The Death of Jesus

Palm/Passion Sunday

Luke 19:28-40
Luke 22:14-23:56

Beginning with his entry into Jerusalem and culminating with his crucifixion, this Sunday is devoted to the death of Jesus. He died as part of a public execution. Until relatively recently states, governments and empires always executed their perceived enemies publicly. It was an opportunity for the powers that be to make a statement.

The Romans were particularly good at this. Their victims became billboards for the empire’s power. From the perspective of the Romans, Jesus’ death on the cross was simply one more occasion for the empire to announce that if you disrupt things, and even if we think you might disrupt things, we will crush you and display you as an example to others.

Pilate’s cowardice in this matter shows that he, too, has learned the lesson that the empire’s security outweighs considerations of individual justice. At Jesus’ crucifixion the empire presumes that they are offering a clear and unambiguous statement that runs something like this: “Whatever kingdom this man spoke of is not happening here, not now, not while we are in charge.”

From the perspective of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus’s crucifixion also makes a statement, though not the same statement as the Romans. Those among them who had heard and interacted with Jesus saw someone who addressed the most pressing questions Jews could ask about God: questions about how to live rightly with God and with each other. Moreover, in response to those questions Jesus gave blasphemous, false and misleading answers.

He was, in short a dangerous heretic. He spoke and acted as if he had direct access to God and that God had sent him to inaugurate the messianic age. Yet he failed to meet so many of the expectations of what the Messiah should do. Nothing confirmed this more than the fact the Romans were able crucify him. The Messiah should have defeated the Romans, not be executed by them. From their perspective the crucifixion rids them of his heresies. It confirms that God had never been with him in the first place.

For the disciples, the crucifixion is also a statement. It mocks their hopes and expectations. Throughout the gospels the disciples fail to understand crucial elements of Jesus’ teaching. They fail to get the point, they quarrel and bicker with each other, they have great hopes and make great claims, but they are often in the dark. Nevertheless, they had managed to journey with Jesus this far. When push comes to shove, however, they are as captured by fear as Pilate, none more so than Peter. It is not always clear what they expected from Jesus as he entered Jerusalem in that last week of his life. By Friday, however, their expectations are broken, their hopes smashed, and their friend is dead.

From God’s perspective, the cross is also a statement. It may not, though, be the statement we think it is. If the cross is a statement from God, it cannot be a statement that God’s love for us has finally been released from some captivity. God cannot love us more than God already does. If the cross is a statement from God, it cannot be a statement like, “Now that my Son has died, I am able to forgive you.” To quote one of my favorite theologians, “If God will not forgive us until his son has been tortured and killed, then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are” [McCabe, God Matters].

We should also be wary of treating the cross as God’s statement that our debt to God has been paid off by the death of Christ. Although it is easy to see our relationship with God in terms of financial transactions, it is important to resist this temptation. Our sin alienates us from God and sacrifice is part of restoring that relationship, but it is hard to see how a death, any death can be a payment to God unless God is extraordinarily vengeful, operating much the way a mob boss or a tribal warlord does.

God, the Father, does not want Jesus, the Son, to die. The cross does not represent God’s deepest desires for Jesus. As we learn from Jesus’ prayer in the garden, Jesus does not want to die either. God does not desire Jesus’ death; God desires Jesus’ perfect obedience to the mission God has given him. That mission is to bring life and light to a dying and dark world; to become human and to display to the rest of us humans the self-giving, all encompassing, relentless love of God. His mission is to embody in our world a love for God that is both deep and compelling, a love that will lead Jesus to offer his life back to God in obedience to this mission even at the cost of that life.

The incarnation and life of the Son of God is God’s statement to us. It is an invitation to share in the love between the Son and the Father and thereby enter into the drama of God’s redemption of the world. The cross is our response, our counter statement to God’s invitation. When offered the self-giving, all encompassing, relentless love of God in the person of Jesus, we cannot abide his presence among us, and we kill him. We find it too frightening to risk such love ourselves. We find it too threatening to our own plans and desires to offer our lives back to God. We find it unimaginably challenging to look clearly at the depth and extent of our entanglements in sin and violence and death, and having done that to turn to God and be healed. In Jesus we are offered new life and we say, “No.” We say no with all of the vehemence we can muster. We say no with such conviction that we destroy God’s invitation by nailing him to the cross.

This is what we remember on Good Friday, our stubborn unwillingness to embrace God’s invitation to us in Christ. God sends Jesus into the world and repeatedly offers us the affirmation, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” We shout back, “Crucify him!” It would seem that this conversation has reached a rather tragic impasse. Indeed, there will be a three-day hiatus in that conversation. But God’s love is relentless, and this conversation is not over yet.

2 Responses to “The Death of Jesus”

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  1. Joel Shuman says:

    Steve,
    Thank you for a wonderful post. Your reflections on the meaning (and non-meaning) of the cross are so helpful, and a much-needed corrective to our tendencies to think of atonement in ways that have nothing to do with the God revealed in Jesus. I’d very much like to share this with my students.
    Joel

  2. betty hjalmarson says:

    Hmmm…not that simple I’m afraid.

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