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Remembering Soldiers

This is somewhat like the post I would have written if I would have had a working computer on Memorial Day. It felt fitting for last week. Not as much for today, but awwww well. Remember it for next year.

I was skimming through Mark last weekend and writing down the questions asked by the characters in the story. I’m not entirely sure why, but perhaps reading through them will help with some interpretative inspiration. Anyway, in the Markan crucifixion, again, something stuck out to me. It was the Roman soldier, the centurion, and his words right after Jesus died.

It’s such a weird situation. Weird is a pretty underwhelming word for it. The death of Jesus is a terribly violent, tragic, achingly injust, and hellish situation and the centurion is one of the people most directly responsible for it. Jesus dies as this Roman soldier looks on. Then it gets weird, shocking even. The centurion says, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” What?

This soldier is a very unexpected person to be declaring Jesus as the Son of God. First, he just killed Jesus. How do you say the man who just died in front of you is the son of God? Second, a centurion is a professional Roman soldier who is a commander of many other soldiers. In the 1st century, a centurion is like the hand of the Roman government, the direct actor of the will of the empire on the people Rome rules over. A centurion, as a representative of Rome, is a constant reminder of Rome’s rule, Rome’s power, and Rome’s authority over Israel. A centurion serves as a reminder that though in their homeland, the Jews are still in need of Messianic restoration to sovereignty as a nation. And the man who killed the Messiah who was to bring Israel’s national restoration is giving that man highest praise.

Weird. You know what else is weird? Who else called Jesus the “Son of God”? Mark tells us at the very beginning of his narrative that this story is all about Jesus the Son of God. God says that Jesus is His son at Jesus’ baptism. Demons in Mark are calling Jesus the Son of God. And the centurion, “who stood facing him, when he saw that in this way [Jesus] breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!'” The centurion is the only human character in Mark that calls Jesus the Son of God. When the violently powerful Roman representative saw the way Jesus died, he just knew that Jesus was the Son of God.

So what do I do with this? A couple of things. It is a poignant reminder at the end of Mark that this Messiah, if he is the Messiah, is not going to meet the expectations of a revolt that results in Israel’s restoration as a sovereign entity that functions as the national Kingdom of God. Whatever Jesus is doing by his self-sacrificial death, it isn’t the creation of a renewed kingdom of God through the physical conquering of the current powers that be. The fact that we have Rome’s representative immediately responsible for Jesus’ death looking on as Jesus died makes that clear. Also, his acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God communicates that it is not in spite of Jesus’ death that Mark thinks He is the Messiah but because of Jesus’ death that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but more than that – He is the Son of God.

Although Jesus is an unexpected sort of Messiah who used self-sacrificial love rather than force to conquer his enemies, Jesus did conquer his enemies. The centurion’s declaration that Jesus was the “Son of God” is a revelation of how impotent Rome is. They killed Jesus, but their means of ruling over their kingdom, the centurion, in a situation that seems like a clear victory for Rome, does not declare Caesar as a son of a god, but Jesus. In a moment of sure victory and demonstration of might and power, Jesus defeats Roman power by laying his life down on behalf of the executors of that power. Beautiful.

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