The reading of the Passion Gospel always brings forth a question – Why did Jesus have to die in this way?
The first thing I would say in response to this question is that Jesus did not HAVE to die in this way. Jesus had the choice not to. He could have made other choices but chose the path that led to the cross. He went to Jerusalem rather than staying home.
It is interesting to note that there is no one single official orthodox formulation of an answer to this question of why Jesus had to die as a common criminal. Each Gospel and Epistle writer gives a different answer to our question.
Today’s service began with a parade – echoing the joyous shouts of welcome, admiration and fervor that greeted Jesus as he came into Jerusalem. Long ago, and today, we welcome Jesus, the anointed one, the messiah into our midst. Then, as told in the Luke’s telling of the Passion story, the mood changes drastically, and it is Jesus’ death which the crowds call for. There is a wild roller coaster of emotion in the Holy Week experience.
One day there is a parade, several days later there is a call for an execution – the person of Jesus at the center of each. When the crowd placed branches and their garments on the road before Jesus, he was a heroic figure – the anointed one, the messiah – for some that meant a new king, a religious figure with military overtones. When the crowd called for his crucifixion, Jesus was a criminal, a villain worthy of the worst sort of death.
Just as each of us must ponder the question, “Who is Jesus?,” I believe that we must also ponder the question, “Why did Jesus die the way he did?”
Our answers are shaped by scripture – the “source” documents of our faith. They are also shaped by the context of Jesus’ day: what we know of the cultures of the Jewish people and of the Roman Empire, the politics of Judea, and the religious and political leaders of Judea. Unfortunately these “sources” are subject to interpretation, so we are working with people’s opinions, and the need to make conclusions.
The apostles, St. Paul and many of the early Christians who were Jewish brought with them their understanding of the Jewish sacrificial system. Sacrifices to God were important and a daily part of the Jerusalem “scene.” Through this lens, Jesus was seen and understood as the paschal lamb sacrificed for the sins of the world.
My own pilgrimage in this search for the meaning in Jesus’ death began in the Good Friday service in childhood – with a very heavy emphasis in liturgy, preaching and Sunday school on Jesus as the one who paid for my wrongdoings. This emphasis would agree with a sign I saw in a church recently “His death was the reason for his life”
I am deeply troubled with this sense of God needing to have someone pay “the price.” God set the rules – so why not have an amnesty and no one has to pay the price. I found it hard to stomach the idea of a God who demands suffering…
I have read about the culture of the Holy Land under the Romans. The political situation – the oppression of the populace – was great. Then, as now, there is a progression into poverty. People will hold onto their home and land as long as possible, but when it becomes necessary to sell their land because they cannot pay taxes, a growing number of people will live a life of day labor, struggling for daily bread.
It is against this background that many of Jesus’ parables and teachings can be understood. I see Jesus as a reformer. His life’s work can be understood as working toward a religious and social reform that would lead to God’s wishes being done on earth as in heaven.
When Jesus is seen taking on this role it becomes very evident why the political authorities want to kill him. He is upsetting the existing balance of power, both within the Jewish community and that corner of the Roman Empire.
For me, Jesus’ choices have become a lesson in living – not some sort of transaction or payment accomplished by his death. I no longer relate to the hymns that talk about being washed in the blood of the lamb. I see Jesus portraying a different kind of relationship with God – not of fear and buying God’s favor through the blood from the sacrifice of animals – but of fully living out a life based on Jesus’ relationship grounded in the caring of the Creator for Creation.
Jesus death for me shows the tragic nature of a value system. His death depicts the attempted destruction of the innocent by the values of the world – it demonstrates the cruelty, the savagery, and the greed that humanity can and does inflict on one another.
Jesus’ death is also the result of choices that Jesus freely made in order to live out the message he fully embodied in his life. Through those choices Jesus has given us the ability to see God, life, and ourselves in a new light and new relationship. Ultimately, Jesus’ death is a great big YES to God and God’s vision of his kingdom on earth.
This is our answer at this point in our spiritual pilgrimage.
We recognize that is may not be your answer. And that is fine.
Just as each of us must answer “Who is Jesus to me?” so we also must answer “What does Jesus’ death mean to me?” I have found that placing it into a wider question, ““What does Jesus’ life, teaching, death, resurrection, and sending of his Spirit, mean to me?”
What is most important is that we meet the mystery where we are. And wherever we are, may the mystery leads us to renewed life in Christ.
Nancy & Don