Maundy Thursday

April 5, 2007

I’ve been looking at Mark 10:45:

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

This has been used as a justification for many atonement and punitive sacrificial theologies, trying to explain somehow that God needed Jesus to die in order that our sins might be washed away.

But that is not the intent of this passage.

Taken in its Roman Imperial context of Jesus’ time, is about ransom– economic ransom for the release of slaves and captives.  That is not a metaphor.  That is not an allegory.

Jesus spent the majority of his time with those who were indebted in some way to the empire.  Slaves.  Peasants.  Those who had to work hard in order to pay very high tax obligations to the empire.  Jesus promises them freedom from that burden.  Interestingly, the notes in my Bible also say that “many” is mistranslated in the Luke version of this passage and should read “all.”

The point is that God did not kill Jesus.  The Romans killed Jesus.  God’s response to that event was to raise Jesus.  Jesus went to the temple and talked about how it had become a “den of robbers” instead of a “house of prayer.”  He effectively shut down the temple operations by disrupting the money changers, and preached against the established traditional interpretation of the law.  The head priests of the day did not like it, and began working to get rid of him, figuring out how to ‘sever communion’ with him in a most permanent way.

So the powers of imperial destruction crucified Jesus.  God responded the way God always does– not with judgment but with restoration and resurrection.

In a time of oppression, under an empire that kept slaves under domination and peasants indebted to their patrons and empire with high economic burdens, a message from a saviour who promised freedom from these burdens was of great hope.  Can we ever be free?  Can we escape the strains and injustices of this life?  That is the hope Christ provides in the “ransom” passage.

The idea that somehow God needs Jesus to die in order to save us doesn’t work for me.  Perhaps we, as humans, choose for him to die in the same way the Romans, the Chief Priests, and the crowds who chose Jesus over Barabbus decide for him to die.  That is the sin which God conquers in the resurrection– God shows us that his response to our darkest moments– such as Good Friday– is light; is hope; is love.  But God never chooses the darkness nor requires it in order to achieve the light.

No.  It is through God– through Jesus– that we see the light and work towards it.  We work towards and for the love of God.  In response to that love we love our neighbors as ourselves.  We repent when we screw up.  And we love this man Jesus who came to be with us– a carpenter in Galilee, who shared a meal with his fellow subjects of imperial oppression this night to celebrate Passover and the gift of his prophetic message that would change the world forever.



8 Responses to “Maundy Thursday”

  1. obadiahslope Says:

    No, Jesus does not promise them freedom from slavery and exploitation by the Roman empire. Just as well really beacuse it would have been a broken promise. Sure the gospel had in it the seeds for the overthrow of slavery in centuries to come.
    But Jesus did not act to restore Israel as an independent nation, or even to amelioarate the suffering the Jewsish people were under.
    Jesus was a poor liberation Theologian.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Hi Obadiah, its been a while. Good to hear from you.

    I did not say that he acted to restore Israel as an independent nation. That is exactly the kind of Messiah that his fellow Jews expected, and it is not what he delivered. The kind of freedom and ransom that you speak to is exactly the point– he doesn’t deliver the ransom that is expected.

    What I said was that the author of Mark was speaking to the poor and enslaved in this passage. It is a subtle form of subversion against imperial rule. He doesn’t deliver freedom through a powerful show of force against force. Mark is a commentary on power. Jesus is a completely unexepected response to imperial power.

    As you know, Mark was written about the time of the Jewish wars against Rome– about 30 or 40 years after Jesus’ death. The author of Mark may have had reason to hope for victory against Rome, perhaps hoping for victory in the Jewish/Roman wars. I don’t think it is as cut and dry as you present– as a matter of fact, you offer criticism, but no contrasting interpretation of the passage. What, may I ask, is your interpretation?


  3. obadiahslope Says:

    The poor and enslaved made up 90 per cent of Jesus’ audience as well as Mark’s. That was the nature of th empire into which jesus was born and from which he was resurrected.
    I agree with you that Jesus life and teaching radically critiqued Roman power, (as descibed by the Mennonite Yoder for example,) and thiew theme of living in an unjust empire is enlarged on in the writings of the disciple he loved, John. Endurance, in the face of Empire, turmoil and tragedy is the keynote of the book of Revelation.
    The hope of heaven, while providing comfort to the oppressed can also be the springboard for change – as Moltman makes clear.
    So i would read Mark 10.45 like a good evangelical- at least in part. Jesus’ is talking about giving his life to pay the price of our sin . he takes up the theme of drinking his cup. The theme of Ransom is taken up by Paul in for example Romans 3:24-25 where Jesus death is presented using the slavery metaphor (redemption), courtroom (justification) and temple (sacrifice of atonement).
    That is not a total reading because, Mark 10.45 is set within Jesus’ reply to the Zebedee brothers question to which Jesus gives a radically egalitarian answer “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”. And this, amazingly enough, in the face of the oppression you refer to. Jesus gives the example of his ultimate sacrifice, as the base for this radical social ethic.
    So how do I interpret Mark 10:45? As a statement about redemption, brought on the cross. It has an eschatological component in that for his listeners their real relief from slavery will occur in the new age. and it’s the basis of a present kingdom ethic, of radical equality, that we can – as circumstances permit (pace Spartacus) – strive for today. And that is even more so if the question is “how do you interpret Mark 10:35-46?”.
    Somebody once said to me that questions of interpreting a bible passage revolves around how one understands the flow of logic in the book or chapter- this is a good example of that – it is important to read this section against chapter 11.
    I do not think you can seperate the salvation-history component of this part of Mark from its social justice element. Jesus is prophet, priest and king.

