Today’s reading is Mark 15:16-20:
The soldiers took him away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium), and they called together the whole Roman cohort. They dressed him up in purple, and after twisting a crown of thorns, they put it on him; and they began to acclaim him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They kept beating his head with a reed, and spitting on him, and kneeling and bowing before him. After they had mocked him, they took the purple robe off him and put his own garments on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufrane was thrown into Shawshank Prison even though he was innocent of the charges of killing his wife and her lover. He first endured mockery, then isolation, then rape, and the abuse of the corrupt prison guards and the warden himself. He endured every element of a nightmare prison scenario. But he didn’t lose hope. Instead, he devised a plot to escape. Over the course of twenty years, he chiseled a way through the wall with a small sculpting pick and squeezed into the sewage drain. Morgan Freeman narrates, “He crawled through five football fields of sh– smelling filth.” As far as the story goes, that was gruesomely and literally true. But we can also see that symbolically. He had already gone through the putrid essence of twenty years of prison time, now crammed, in a sense, into a narrow pipe of human feces. Crawling through that pipe summed it all up. But on the other side, he emerged free.
Jesus’ journey from his birth, through his life, to his death and resurrection was similar. Especially at the end of his life, Jesus endured every element of a Jewish nightmare scenario, including this one.
First, the “whole Roman cohort” (15:16) gathers around Jesus to have a little fun with him. They are the death squad. They were probably frustrated at being so far from home, stationed in this backwater of the Empire among the Jews, who they saw as a rebellious people. Asserting their superior Roman military power, they menace Jesus, laughing and intimidating him.
For the Jews in the biblical period up until this point, to be handed over to the Gentiles in defeat was humiliation and shame. The long Jewish history of making sinful alliances with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon resulted in God giving them over to these powers and allowing these powers to invade Israel and shame the Jews. Jesus being handed over to the Gentile enemies implied that he was sinful. He was not in the personal sense of choices, but he had taken on sinful humanity into his person. So he was going with his people Israel into their state. Little do the soldiers know that Jesus has come to be not just “king of the Jews,” but “king of the world” as well, and their king, in fact. Their entertaining and violent little game, like a cat playing with a mouse before the fatal pounce, blinds them to Jesus’ self-giving approach to them as their true lord.
Second, the soldiers strip Jesus and mockingly dress him in a purple robe. Being stripped was shameful for Jews, ever since the day Adam and Eve sinned, realized they were naked, and felt ashamed. Since that time, the people of God considered proper attire to be fairly important. But the Romans stripped Jesus. In place of his own clothes, the soldiers gave him a rare old cloak whose kingly color of purple was probably dirtied and faded over time. To them, it was a perfect way to mock Jesus’ claim to be king. To Jesus, it might have been a perfect fit – dressed by his enemies as the ancient king he truly was.
Third, the soldiers bend thorny branches into a circle and force it down upon Jesus’ head. Thorns were also an emblem of humanity’s fall into sin (Gen 3:17-19). Thorns were the painful result of Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, as God withdrew His life-giving presence somewhat from creation. Ever since then, humanity’s attempts to bring life and beauty from the creation were marred with thorns: the emblem of pain and ugliness. When Jesus wore a crown of thorns, it was not only physically painful. He was taking onto himself another symbol of human fallenness. He had done this his whole life. He took onto himself the consequences of human evil and bore them in himself.
Jesus fully identified with, and entered, all the forlorn experiences of his people, Israel. Even though he was innocent, Jesus took to himself all the experiences and symbols of his people’s exile – all the experiences of police brutality, public humiliation, and being made powerless, naked, and terrorized. Jesus drew them onto himself, in order to emerge on the other side of all that as God’s new humanity. Here is Jesus, crawling, as it were, “through five football fields of sh– smelling filth.” This is the journey that summed it all up.
As Jesus came into the very place of Israel’s exile among the nations, amid humanity’s exile from the garden, there was nowhere for us – Jew or Gentile – to run anymore. There was no other place to escape his claim of authority over us and his call to partnership with him.
So, fourth, the soldiers kneel down before him, probably not knowing what was more uproariously funny – either that this defeated man claimed to be a “King,” or that the Jewish people would be so pathetic that some of them put their hope in this weakling. Then they grab the thin stick and whack him on the head with it, surely driving the thorns deeper.
Jesus is now being “crowned” while experiencing utter rejection from those who should have been his subjects. He was being utterly rejected by human beings because this is what we have done to God ever since the fall. In the garden, we exiled ourselves to get away from God. Jesus pursued us. He entered our world for us, despite knowing that we would torment him. But Jesus turns all the elements around him into an imaginative coronation scene. All the pieces are there: a military cohort acknowledging him, a crown on his head, a scepter in his hand, a royal robe on his shoulders, and soon, a subject who helps him hold his banner, a seat from which he can sit, enthroned, and see his subjects, and a sign publicly declaring his identity.
Jesus can take the parody of our hatred. He even shines through it to show us the truth.
But on the other side, in his resurrection, he will emerge free, bringing a healed human nature with him.
Could this be love?
Mako Nagasawa is Director of the New Humanity Institute. He, his wife Ming, and their two children live in a Christian intentional community involved with urban ministry in Dorchester.