Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow....
Today is a day of quite ordinary brutality. A man is dragged through the streets of a city, then impaled on an instrument of torture until he’s dead. This sort of thing happens all the time, every day, somewhere in the world.
I used to weep for Jesus, but now I weep for the world, for all the victims of ordinary brutality. If we “look and see” we must look in two directions: to the Crucified one, and to the world’s brutalities, both overt and subtle, that find their deep meeting-place in him.
I dare hope that my tears are somehow part of Jesus’ own tears for the same world which he loved; that they are even connected with God’s own tears for the dark despoilation of soil and souls, of forest and family in this still glorious creation, full of so much good.
How can anyone who believes that the creation is fundamentally good not recognize the insidious power of evil that arises from, and through the human heart to misuse earth and its creatures in destructively self-aggrandizing ways? How can anyone who believes that human beings are made in the image of a great Goodness not realize that the seeds of that goodness—our capacities for love, generosity, mutuality, cleverness, creativity and assertiveness—can grow up in crooked ways that blur and twist that image into sinister patterns?
Good Friday unmasks the face of the world and of our human nature, such an organic part of creation—a face dark with ugliness and evil as well as radiant with goodness and beauty.
There is a deep strand of Christian piety that would, perhaps inadvertantly, isolate Jesus’ suffering as some magical transaction between God and Jesus that floats above the world, “saving” it in some hidden metaphysical sense. I do not deny any truth that may be in metaphysical musings, but for me the story of Christ’s suffering points out in all directions to the ordinary brutalities and injustices of the world. His Way of responding to this brutality is not his special possession, but an open path and power for those who would inhabit this world redemptively.
Our salvation comes not simply and solely from Christ dying on the cross, but from the way Christ died, which is of one piece with the way he lived. This is a way he “opens for us in his flesh” and draws us into participation in it through the Spirit. Thus the life-blood of his own Way, his very Spirit, begins to circulate through us for the healing not only of the world, but of our own divided souls.
He bore our sins, they told each other as they looked back on his earthly life, and carried our diseases. They said this because it seemed an apt description of how he interacted with the sick, sin-haunted and afflicted during his brief and vivid ministry.
As indicated in the previous blog post, such interactions cost. As any good healer or helper knows, in order to be really present, one must attune to the “vibe” of another’s sorrow, pain or distress, and thus resonate with the sufferer. The newly-discovered “mirror neurons” in our brain begin, quite literally, to reflect the other’s state of soul. We not only “bear with,” but sometimes actually bear some part of their dis-ease in our own hearts, minds and even bodies.
A Mysterious Exchange
If we do so, a strange alchemy can occur that is one of the central mysteries of human encounter: by sharing what ails them, the sufferer “offloads” it, as it were—”unburdens” themselves. The core of health in them has more breathing room, their feeling of isolation can be dispelled, and a sense of connection with the listener’s care or concern awakens the mother-love memory in their very cells and promotes healing. Their soul, their core self, has been “retrieved” or “ransomed” from burden of sin and guilt, sickness and isolation, or disturbance and lostness.
Such salvation only happens when some deep exchange has taken place: a ray of the healer’s love has been transmitted to the sufferer, and some of the sufferer’s burden has been transferred to the healer. Current psychological wisdom tells us we must be clear about our borders, avoid “taking on” others this way too much or too deeply. This may be good advice for helping professionals dealing with dozens of people each day. It’s true up to a point. But I’m not sure healing relationships have such clear-cut borders.
The way such exchanges happen naturally among us suggests to me that what Jesus' friends said about his "bearing our sins" arises from and is connected with just this human experience. He bore with the evil done to him by not responding with evil. And bearing our sins on the cross, whatever else that means, is a deeper form of what we can experience with each other.
He had done it his whole ministry, and now he enters tastes more deeply the depths of human sin and sadism—and somehow makes room for it, somehow connects this crampted, mean frenzy with the spaciousness of God in his own heart.He makes room for the world, sins and all; makes room for life with its all its beauty and horror; makes room for the Divine itself to bear all of this in the wellspring of Its own life-renewing heart.
The Jesus of our gospels is clear about his mission: “the Son of Man is come to seek and save the lost, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 18:11, Luke 19:10). But it is a mistake here to think that he speaks here primarily of his death.
