After exploring and explaining the differences between the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus, Tom outlines how, over the decades, his ideas about the death of Jesus have changed and evolved as he has struggled with the question, ‘Did the loving God demand the sacrifice of his Son?’, Tom considers the crisis created by God’s Incarnation into human affairs.
Tom discusses how we might come to understand the reason for Jesus’ death by firstly exploring how we read (and hear) Scripture by analysing the different ways two events are recorded in the Gospels and secondly by discussing ‘Did the loving and merciful God, the Abba, Father that Jesus had proclaimed will the death of his Son? Did God demand the death of his Son as a sacrifice?’
Before we journey with Jesus through his last twenty four hours, let me share with you two thoughts to set the scene.
The first is to appreciate more clearly how we read and make our own the word of God in scripture. We are called by God’s Spirit to read the Word today in a deeper and more mature way that ever before. Such a blessing!
By way of introduction here are three brief letters written after the death of someone called Martha.
After all these years of our married life Martha died on Friday evening. I feel so desolate and full of remorse. When she most needed me I seemed to be worse than useless.
Granny died last Friday. Dad is very sad but he was so good and stood by her right to the end. Why is cancer so horrid?
As you know Martha died last week. She was amazing and it seemed at the end almost as if she wished to die she was so fully herself, so inwardly free.
It would be absurd to try and coalesce those three letters into a single account of Martha’s death. Each of them is approaching the same event from a different experience and drawing out of it a different memory and a different reading of the event. You need all three in order to understand the others. I think that’s the best way for us to begin to understand a lot of scripture.
There is a resonance happening between the life context of the author, the events the author is recording, and the life context of us as readers and hearers. To use scripture as a source book of quotes, out of context, is to miss the richness of the word of God.
Let me give you two examples relevant to our focus on the end story of Jesus.
If you read Mark’s account of the Last Supper, Peter is quite convinced that he will in no way desert Jesus and Jesus replies “Oh yes you will – strike the shepherd and sheep will scatter”. If you read Luke’s account, Jesus says to his disciples at the supper table – “You are those that have stood by me in the hour of trial”.
It is important for Luke all the way through his gospel, that the disciples were faithful to Jesus. He is always nice about them, he puts the best interpretation on things. This is partly because his ‘gospel’ is only half of the gospel. He still has the Acts to write and he wants to say that the faith and the Holy Spirit that was in the disciples in Jesus’ day carried over and became the faith and the Spirit that was in the early church and you and me.
Mark, on the other hand, was probably writing for Christians in Rome after the first persecution of Christians. We know from other sources that some of the Christians were persecuted and martyred while other Christians failed to stand up on their behalf. If they kept their heads down, they wouldn’t be touched.
The Christian community faced the bitter divisions between those who stood firm and were persecuted or killed, and those who lay low. Divisions which can divide communities generation after generation. (It is a bit like the families of strikers and families of scabs in the mining villages in Yorkshire after the great strikes in the 1930’s – children brought up not to associate with others because their grandparents were scabs). How do you address that? Mark’s way of addressing it was to say that, if the people closest to Jesus failed under pressure then who are we to be so virtuous in our faith and have such a pure self-image that we can judge anybody else who failed under pressure. It’s a bit like a truth and reconciliation process today. You are not going to find a way into creative reconciliation by standing on the high ground of moral virtue. And so Mark all through his gospel is beastly to the disciples. They are always misunderstanding, getting the wrong end of the stick.
I always think that when Mark came to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, Peter said: you jolly well put it in because that’s essential to the story. Until we know we can totally fail then we haven’t discovered what grace and fidelity are really about.
The second example is a comparison between Mark’s account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and John’s account.
In Mark Jesus is totally crushed in the garden, is then the victim of the arrest party and the disciples desert him. In John’s account Jesus is the free man, he takes command, he orders his disciples to be freed. As John records elsewhere it is Jesus who lays down his life and takes it up again.
John is writing for Christians suffering deprivation and sometimes death, partly because of a very vigorous Jewish renewal movement at the end of the century. Jesus is presented as the totally free man because his intimacy with the Father is the focus of life and freedom in the hour of death itself. If his followers can learn that, they (we) have nothing to fear.
