Theologian Fr. James Alison describes our common misunderstanding of Jesus’ death like this: “We sinned and offended God, so God was angry with humanity and demanded justice or some kind of payment for our blunder. But humanity couldn’t offer any kind of divine gift big enough to diffuse God’s anger since we are just lowly humans. So, God, needing to loose a lighting rod, sent Jesus and Jesus said, ‘you can loose it on me’ substituting himself for us. Lighting rod strikes; Sacrifice is carried out; and God is again happy because He got his blood-lust satisfied.”
The problem is, this is a very pagan idea of sacrifice. It is not our Catholic understanding. This tit-for-tat understanding of sacrifice andatonement goes back to the ancient Aztecs where the priest sacrificed a person or animal to satisfy a hungry God. But the Jewish priestly rite that Jesus grew up with was already way beyond that primitive understanding of sacrifice.
Jesus and his contemporaries would have understood that when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies in the temple once a year, put on the white robe, sacrificed the lamb and then brought the blood out of the Holy of Holies to sprinkle on the people, this was a liturgy designed to remind us of God’s divine movement towards US to set people free. The high priest was standing in for God who was coming OUT of that holy and perfect place to forgive and restore the flow of creation. It was not as we often imagine a priest satisfying a hungry, demanding God. The direction is the opposite. God is healing us, not us satisfying Him…
If we cling to the idea that God will not forgive us until his son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes. “If God is satisfied or somehow compensated for sin by Jesus’ suffering, he must be vengeful in a pretty infantile way.” (McCabe)
St Thomas Aquinas says that the mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; God’s mission for Jesus was to love us right here in our own history and to show us a way other than violence; to encourage us to follow Him in being merciful. The famous scripture John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” says nothing of the cross. So, we can ask ourselves, Would we still be saved if Jesus lived and taught us until the ripe old age of 90? Are we are saved by Jesus life as much as by his death? The obedience of Jesus to the Father, his mission, was simply to meet us where we are at….to be with us and to love us right here in our own history…and to show us how to be good human beings.
Complicated theories about the Father deliberately putting his Son to death to settle some kind of score are just nonsense. Rather, the cross is telling us something very important about ourselves and the world WE have made. Jesus’ life was tragic because of what being a loving human person in our world sometimes costs. The cross is the reminder of the world WE have fashioned where it is dangerous and sometimes even fatal to be a compassionate, courageous and loving person. God out love for us, His misdirected people, sent His love, embodied in the person Jesus to live with us and show us the way and we murdered Him. The Jesus’ death on the cross was not “God’s will” – that would make him a rather sick and abusive God, certainly not worthy of our trust (who would want to draw nearer to this kind of vengeful God, right?).
On virtually every important issue of his day — marriage, authority, the role and meaning of the Law, the Temple, worship — Jesus’ opinions and convictions conflicted with those of people in positions of power. Jesus made the outcasts of society — women, poor people, tax collectors, those who were physically or mentally ill — the very cornerstone of his message about God’s Kingdom. His demand for justice threatened all those who would cling to their own privilege, power, and possessions which brought him to a direct and unavoidable confrontation with the Jewish and Roman authorities. He was a very real threat to religious tradition and political stability. So, in many ways Jesus’ violent end was a price he paid for living a life of love….To have lived otherwise would have been not a betrayal of God’s dream, vision and values…a betrayal of God’s will.
The fact that Jesus never broke; never became bitter; never gave up or gave in to the violence; the fact that He never stopped loving us even as we were nailing Him to the cross but rather prayed “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do.” His endurance in this love is what saves us and continues to show us the way.
In other words “who is the angry divinity in the story? We are. We are the ones who think we need vengeance in order to survive. God was occupying the space of our victim so as to show us that we need never do this again…it is quite clear that Jesus’ self-giving, and the ‘out-pouring of His blood’ is the revelation of who God is: God is entirely without vengeance, entirely without substitutionary tricks; and that God was giving Himself entirely for us, towards us, in order to set us ‘free from our sins’…’our sins’ being the way of death, vengeance, violence.” (www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html)..
The fact that Jesus never broke….never became bitter…never gave up or gave in to the violence he suffered….he didn’t let the evil and suffering he experienced change his course or his person or his character…..the fact that he never stopped loving us even as we were nailing him to the cross – rather prayed “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do…they just don’t know…” his endurance in this love is what saves us and continues to show us the way. This is how we are “saved” by the cross of Christ.
Not for one minute did Jesus stop being a loving compassionate person and we are bid to follow him in this way when we encounter our own times of suffering and pain…to give the love that maybe we aren’t receiving…because Jesus knew that this love is the only force in our world that can bring about real and substantial change….
But sadly, it sometimes, also brings us to genuine suffering…because of the state of the world.
This is not to say that we should seek or endure suffering without a fight or let people abuse us…. God never asks us to be doormats…And Jesus was not a doormat…quite the opposite. “Jesus was always healing people, easing the their isolation, working tirelessly to cure their ills….and standing up for what was right.”
I always wonder when I hear our scripture about the woman who breaks a container of expensive oil over Jesus’ head the day before he was crucified…I think, that whole room must have filled with the scent…and Jesus would have just reeked of the stuff…and maybe like the chrism oil that we use at Baptism – that we smell on our little ones heads for days after their initiation in the water, that like smells like the ointment in the gold tins on your prayer tables, I wonder if Jesus, while he was hanging on the cross, caught a whiff of this perfume from the night before and remembered this lavish kindness…maybe this sincere outpouring of love from this unnamed woman helped him live and die with courage for his mission to love us, even untu death.
When asked what brings eternal life, Jesus said love God and love your neighbor as yourself. When we love someone we are not indifferent to their struggle, right? It becomes our own….we carry their pain….we hurt too…Though never “good” – If we do not give in to bitterness our suffering CAN have value….It can actually draw us closer to God and one another. Togetherness is our greatest remedy for suffering… By supporting each other in our suffering, we give each other hope….Jesus said when you do this for the least of these, you do it for me…so when we care for one another we are both loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Can you imagine what it would look like if all of us sincerely worked to alleviate the suffering of others?
As the story goes….Seeing all the suffering in the world, the man prayed, “Great God, how is it that a loving Creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?” And out of the long silence, God said, “I did do something . . . I made you