Updated: Oct 13, 2021
I’m going to ask you a question this morning.
And I really want you to think about it. You ready? Here’s the question.
Why was Jesus crucified? Think about it. Why was he crucified?
It’s an important question, don’t you think? Afterall, every Sunday within our liturgy at one point and in some way, we proclaim that he was crucified. And we find the symbol of the cross in all kinds of places in the life of the Church – on banners, flags, on the covers of Bibles and Prayerbooks, on vestments, and dangling from chains worn around the neck.
So, why was Jesus crucified?
One response might be…he upset people – the “religious establishment” by moving in on their turf with all his talk of love.
But is that why Jesus was crucified? Because of how much he loved? Some people might think that. I don’t know….what do you think?
Here’s my problem with that: Rome didn’t crucify people because they walked around telling other people to love one another. And I think in some ways that gives us this very softened image of Jesus – let’s call it felt board Jesus. Yall remember those from Sunday School class back in the day – the felt boards and the paper cut-outs of different bible characters? Jesus always looked like Kenny Loggins or Cat Stevens. Felt-board Jesus walked around talking about love so much it finally annoyed all the wrong people and so they crucified him.
Another response might be – and this one comes to us through thousands of years of theology and scriptural analysis – and it is this: Jesus was crucified because he had to be. He had to be because humanity was so deeply separated from God, so mired in our own sin, that the only thing that could save us was for Jesus to be crucified. This response has produced all kinds of theories called “atonement theories” the most popular being one that articulates Jesus took our place on the cross in order to satisfy the demands of a just God, so that we could be forgiven. There are for sure, certain verses and passages of Scripture that use this language just as there are verses and passages that take it in another direction. And we can find this language in our liturgies of the Church.
And I will be the first to tell you I do not pretend to “know” here. Two thousand years of theological debate and discussion hasn’t conclusively landed in a particular spot, so what I’m talking about here is a kind of wrestling with the Scriptures and reflection on faith and the life of Jesus – a kind of wrestling and reflection that is, I believe, in the DNA of the Episcopal Church, at the heart of the Anglican tradition. So, here’s a problem with that response to “Why was Jesus crucified?”
If it was just about that…if it was to satisfy God’s justice. Then we only needed the death of Jesus, not the life. If it was just about that…then we only needed the last three days of Jesus’ life and not the years that led up to his crucifixion. And then we get to excuse ourselves from embodying the life and teachings of Jesus because our faith ends up primarily being about what happened on the cross. I get to be “saved” by Jesus without having to be like Jesus. It’s also strange to me because Jesus spent a lot of time confronting the whole notion that God needs certain things from you to be loved and forgiven. The whole transactional program of the Scribes, Pharisees, and the Temple system that required particular actions of people, and certain sacrifices to gain God’s favor – Jesus pushed against that so much so that he even walks into the Temple courts, flips over tables, and chases everyone out. So, it’s just weird to me that the Church’s response to Jesus’ crucifixion was to create just another transactional program. Especially considering so much of what Jesus seemed to be interested in was not transaction but transformation.
And so, what if a big reason of why Jesus was crucified wasn’t because he talked about love too much or that it needed to happen to satisfy God’s justice but because when you transform individuals and the society around you the way Jesus did – it’s going to get you killed. It was a disturbance to the whole system – individuals, families, communities, religion, empire…all of it.
We catch a glimpse of it in today’s story from the gospel of Mark.
The rich young ruler approaches Jesus, (and let’s just pause right there – in that day and age to be old and rich was a sign of God’s favor but you only got to be young and rich if you accumulated wealth through unethical means – under table deals, lending poor people money than tying them to an unbearable interest rate which kept them in your pocket, or becoming land rich by taking property from those same poor people.) So, this rich young ruler asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Awww…the flattery, laying it on thick from the beginning…”Goooood teacher.” It was customary to return such a compliment when one offers you one – but Jesus doesn’t do that. He cuts through with “Why do you call me good? Only God is good?” And then Jesus walks through all the commandments and says, “You know these…” To which the young buck says, “Know them!?! I’ve kept every one of them since I was a boy.” Which is quite a response considering in Jewish tradition only Abraham, Moses, and Aaron are reported to have kept the whole law…so this guy holds himself in rather high esteem. But look at what Jesus does…he doesn’t confront his arrogance or criticize his silver-tongued self-salesmanship. What does the gospel say, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” I love how Eugene Peterson interprets this part in The Message, “Jesus, looked at him hard in the eye and loved him.”
In other words, he saw him for who he was – past the fancy clothes, the wealth, and the entourage – Jesus saw who he was good, bad, and ugly – and loved him. Then said, “okay…now, go sell everything you own, give it to the poor, and follow me.”
This is the only time in the gospel of Mark Jesus asks a person to sell everything. But he does ask it. He asks it of a man who asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (repeat) The rich man, like everything else in his life, is looking for a transaction – but Jesus is looking for a transformation.
But the young man couldn’t do it. As St. Augustine wrote, “…he went away sad, carrying a great burden of possessiveness upon his shoulders.”
Wealth can be a burden. Our possessions can be a burden. Sure, we don’t like to talk about it – it makes us uncomfortable. But they can be a burden. Sometimes, they can even keep us from transformation. Which is why the next thing Jesus says is, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Notice something, he doesn’t say “heaven” he says – the kingdom of God, the new reality he is trying to bring into this world where everyone is cared for even those that society deems unworthy whether they are impoverished, or sick, or considered sinful and unclean, or born to the wrong family. It’s going to be hard for the wealthy to participate in that kingdom because they still believe their wealth is equated with righteousness and God’s favor. And that’s what the disciples believed too, that kind of transactional wealth equals righteousness was ingrained in their beliefs stretching all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy. Which is why they respond, “Well if the rich can’t, what chance do any of us have?” And Jesus, being rather blunt, replies, “No chance at all if you try to do it yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.”
Hear it? It’s not transaction, it’s about transformation. It’s not about our effort or virtue, it’s about God’s grace. And that’s hard to get. Peter chimes in, “Well, we’ve given away everything for you – possessions, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters…everything.” And they had. They gave up the basic building blocks of how their society governed themselves and what others exploited to govern them. But there’s something peculiar about this kingdom of God, whatever we lose or give up we get the same thing back just in another way. Because in the kingdom, everyone becomes a mother, or father, or brother or sister…and wealth is not equated with righteousness or power or position, it’s used in a way to care for the least of these. Because in Jesus’ movement – the first shall be last and the last shall be first. And when all this begins to happen – confronting unethical wealth, surrendering society’s means by which you are kept in-check, expanding ideas of kinship and family, and pushing against long-held beliefs of who God favors and who God doesn’t…yeah…that’s going to get you killed.
So, when we hear the words of Jesus’ crucifixion…think about something. Think about not just the death and resurrection, but the life and teachings of the One who was condemned to that cross…and why he was condemned to it!
The One who was…and always will be trying to move us from transaction to transformation. Amen.