  4. Jeff Says:

    I agree with just about everything you’ve said, and see very little conflict with my position. I won’t go into titles (Jesus as king in Mark, etc.) right now, because we don’t have the space here. I’ll stick with what we started with: Jesus is not talking about giving up his life to pay the price of our sin. Sin has not entered into the context of this conversation at all. The context of the pericope is focused rather on power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you: but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (v. 42b-44)

    The context is absolutely power, and not sin. It is absolutely about a radical and revolutionary response to power– namely that the response to abuses of power and tyranny is not to set up a powerful leader, but to become a servant. The response for followers of Jesus, then– the paradoxical way to freedom– is through service, not to get rid of unfriendly tyrants only to replace “friendly tyrants” in their place. Jesus believes so much in this radical and transformative message that he offers his life for it. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom to many.” (v.45)

    If Jesus were dying to pay the price for sin, then who demands such a price be paid? That is a very troubling question that I have never heard answered sufficiently well. It is certainly not humans, and I do not believe it is a God that has compassion in his own creation- a creation which necessarily includes sin and this very situation. What a heartless god that would be.


  5. obadiahslope Says:

    I think in this conversation we might be getting close to defining what divides us. i hope we can do this in a gentle way.
    Because the answer to what Mark 10:45 is talking about, relates to why Jesus died.
    Did Jesus die simply as a good example of someone defying imperialism. Or did he die, so that he could call out a people for himself and give them eternal life?
    In my interpretation of the passage I offer a both/and answer, which embraces both the radical social justice implications of the discussion on servanthood and leadership, and Jesus prediction of his death, which is also a theme of chapter 10.
    It seems to me that your interpretation is taken up with Jesus as an example of political leadership, or social transformation dropping out the idea that Jesus died to pay the price of our sin.

  6. Jeff Says:

    Hi Obadiah-

    First let me say that I too agree that this is the theological source of much of the division. I intend on writing on that soon.

    I will also say that much of my writing since beginning seminary has been polemic and divisive, and I acknowledge and apologize for it. Seminary, which is supposed to bring one closer to God, has not been that experience for me. I take responsibility for that– I’m not blaming it on anyone else– and I am working on it. The point is that I, too, hope that we can return to the time of gentle dialogue as we used before I started seminary.

    I don’t see my interpretation as reducing Jesus to someone who simply died to defy imperialism. Rather, Jesus died to show us that our sin– the sin of treating people in systems of hierarchy and power dynamics which destroy relationships– can be overcome only through service and the paradoxical response of putting the first last and last first.

    The expectation was a triumphunt entry of a powerful messiah who would destroy the occupying powers of Jerusalem/Israel. The delivery was a servant, who asked all to put the last first and to be servants to all.

    We don’t see the sacrificial atonement theology crop up until later in history, after the canon was written. But it has become so entrenched in our tradition that it is hard to separate our reading of the texts now from that tradition. Call that unorthodox if you will, but I can cite several examples where traditions rose during Christendom to be later abandoned after we realized it was not the intent of the early church- it was not truly the Christian tradition.

    What are the ramifications on my Christology? What does that mean for Jesus’ divinity?

    I don’t know yet, and I’ll acknowldge that. I’m in seminary for a reason, and I’ll answer those questions as I go.

    My tentative answers are that my Christology is very low, because the most important thing about this season we are in is not the sin and burden of Good Friday, but God’s response to it– which is overwhelming and triumphant. Another very unexpected response– the resurrection, which triumphs over our sin and brings Jesus back.

    That means, to me, that Jesus did not pay the price for our sin, but rather that he suffered as a result of our sin. And conquered it in triumph to rise again on the third day. The implications of this shift are, of course, profound.


  7. […] Holy Week, I briefly commented on sacrificial atonement theology here.  It’s not an exhaustive analysis, but just some short thoughts.  The gist is this:  Jesus […]

  8. […] reminds me of several posts (this one sums it up) from a few months ago in discussing why Jesus died.  The bottom line is that I […]

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