Ted Grimsrud—May 17, 2021
One of the great things about being around young kids is getting all these questions. I really enjoyed that when my grandkids were preschoolers. I guess the questions weren’t all always welcome—such as when you say it’s time to go home and one would say, “Why?!” But most of the questions are wonderful (even if sometimes hard to answer): What’s the difference between a fire engine and a pumper truck? Why are the lights off in the bank at night? How do they make fudgsicles? Why do we root for the Oregon Ducks? But the questions can also be a bit complicated. Why doesn’t Granny remember my name? What’s the earth? Why did G-Ma’s dog Trika die? Why don’t some children have beds to sleep in?
Questions are terrific. We need to encourage them. I am grateful to my parents for many things—one of the biggest ones is that they never made me think I shouldn’t be asking questions. Some great words for parents and grandparents to keep in mind come from British folksinger Ewan MacColl’s “Father’s Song,” that concludes with these lines: “Go on asking while you grow, child/ Go on asking till you know, child/ And then send the answers ringing through the world.”
One of the big questions
The grandchildren liked theological questions, too—I guess they came by those honestly. What’s the Bible? Where is God? What does salvation mean? We told them, well, these are good questions—and not just for four-year-olds. Then there’s our question for today: Why did Jesus die? Try explaining that to a four-year-old! Or to anyone else. However, like so many questions that are difficult to answer, we can learn by trying to come up with an answer—even if we know our answer will be weak or only partial.
Let’s begin with a quick look at several passages that might give us some perspective.
Surely God’s servant has borne our infirmities; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions, and by his suffering we are healed. He was oppressed and afflicted; yet like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Isaiah 53:4-9
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. You, O Lord, make me lie down in green pastures, lead me beside still waters, and restore my soul. You lead me in right paths for your name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me. Your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. Psalm 23
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith, Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place he was to receive as an inheritance, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old. Therefore, from one person, one as good as dead, descendents were born, “as many as the stars of heaven.” These died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. Hebrews 11
Pilate gave his verdict, to grant the demand of the religious leaders. He released the prisoner they asked for, the one arrested for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished. Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Jesus. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” The leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God!” It was now about noon, and darkness came over the land for three hours; the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:24-46
Focusing on the Big Story
In approaching our question, “why did Jesus die?,” I want to focus on the big story the Bible tells. More than on later theological constructs or on the popular views of Christian tradition. In fact, once I started approaching the question of why Jesus died in relation to the broader biblical story, the more obvious it has seemed to me that this big story approach makes a lot of sense.
It’s like when you first notice something. You didn’t become aware of it until it affected you. Then you start noticing it everywhere. It was back in the early 1990s that I first hurt my back—playing basketball. I had no idea how common back pain was until then. But then it seemed that most everyone I knew had had a bad back at one time or another. Or when I took my first cross-country driving trip and really started to pay attention to signs giving you the highway number you are on. I’d never really noticed them before, but once I noticed them, I found them extremely helpful when you drive on strange roads (this was long before GPS, of course).
So, there are points even in the Old Testament that help us understand why Jesus died—not as predictive prophecy but in showing certain patterns and dynamics these seem to be present throughout history. Right near the start, we read of Abel’s untimely death—referred to by our Hebrews passage. Why did Abel die? Well, as least in part, because he was imitating God, following God’s expectations for him. So, from the beginning we get the message that faithfulness to God’s ways can actually be a reason for suffering and even death. Abel died because he did what God wanted. A troubling thought, indeed.
When we read Psalm 23 together with Isaiah 53, we realize God’s presence does not guarantee no suffering. God’s presence does not keep us away from the valley of the shadow of death. Not at all. In fact, if we enter that valley and refuse to send others to the valley through violent retaliation, we may actually point to what is necessary to heal our broken world—breaking the spiral of violence.
Why did Jesus die? Starting from the Old Testament part of the story, we might say that Jesus died because in this world, there is brokenness. God seems to have tried massive retribution against the human wrongdoing that leads to brokenness but that led only to massive death—as seen in the story of Noah and the flood. God seems to have tried to establish a kingdom based on geographical boundary-lines and reliant upon violence for its survival. That ended when the greater violence of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires left the Hebrew kingdoms that were essentially failed states due to disregarding Torah in ruins. So, God’s final approach, strongly hinted at in Isaiah 53 and other places, points to a healing strategy that does not repay wrongdoing with violent punishment but bases human community on vulnerable, persevering love instead.
