The readings for March 29, 2015, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Cycle B, are Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; and Mark 14:1-15:47.
In this column, let us comment mostly on incidents in which Mark strikingly differs from Matthew and Luke. During Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane only in Mark does Jesus address his Father in the affectionate Aramaic word for Father, “Abba,” just as a child calls its Daddy. Then the Marcan Jesus makes a blunt demand, “All things are possible to you. REMOVE this cup from me!” Matthew and Luke dance around this bluntness — too much for them to handle. Matthew: “My Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me.” Luke: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Both then follow Mark: “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
Next is an occurrence that takes place only in Mark’s version. At the arrest of Jesus, after all his other disciples had fled, Mark inserts a story that is intended to throw into glaring light the weakness of Jesus’ closest companions who deserted him. To negatively criticize Jesus’ disciples and his family is a theme that runs throughout Mark’s gospel. So what happens now that his friends abandoned him? “A young man followed him with nothing but a linen cloth wrapped around his body. They seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” The first streaker? No. Mark has a purpose here. He intends an insult. Mark uses the naked young man to symbolize that when the going got too rough, his disciples left all behind, even their clothes, to get away from Jesus. Matthew and Luke have been studiously copying from Mark. When they arrive at this incident, they delete it. Both authors draw a more positive picture of Jesus’ disciples.
At his trial before the high priest Caiaphas, the high priest asks the question that could bring a death sentence, “Are you the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God?” The Marcan Jesus’ answer is simple and direct, “I AM.” Does Mark intend this answer as Jesus claiming for himself the sacred divine Name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14? The high priest understands Jesus’ answer thus and reacts accordingly. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus answer to the high priest’s question is more indirect. They shy away from the “I AM” of the Marcan Jesus. Matthew: “You (the high priest) are the one who says so.” In Luke’s version, the question of the high priest is only about whether Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus gives an evasive answer.
When Jesus thunders his final words on the cross, only Mark returns again to Jesus’ native language. He depicts Jesus saying in Aramaic, “Eloi! Eloi!” Mark transates the Aramaic into Greek, “ ‘o Theos mou! ‘o Theos mou!” (My God! My God!) Then Mark adds the rest of Psalm 22:1, “Why have you forsaken me?” Matthew keeps the same cry of desolation as Jesus’ last words, but in Hebrew. In Luke, Jesus’ last words are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The desolation and abandonment of Jesus’ last cry in Mark is even more heartbreaking if we remember that in the garden he began his prayer with the affectionate “Abba!” There was no answer. Mark wants to show the total abandonment the humanity of Jesus experiences, when he depicts him no longer affectionately calling for help, but with a more distant cry, “Eloi! Eloi!”
To the end of his gospel Mark has adhered to a major theme of his gospel — the total abandon-ment of Jesus by everyone. The first and final abandonments, at least in Mark’s theology, come from the divine family. The Holy Spirit expels Jesus into the wilderness to be tried, tempted. The Father, the Abba, does not answer until after Jesus’ death. In between, in the body of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is either misunderstood, or rejected, or abandoned by his human family, by the leaders of his religion, and by his disciples.