October 18, 2015
Isaiah 53, 10-11 + Psalm 33 + Hebrews 4, 14-16 + Mark 10, 35-45 Saint John Nepomuk Church in Yukon, OK
There is a seriously complicated issue in this text that does one of two things: drive people away from God or confuse the image of God Jesus has consistently revealed leading us to ignore the contradiction causing us to miss what is revealed. To misread and therefore misunderstand these words: “as a ransom for many” can lead us to think that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon the death of a victim or that there is some kind of contract between God and the victim that God requires before there is forgiveness. This kind of thinking is an insult to the mighty love of God. So we have to dig deeper with mature minds and informed faith. Suggesting that God actually demanded the death of someone in order to liberate everyone does not go down well for me, and I hope it does not for you either. What kind of a God is this?
At some practical level it might be fruitful to spend time critiquing the attitude that is evident in the conversation of the disciples. Their “What’s in it for me” attitude is hardly admirable, and there is a lesson for us there as well. Their desire to share the glory without sharing what it takes to get there brings a warning as well, because none of us will have share in the Glory of the risen Lord if we avoid passing through the passion and death. But there is more being revealed here than something about the apostles that can teach us about true discipleship. Something about God is being revealed here that takes a little digging and thinking to realize. It also means we have to push back the boundaries we sometimes drag into our thinking about God that are not helpful.
Imagining God and God’s behavior from our experience of human nature is not helpful. It is a consequence of making God in our own image instead of the way it really is intended. Thinking that God would demand a ransom, that there is some price to be paid to purchase God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness is making God in our image. It is the same error we heard last week with that man who thought he could do something to be saved. This business of a ransom, of making people pay up, or this kind of bargaining: that’s the stuff we do, it is not the God revealed by Jesus Christ. This tendency to imagine God or God’s behavior in terms of our behavior is the way myths develop, and it was quite common at the time of Christ and still hung on as the Gospels were being formed. Mythical elements and images of God are tough to break out of. This is what Jesus confronted again and again revealing a God who does not live by our rules, act like we do, (thank goodness!) and a God not bound by man-made rules. This is what made those Pharisees and Scribes so frustrated.
The wonder and mystery of the cross is a mystery of the love that is God’s very being. “God is Love.” Even at the moment of Jesus’ death, God is love. At the moment when we might think they are most separated, they are in fact united in a single love for the salvation of the world. Bloodshed and death are signs that express love. It is not the death that saves us, but the love it signifies. The death was needed to show that love might find expression and convince the world of love’s reality. This love is expressed in the very words of Jesus at his most desperate hour. “Father forgive them” he says. Not if they say they are sorry, not if they endure terrible punishment, not if they do penance for the rest of their lives. He simply offers forgiveness without conditions or payment. That is Love. That is God. There is no swap going on here where by God punishes God’s only Son rather than punish us. Jesus does not die so that we might not die. He dies to show us how to live, and to lead us into that fullness of life marked by and revealing Love. This is Mercy. It is, what I like to call, the Divine Surprise. We who like to measure out everything and want everything to be fair and equal, are surprised to find that it is not so with God. Like the father who gives both sons all they need no matter how they behave; like the master who pays people hired at the last hour more than they earned, and like every other example Jesus has put before us, there is always a measure of joyful surprise at the Mercy of God.
As Pope Francis proclaims a year of mercy, we have every reason to join in that celebration because the mercy is not just ours to receive, but ours to give. The Son has been sent into the world and dies in this world to show us Divine Love. He is obedient and surrenders not to death so much as to the power of mercy. In this death, he forgives us all, and in his resurrection he brings us all to victory with him, freeing us for eternal life. That is a revelation worth a celebration. Let’s get on with it, and make sure that we carry it with us into this world longing for mercy and to those needing forgiveness whether they ask for it or not.