The gospels then take the story much further. They tell about God’s involvement in the life of this one person, Jesus, and his friends. That involvement does promise to be about a kingdom, but a “kingdom” not centered on power politics, not centered on coercive efforts to separate truth from falsehood, even with violence when necessary—a different kind of kingdom.
Two central conflicts
The Old Testament sensitizes us to see two central conflicts that fuel the dynamics that led to Jesus’s death. They help us understand why he died. First, seen maybe most clearly in the exodus story, is the conflict between the Egyptian Empire and the Hebrew community. The Hebrews sought to establish their identity as heirs of God’s promise to Abraham, and Egypt sought simply to absorb the Hebrews and eradicate their sense of peoplehood. The first of the conflicts, then, was the conflict with empire.
The second conflict turns out to be tragically similar. This was conflict between the leaders within the Hebrew community (kings and priests of Israel and Judah) and the prophets who called the people back to their original identity. The second of the conflicts, then, was the conflict with religious institutions. In both conflicts, the powers that be often did resort to death-dealing violence to hold on to positions of domination.
So, what do we see when we get to the actual story of Jesus? One of the terrible things about the Christian tendency to dismiss the Old Testament is to lose sight of these basic conflicts. We then fail to recognize the presence of the same dynamics right from the start of Jesus’s life, and we fail to see how focused Jesus was on resisting empire and on resisting oppressive religion.
Luke’s gospel begins with a powerful song from Jesus’s mother Mary—words not of a holy virgin meek and mild, but words of a genuine radical. The rich will be brought low, the lowly lifted up. Mary’s God takes sides. Based on his mother’s words, we easily imagine Jesus being brought up to ask lots of questions (as he does as a boy in the temple). Jesus likely was trained to question human authorities!
When Jesus reaches adulthood, he grows in power and understanding. After some time with his cousin, the rabble-rousing prophet John the Baptist (who, prefiguring Jesus’s fate, shortly afterwards was executed by the powers that be), Jesus retreats further into the wilderness before taking on the task to which he finds himself called. While in the wilderness, Jesus undergoes an intense process of clarification where Satan challenged him in his deepest self to be sure about his identity.
Jesus understands himself to have a special calling to bring God’s word to the people, to embody God’s kingdom in the world, and to make present God’s work of healing. That is, Jesus understood his calling to be the “Son of God” in human flesh. But what kind of Son of God? This is what Satan challenges him to clarify. In a nutshell, what Satan offers is a career as Son of God based on coercive power and domination—based on control. In a sense, this is the temptation faced by God in the Flood story. To be a God who makes things right through force. God in the end turns from that temptation, as does Jesus in his encounter with Satan.
So, here is another reason why Jesus died. Jesus died because he chose the path of vulnerability, not the path of control. In a sense, when Jesus turned away from Satan here, he sealed his fate. Not because he made Satan so mad that Satan would stop at nothing to kill him. Rather, Jesus sealed his fate by embracing the path of the suffering servant, the one who brings healing to the world by accepting weakness and persevering love as the means—rather than violence and domination.
Still, however, Jesus does embrace his calling to be “son of God”—that is, to be king, to be political, to be a leader of a social movement, and to remain directly in conflict with the empires and with the religious institutions. When Jesus begins his ministry, his very first words as reported by Luke profoundly underscored the purpose of his calling. He came to bring good news to the poor—and to do it right now, not in the sweet by and by. From then on, Jesus does two things that reinforce each other. He offers welcome and healing to the poor, the vulnerable, the outcastes and he challenges the people in power, the people in power in the political structures and the people in power in the religious structures.
Jesus’s path toward the cross
Luke clarifies Jesus’s path in his ninth chapter. The political leader of Jesus’s home area, Herod the Great’s son, King Herod Antipas, learns of Jesus. He asks, “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” Herod wants to meet Jesus, but that encounter will wait for awhile. Luke, though, after giving us Herod’s question, provides his readers with some answers. The people say Jesus is a great prophet like Elijah. Peter says Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” who is called to suffer. God’s words come down at Jesus’s transfiguration: This is my son. Luke means for us to recognize that all of these belong together. Prophet, suffering son of man, and Messiah each define the other two.