When we meet for Eucharist or for worship, we are meeting as a community of faith and the word of God is being heard in faith and love, not just a text. I find that this presence of the Word is tangible on a Sunday evening in Crosby where I celebrate. It’s very humbling too. If we are journeying in prayer and using the scriptures in prayer, it is being heard in faith and in the context of our lives, it’s not just a bit of special writing. And I think that is why the author of the fourth gospel, right at the end, has that beautiful epilogue. He says:
“These (words) are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
* * * *
Now I would like to share some personal thoughts of how we understand the death of Jesus. And let me just warn you that every time I think I’ve begun to understand it, six months later I’m beginning to re-question the whole thing. At the very heart of the death of Jesus, there is a mystery which we have to be present to but be wary of ever thinking we’ve really understood it. So when I look back over my chequered career I realise I’ve seen things quite differently every decade and expect to in the next decade, (if God has not taken me into the mystery itself by then).
When I was in my early teens, I wondered one day whether if Jesus had been run over by a chariot in Nazareth at the age of twelve and killed, would that have done? I was being given the impression by what I was hearing that it was simply the fact that Jesus died that was significant and salvific and meaningful. It sounded, from what I was hearing in church and R.E., that it didn’t matter how or why, it was simply the fact that he died. And I worked out for myself (- and I don’t think I was a particularly precocious kid by the way – I think a lot of youngsters carry these questions and certainly in my case I thought everyone else knew the answers so I tended not to ask the questions but puzzled them out on my own.) I worked out for myself that unless Jesus’ death was in some way a free act then it couldn’t possibly have been salvific of the whole world. It must have been intended, not an accident.
So my next question was: Why wasn’t it then equivalent to suicide? Because if you freely choose not to avoid something that you could avoid, then its equivalent to choosing it. If you choose to die, when you could not die, its equivalent to suicide. That’s a very simple moral principle, it actually has enormous implications all over the place, but as a kid one often works these things out for oneself.
I didn’t ever really answer that question because it was taken over by a much more serious one, a question that lived with me all the way through theology and all the way through the first twenty years as a priest. How was it that the Abba, the loving father God whom Jesus spent all his time trying to introduce people to, turned into the God of the end story? Jesus had longed to wean people out of that awful religious tendency to set God up as a sort of combined school teacher, come judge, come policeman, come… (We know only too well what religion can do to God). He was always trying to persuade people that his Abba father could be their Abba father. They could have that same intimacy. God was not one who stood at a distance until they were good people and then he’d pat them on the back and say you’re OK. His forgiveness and love don’t work that way. They precede our response they don’t follow it and Jesus was insistent on that. Now how does this Abba God of his preaching in his lifetime suddenly in the end story, turn into the God who willed the death of his own son? How did he suddenly turn into a God who seemed to require sacrifice? Which again is part of that religion that Jesus was trying to unpick.
That question was with me all the way through theology. And we did a lot on the history of sacrifice and salvation and what Calvin thought and what Luther thought and what the church fathers thought and all the rest. I never got a decent answer. And twenty years into ordination I was staying one day in the parish at Leyland, I came down to breakfast in the morning and when I was taking muesli I muttered to myself, ‘How did the compassionate Abba God of Jesus’ life turn into the God whose will it was that his son should die in the end?’ I felt an eighty-five year old arm come round my shoulder. It was that of the retired abbot of Ampleforth who was then a curate in the parish. ‘Oh beloved Thomas’ he said ‘that is the question we all ask ourselves and none of us can answer. Will you please keep asking it’? And I thought: well, if at eighty-five you’re still struggling with that question then I certainly have permission to go on struggling with it.
Let me share with you two things that happened that started to help me through this question. In the creeds we jump from ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ to ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. It’s as though there’s nothing of meaningful significance between the two. In the Eucharistic prayers we make memorial, (anamnesis is the Greek word), of his death and his resurrection, but it is as though that death-resurrection event is meaningful in its own right. This happens again and again in Christian presentation. In Haydn’s great Messiah music, we leap from the birth of Jesus right through to his passion narrative as though the middle part is of no significance. This is what creates for us a tendency to try to understand the death of Jesus out of the context of his life. It was somehow God’s will that he should die rather than it being God’s will that he should see through to the end that which he’d lived for. I am sure you get the difference.
