“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
I thought we should tarry on the final verse of this scene for a moment because it has occasioned so much speculation about the cross.
Associating it with the cross makes total sense. Jesus is, as we noticed, on the way – on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to suffering, on the way to the cross. But how do we interpret what he says here about his cross?
The word that has garnered the most attention over the centuries is “ransom” – the payment necessary to buy a slave back into freedom. And the question for many theologians through the centuries has been: to whom is Jesus is paying this ransom?
In the first thousand years of Christianity, it was thought that God was paying a ransom to the devil. The devil, in this theory, was the enforcer of the death penalty imposed upon all who sinned. And so God redeemed us from the great executioner by giving the devil Jesus. (Who, it turned out, the devil could not keep, but that’s another story.) In this way, the theory went, Jesus gives himself as a ransom.
In the second half of Christianity’s history this theory seemed less and less tenable. Why would God have to pay the devil anything? So they suggested that God was actually paying God’s own self back. Because God was completely holy, the theory went, human sin was an offense to God and could not be tolerated. God needed to punish sin in order that justice might prevail. Yet God also loved us wayward sinners. So rather than punish us, God punished Jesus. In this way, some thought, Jesus gives himself as a ransom to an all-holy God.
But while there’s a cold logic that has been appealing to many about this theory, it also portrays a God who must punish someone before God can really love – or at least act in a loving way toward – anyone. God is a God of justice (and therefore punishment) first; a God of love second.
But let’s go back to this verse and look at it in its larger narrative context. For the last several scenes, Jesus has been talking about a kingdom so entirely different than the one we live our lives in that we have been tempted to call it the “anti-kingdom.” He has shown us that in this kingdom money isn’t an end in itself but a means to help others, that greatness comes through service, and that those who are most deserving of God’s grace and kingdom are those who are in most need.
Now he says that for the sake of this kingdom – and all those God invites into it – he will give himself as a ransom. So rather than focus on ransom – which occurs in the New Testament only here and in Matthew’s parallel story – perhaps we should focus instead on the earlier word “give.” Perhaps, that is, “ransom” is one of a number of metaphors for how this gift of God might be perceived. What is central is that Jesus “gives” himself. As in John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” – so here the focus is on Jesus’ activity of giving, loving, saving, rather than on a mechanism for salvation. And in this act of giving – made so terribly manifest on the cross – we see God’s love for us and all the world laid bare.
This means shifting our focus from asking to whom Jesus is paying a ransom to for whom is Jesus giving himself. And the answer to this question is easy – Jesus gives himself for us.
But all this necessitates a follow-up question: now that we know Jesus has given himself to us and for us, what will we do? For our lives are not our own, but rather have been bought for a price. So now that Jesus has rescued us from false ideas about money and greatness and deserving, what will we do with our freedom? How will we live our lives? These questions, it seems to me, are well worth pondering.
Prayer: Dear God, keep us mindful of both the price you paid to buy us from false illusions as well as the freedom which you now give us. Help us to use it well; help us to use it to free others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Note: if you are interested in reading further about the cross and its relation to Scripture, the theology of the church over the centuries, and our lives, you may enjoy my book, Making Sense of the Cross.