Jesus dies because that is what happens to prophets and even to Messiahs who directly challenge political and religious power—and who challenge power defenselessly in ways that do not bruise and crush. Jesus introduces a key element of the picture in Luke 9 when he calls upon his followers to imitate him: “Take up the cross daily.” The cross was the instrument the Roman empire used to execute rebels and was the symbol of horrible shame and impurity to the religious leaders. Take it up daily means live each day like Jesus did, filled with compassion and love and acting to resist injustice and oppression. Doing so may lead to death, but the “daily” implies more a way of life than a simple end point.
The rest of Luke’s gospel (and the other gospels, too) show Jesus’s approach to life. He heals through resistance, generosity, and disillusionment toward powerful people. He embraces the beauty and transforming potential of vulnerable and marginalized people. Jesus died when he refused to turn away from oppression and violence and refused to add to the spiral of violence with retaliation and hatred.
In the account of Jesus’s arrest and execution, various actors reflect the conflicts that go back to the beginning of the story in the Old Testament. You have the empire represented by Pilate. You have another, lesser, king represented by Herod Antipas (who does finally get to meet Jesus and push him toward death). You have the religious leaders who conduct a trial, declare Jesus guilty, and then pressure Pilate to execute him. We all know the next step in the story. God raises Jesus from the dead. That is crucial. We’ll reflect on Jesus’s resurrection in my next post. But we need to linger more on Jesus’s death itself. How does the story of Jesus’s death point toward life?
Life in death
Why did Jesus die? Because he insisted on life. Because he refused to accept the account of humanity’s place in the world that is given by people in power. Because he without equivocation linked his own life—and God’s life—with the vulnerable and outcasts, with sinners and unclean people, and with those who the guardians of peace and order tried to crush. And he did all of this with open hands: No swords, horses and chariots, police, or military. Jesus did not leave himself without witnesses. Luke writes a second part to his gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Early on in Acts we read of a follower of Jesus named Stephen, who echoed Jesus’s witness for life all the way to his execution. Then Acts tells of Paul’s similar witness.
As I think about it, numerous others come to mind. We have the many 16th century Anabaptists, perhaps most famously Michael Sattler, who were killed by a combination of political and religious leaders for insisting, among other things, on making their faith communities free from state control and on refusing to participate in wars between so-called Christian Europe and the Muslim Turks. I learned of a direct ancestor of mine named Susannah Martin, a midwife and woman of faith who was executed in Puritan Massachusetts as part of the Salem witch-trials in the late 17th century. The famous church leader, Cotton Mather, personally pronounced her condemnation. Again, it was at least in part a matter of the powers that be squashing dissent, eliminating one who might threaten their control.
More recently, in my research into World War II, I found out more about numerous individuals and small groups of people who met death in Nazi Germany for refusing to cooperate with the death machine—such as Franz Jägerstätter, a “solitary witness” of refusal to go into the military when drafted due to his Christian faith. He ended up executed; or the small group of college students known as the White Rose, including a young woman, Sophie Scholl, all executed for distributing anti-Nazi literature. More well known, more recently nonviolent leaders voicing dissent such as Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and Medger Evers and Martin Luther King in the American South. And Steven Biko in South Africa. Of course, these names are only the tip of an iceberg. In every century we can find examples of people of conscience who faced hardship, even death, simply due to following the path Jesus walked—welcome, compassion, dissent, independence, saying no to the powers-that-be.
Each of these stories is part of the same on-going story going back to the Exodus and to the suffering servant of Isaiah and to Jesus. They each help us understand why Jesus died and how there is life in such a death. They witness to a God who is vulnerable, who does not dominate and coerce, but who remains present and who inspires witness after witness to embody the way of wholeness.
My final example is a song by Bruce Cockburn called “Down Where the Death Squad Lives” that tells of the violence in various Latin American settings in the last part of the 20th century—though there are countless examples throughout the world. People have followed the two main steps of resistance to domination: Disbelieve in the story told by those in power and band together in communities with others who also disbelieve. But when they did so, they met with more violence: “Goons in blackface creeping in the road/ farm family waiting for the night to explode/ working the land in an age of terror/ you come to see the moon as a bad news bearer.”
However, this cycle of violence is not the only reality. People do continue to band together, hope springs out of the rubble. “Like some kind of never-ending Easter passion/ from every agony a hero is fashioned/ around every evil there gathers love/ bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above.”