The two halves of the statement (a typical Hebrew parallelism, as in the psalms and provers) define and modify each other: his way of ‘ransoming’ is to ‘seek and save the lost’ by everything he does, and is. For in him the image of God which is the formative core of our own psyches (defaced as it may be in us) shines with particular intensity; in him the eternally-springing Life of the Divine itself is at work in a fully human nature. And so he is already ‘resurrection and life’ to ‘those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,’ as St. Luke describes the mission. Which is to say he brings ransom by his very life-force, not just his dying.
If you are the leper begging for cleansing along the roadside, he ransoms you, redeems you, right then and there, from the exile of your leprosy. If you are the beloved daughter of the centurion, he ransoms you from your death coma (and highly probable death) by reaching deeply into your soul with such intimate words of love: talitha, cumi. If you are bound by the guilt or consequences of your sin, his startling words of forgiveness and his even more surprising command to take up your bed and walk jolts you out of the dark pit you were in, ransoms you back into active life. After all the word ‘ransom’ means to be delivered from evil of any and every kind, internal or external.
But what’s the payment then? Ransoming captives or redeeming something in a pawn shop involves ‘paying’ the ransom. Work like casting out demons (or working with the insane, if you prefer), like healing diseases, surrounding people with the loving acceptance that releases them from the power of their sins—this kind of work costs. The harder cases don’t work out without ‘prayer and fasting,’ as Jesus tells his disciples who couldn’t heal a convulsive boy.
Such deep dedication can cost one’s very self, the outpouring of one’s soul and spirit, virtually one’s life blood. Ask any dedicated psychologist,psychiatrist, or pastor, any caring social worker, any shamanistic or charismatic healer—even any mother or father knows deep in caring for an infant who needs such care to be ransomed and redeemed from lack of proper brain development.
So Jesus’ death is of a piece with his life. And as the Story is told, his ransoming didn’t even stop when he breathed his last.
The death of the Maccabean martyrs was seen by some Jews, before and during the life of Jesus, as having the same power as the Temple sacrifices. I have suggested in previous blogs that this is a primary background for the disciples' seeing Jesus’ death as a once-for-all martyr’s sacrifice "for our sins." The emphasis in such a belief is not on blood, or even death itself, but on the self-offering of a life in obedience to God, even if it sometimes leads to death.
As St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the great 4th century theological tells us:
“It is inconceivable that God should have found pleasure in the blood of his only son.”
The sacrificial language of the New Testament is neither about propitiating the wrath of God, nor about currying favor, but rather stands in a long line of development stretching back into prophetic Israelite religion which holds that “to obey is better than sacrifice." Already in the prophets there is a vitriolic attack on the use of sacrifice to propitiate God’s wrath or buy God’s pleasure. The prophets believe do not believe that sacrificial rituals do any good to deliver one from sin’s consequences. The only remedy is turning from destructive behavior: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (see Amos 5:21-25).
The Alexandrian Jew Jesus ben Sirach (author of “Ecclesiasties” so called because it was a favority “Church Book”) carries this theme forward by declaring “As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin” (Sirach 3:30). The unknown writer of Tobit says, “Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High” (Tobit 4:11). It is living a moral, God-like life in the community that is “the sacrifice,” especially when we reach out in charity to those in need. There are similar developments among Greek and Roman philosophers explaining the “spiritual” meaning of their temple sacrifices.
It is not surprising, then, to hear St. Paul describing his own self-giving and the generosity of others in sacrificial-language terms when he commends the Philippians for some gifts they have sent him: “I have been paid in full through the gifts you sent me, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). Likewise, he speaks of his own imprisonment in the extravagant language of his Mediterranean culture: “I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and offering of your faith” (Philippians 2:7).
Christ’s gift of his whole life, not just his death, as an outreach of God’s love for us. When Jesus says he has come to “give my life as a ransom for many” he does so in this context—to give his whole life as a whole act of obedience to God’s reconciling love.
Jesus dies as both Witness to and Martyr for his vision of God's Reign "on earth as is in heaven" and very soon his death is seen by followers as having redemptive, "ransoming" power. Where did such an idea come from?
It may seem strange to us today, but in ancient Judaism, martyrdom became associated with ransom and redemption. The blood of the Maccabean martyrs, who died defending faith and culture threatened by an aggressive Greek paganism, had "ransomed" the nation, some said. They saw these martyrs as dying to ‘ransom’, to deliver, the people from oppression, having the same power as the Temple sacrifices for the ritual the sins of the nation. And they were onto something. Both Witness and Martyrdom can save situations and people from danger, ruin, and destructiveness.
