Friday, March 30, 2012

The Martyr as Ransomer

Why Did Jesus Die? Pt. 2

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.

Next post: Jesus' whole ministry as "ransom"

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why Did Jesus Die?

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?

Next post: Martyrdom as "ransom for sin."