It’s true of any of our deaths, when we come to them, that they take their final meaning and significance from the life which has led to them. That moment of total and absolute truth is the culmination, as it were, of the whole story that’s led to them. If that is true of all our deaths, then it is supremely true of the death of Jesus. And I began to see that unless we understand the finale, the death of Jesus, in the context of what he’d lived for, then we are going to misunderstand in what way it was a free action and in what way it was the will of God.
Now what of Jesus’ incarnation? Remember first that he spent ninety percent of his time on earth as an unknown carpenter in Nazareth. His maturing presence then broke out in the public forum. During the last three years what we get in the gospels, in their different ways, is that when the holiness of God incarnates itself into human affairs, it creates a crisis. (I don’t know why we call it the good news!). God incarnating himself into human affairs creates a crisis and forces people either to unwind a lot of their lives in order to say ‘yes’, or to harden themselves against it.
The presence of God’s holiness in our midst is so threatening to a lot of our vested interests.
It’s true of us today both personally and socially. The more vested interests people have in their own agendas, the more they will be threatened by the incarnation of God’s holiness among us. And the people in Jesus’ day who had real vested interests in their own agendas were people in social power. And there’s nothing more potentially lethal than social aligned with religious power. They had a lot of vested interests, partly because they saw themselves as the carriers of God’s will for the people.
Another lot were the very wealthy, for whom Jesus’ preaching and what God’s holiness means was a threat to everything, all their vested interests (and in the strict sense). And the third lot were the very learned people, and again learning is potentially very dangerous if it is religious learning because one becomes so sure that one’s got God.
It is not that social authority or power is a bad thing, it isn’t, it’s a blessing from God and it’s a charism. It’s not as though learning is a bad thing, it isn’t it’s a wonderful thing and a blessing from God. And material possessions and wealth are not bad things, they’re blessings from God. But the big question is how do we handle God’s blessings in such a way that they are life giving and inclusive of people and not a sort of ego trip for us and exclusive of people?
Real evil in the world is not caused by bad things or even by bad people. Very often, evil is really the perversion of that which is good, a very important principle. Jesus would not play into that dualistic idea that life is made up of good things and bad things or good people and bad people and God will have the good ones and the others can go to wherever. He wouldn’t play into that. I think John the Baptist did. I think he thought the Messiah would sort out the chaff from the wheat. But Jesus wouldn’t sort out the tares from the corn because for him, the real powers of evil in the world are the perversion of that which is supremely good. It was precisely the Pharisees and the learned and the Scribes and so on who held this beautiful gift from God but who were using it as a ‘kingdom’ of vested interests, rather than using it for the service of people. He kept saying: you know I didn’t come to pat the virtuous on the back and condemn sinners, that’s not what I’m doing. But everyone thought he was doing that because it’s how we fit God into religion normally. The God who does good things for good people and bad things for bad people, is just below the surface of most religious people and much of our preaching. But it’s not the God of Jesus.
On one occasion Jesus says, you know it would have been much easier for them if I hadn’t come and by that I think he means that his presence had created this crisis which wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t come. He was forcing people, one way or the other. You get that increasingly in the journey that Jesus makes to the final feast when his language becomes more and more: tell them that the time of decision is here. Go into the villages, present the truth of my presence, if they say yes that’s fine, if they don’t then move on to the next. But tell them that time is running out, it’s a time for yes or for no, to decide where you stand. I think it helps to understand that he knew, as he came to Jerusalem that this was the finale time, Kairos time that was bound to bring things to a climax.
* * * *
His death was not a one-off sacrifice which did not need any context to give it meaning. It was rather his seeing through to the end all that he had lived for.
I would suggest that it was not God’s will that his son should die. It was rather their united wills that he see through to the end journey what he had lived for.