherwise happy and peaceful life. Some are repelled by the Cross and its implications. Mark’s Passion Narrative says that the truth about Jesus can be seen only on the Cross. In Jesus’ Crucifixion, God made an irrevocable statement about God’s mercy toward the world. The only appropriate response on our part is to make an irrevocable statement about our gratitude to God.