As the story in 4th Maccabees, written between the Maccabean martyrdoms and the time of Jesus puts it:
The tyrant (Antiochus Epiphanies) himself and all his council marveled at (the martyrs) endurance, because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live through blessed eternity. These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified -- they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sins of our nation, preserving Israel that previously had been afflicted. (4 Maccabees 17:17-22)
Such an understanding of martyrdom—how the martyr’s life and death help “redeem” Israel, and gain him admittance to the highest heaven—may well have influenced the understanding the death of Jesus in the aftermath of the crucifixion.
We don’t use such language, but maybe we should in order to see what Witness really does: Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights martyrs died to ‘ransom’ African-Americans from Jim Crow. The suffragettes who were imprisoned and terribly abused under Woodrow Wilson suffered ‘for/because the sins’ of the nation and helped win the vote for women. And such sacrifices still have the power to move other people into living into more just and compassionate behavior. Just so, the New Testament says that (Jesus) gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. (Titus 2:14)
Causes require martyrs in both senses—witnesses and people willing to put lives on the line in order to change things, whether it be drunk driving, or child abuse or corporate corruption. Many benefits of the world we live in come from the life-blood of the martyrs people who consecrated themselves to a cause to better human life in the world. They ransom people, redeem people, from ignorance, destructive behavior, or worse.
Jesus' willingness to die for his transformational cause, not just the message of resurrection alone, inspired thousands to join the movement: "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," beginning with Jesus himself.
Why did Jesus die? More pointedly, why does Jesus seem to court death in the last weeks of his life? There are of course a whole range of doctrinal answers to that question through Christian history, and I propose in this series of Passiontide blog posts to explore how each can shed some light on Jesus’ last days, based on various New Testament studies.
I. He Chose Be A Martyr
To start with the most obvious: Jesus continually rattled the cage of people in power, in the end courting martyrdom. He was both Witness to the nearness and necessity of God’s justice and love being realized in the human community and a Martyr to the cause of that Message. The Greek word martys, of course, carries both meanings, because bold witness can lead to martyrdom.
He was not killed because of his moral and spiritual teachings. They are very much in harmony with the rabbinical teachings of this day. His disputes about the Law fit into the pattern of rabbinical discussions about what true obedience to the Torah involves.
But he goes further than rabbinical dispute by ‘speaking with authority,’ clearly adopting the mantle of a prophet ("and more than a prophet"). That’s a dangerous move. Means you ‘go from preachin’ to meddlin‘(as we used to put it in the South) particularly in socio-economic matters. Meddlin' and rabble rousin'. He starts what looks like a grassroots movement to change how people relate personally, spiritually and economically. His followers form an extended communal fellowship of mutuality, compassion, justice.
This is a challenge to both the civil and religious authorities who are understandably afraid of Jesus and his movement and on high alert for the Passover Festival. His hinting around about being the expected Messiah, and the crowd's response create a real threat of civil disorder.
Let's be clear. There's no such thing as a “spiritual but not political” Messiah in first century Judea. To claim the mantle of Messiah in any way means challenges the current order of things. Jesus tells the authorities that their regime is corrupt and needs to go. His cleansing of the Temple and confrontation with the High Priesthood seals his fate, especially since there had just been a civil insurrection at the Sukkot festival the previous autumn.
So, finding himself outnumbered and outgunned, Jesus surrenders his fate to God in the faith that his sacrifice will be used for God’s saving purposes. I’m not at all sure he started out to do this. He was sent to gather “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” into a renewed community of love and obedience. But this is the way the ministry has gone, and he struggles to accept it. And understands that his death can have redemptive power? But how did he get the idea that martyrdom itself could be redemptive?
....and Mary pondered all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
What if we “post-critical” readers of the Bible considered that the Birth narratives might contain important historical clues about the origins of the ministry and mission of Jesus?
Granted, the stories in Matthew and Luke are heavy with symbolism and are clearly the product of careful, midrashic crafting, and contain amazingly miraculous events. That is not my concern, however. I leave all that aside for readers to consider according to their sense of God and the possible.
What interests me here is hints about the family and people they knew or encountered. Might these stories have deeper historical roots than modern sophisticates usually consider?
What I mean is this. What if Jesus were born into a family that was part of the “third force” in Second Temple Judaism, not part of the establishment of Sadducees and Pharisees who were represented in the Sanhedrin. This was the disenfranchised melange of messiah-expecting, sometimes revolutionary groups that ranged from the Dead Sea Scroll community on the one hand to the Zealots on the other. What if these stories are about a child who was considered, by that family and their co-religionists, a special lad—a ‘child of destiny’—destined for leadership? *
The first century Jewish ‘eschatological’ community
My first clue to this possibility came from pondering the verse in Luke where we’re told that the prophetess Hannah “spoke of the child to all those in Jerusalem who were waiting for the Redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). Who were these folks? The extensive scholarship now available about Jewish sects in this period gives a solid historical context to Luke’s comment.
Those “waiting for the Redemption” expected a wide variety of complementary and contradictory “redemptions,” all the way from a military leader like David to the descent in human form of an angelic redeemer; and there’s tantalizing new evidence that one expectation was of a ‘Great High Priest’ after the order of Melchizedek who would offer a once-for-all atonement for Israel’s sins.** The adult Jesus walked into a maze of archetypal images just waiting to be applied to him and his mission.
The stories speak of a mother who “pondered in her heart” some special identity for her son. Is that so implausible? She would hardly be the first mother in history to feel and foster in her child a sense of special identity and destiny—more especially so if she were one of those “waiting for the redemption of Israel.” Nor is it implausible that she dreamt some startling dream about the boy. After all, modern bookshelves are filled with tales of angel dreams, angel appearances, whatever one might think of such phenomena.
Jesus, errant 'wunderkind' of a movement?
If Jesus came from a family that already had a sense of being part of God’s move to turn Israel in a different direction, this would make a lot of sense of the family’s clear distress about the direction Jesus’ ministry takes. They feel he’s not exercising leadership the way they think he should, just as John the Baptist reportedly felt.
His mother is pictured bugging him to make a self-disclosing move at a clan wedding. (John 2:1-11). We’re told a whole party of “his own people” goes off to bring him back by force because they think he’s “beside himself” (Mark 3:21). And the Fourth Gospel pictures Jesus being taunted by his brothers for not declaring himself more openly. Might “they did not believe in him” be better translated “they did not trust him” (John 7:5), that is, to do things right?
Mother Mary, brother James and “the brothers” are certainly right there on the scene in the weeks after the resurrection appearances, and James puts himself forth powerfully as a major leader of the movement’s Jerusalem commune. They seem to have a stake in his movement.
Yes, the stories are patently loaded with theological symbolism, and influenced by who Jesus became and was believed to be. But Luke does claim he consulted “eyewitnesses” who had been with the movement “from the beginning” (Luke 1:1-3). ***
For my money, at least, these speculations make clearer sense of the adult Jesus’ reportedly strained relationship with his family, and demonstrate that, at age 30, he didn’t have a sudden “break” with a more normal childhood and young adulthood, but rather an evolving sense of how he might serve the God he had been told had special plans for him.
And, of course, such “speculations” have the added merit of actually hugging the shape of the Story the first generation of Christians told about the man and his birth.
* In fact, just such ‘child of destiny’ scenario emerged among non-establishment spiritual types in the early 20th century in India. The noted Indian spiritual teacher Sri Aurobindo was dubbed a ‘child of destiny’ and groomed to be the Great World Teacher of the Theosophical Movement by leaders like Annie Besant. In adulthood, Aurobindo broke with his handlers and struck out on his own as a less exalted spiritual teacher.
** See Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest
*** Ancient historians were likely more interested in the facts than some modern scholars seem prepared to believe. See the chapter on ancient historiography in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham. See also Margaret Barker, Christmas: The Original Story**
I am a Christian in New Jersey with deep roots in and respect for the "generous orthodoxy" tradition of spiritual wisdom and for the insights of other spiritual pathways. Increasingly concerned about what this world-wide wisdom, particulary the Abrahamic prophetic message, should be saying about current affairs, both religious and secular, I finally decided to do this blog. Beside this, I love science fiction/fantasy, great mystery novels, world history, political history, poetry, music of most any kind, tennis, and art.
All these blogs are copyright by Robert C. Morris, all rights reserved.