To justify the death of an innocent victim like that of Jesus and, still more, to say that it was the divine will, would be to make of evil a human way of behaving, justifiable on the part of God and of human beings. Hence it would be very relevant to understand the historical fact and the theological meaning of the passion and death of Jesus not as a simple story one hears in Lent, but as an event that reveals a tragic reality that should make us wonder as to how far we are capable of going if we allow ourselves to become executioners, seduced by power and money.
The way in which they assassinated Jesus on a cross represents a great scandal for any human being apart from his beliefs. The cross was a symbol of human negativity, the worst evil a person could imagine. It also symbolized divine rejection, for whoever died in this way was considered cursed by God (Dt..21,23). Could it then be said that the good Father in whom Jesus believed had permitted such a death?
The death of Jesus was not casual, nor was it the fruit of chance or of the divine will. It was, planned, decided and executed by concrete persons (Jn 11, 47.53), by fellow human beings of the same nation (Jn 7,1) who controlled the destinies of a people. It was justified by representatives of religious institutions and political officials (Jn 11, 49-50) who saw a danger in Jesus because he projected a new way of life – humanizing – which claimed to reconcile a dispersed nation (Jn 11, 52) and proclaimed a personal relationship with God based on an unedited pact with God, entailing neither priestly mediation nor the sacrificial economy of the Temple (Jr 31, 31-34). Jesus’ way of life brought fear to those who did not want to lose the power granted by the Romans, which gave them the social status and economic benefits they lived on (Jn 11, 48-50).
Although the antagonism towards the religious authorities who handed him over kept growing (Jn 11, 53), it was Roman political power that changed the sentiment against an innocent person, and dictated the sentence to have him tortured and killed (Mt 27,24). The religious authorities did not have the power of ius gladii. So they used a ruse to formally justify his death. They accused him of being a false prophet (Dt 13,5). They thus achieved two things: they added to their campaign other religious groups that detested Jesus, and gave the imperial authority a formal reason to condemn and prosecute him as a political criminal (Mc 15,26). All could continue to enjoy their share of power (Jn 11,50).
The death of Jesus, like that of any innocent person, has never been willed by God. To justify it is to make sacred the action of the victimizer and to make the misfortune inflicted on someone be accepted as a divine sacrifice. And besides it is to deny the consequences of the responsibility of the particular persons who torture and kill, whose actions dehumanize them to the extent of converting them into executioners and victimizers of others.
Hence to say that the death of Jesus was willed by God as a sacrificial victim is to make of God an accomplice of the evil done by human beings (Sal 35), or a sadist who justifies the suffering of an innocent person. Jesus was always aware that God was on his side, accompanying him in all his decisions (Mk 12,6), but he acted with the realism of one who knows his preaching of the Kingdom and his strong criticism of the religious (Mt 23, 1-36) and political system (Lk. 13, 31-32) would result in his own death (Lk 13,34). Hence we must realize that Jesus’ life, lived devoted to the service and love of others, was the reason for which he died. And let us not forget that the fraternal spirit with which he lived served as the reason that concrete persons and institutions killed him. The humanity of someone like Jesus is unbearable and begins to disturb the consciences of those who survive only by power, money and death.
The key to understanding the meaning of the passion of Jesus is not in death, as if it were a saving effect in itself, but in the filial and fraternal way in which he lived his life and the consequences this brought for him (Neh 9,26). The death of Jesus has no meaning, just as the deaths of so many people who die every day from hunger, criminality, and political violence that snatch away lives don’t either. It would be inhuman to justify them. But what indeed makes sense and is salvific – humanizing – is the way in which Jesus undertook to die, and how he identified all through his life with those who suffer and die in this way, unafraid of voicing the truth that the God of the Kingdom to whom he prayed, did not want this to happen any more in our world, rejecting anyone who behaved in this way.
Jesus manifested love in many forms: as forgiveness, liberation, healing, reconciliation. But, in a special way, he showed it in his solidarity with victims, the rejects of society, and the sick (Mt 8,17). And he understood that God acts only with compassion and is opposed to sacrificial offerings (Mt 9,13, Psalm 50).
The first Christian followers recorded three aspects they remembered: a) the way Jesus had lived - his historical claim or messianic consciousness neither violent nor revolutionary (GS 22); b) his singular praxis of words and deeds which humanized and gave life to those who needed it (DV 2); c) the free assumption of his destiny, as absolute fidelity to the God of the Kingdom (GS 22; 38) in an unconditional love for others.
His life, then, is salvific because he lived for others and for everyone, devoting himself each day beyond physical and mental exhaustion, so that all in turn could resort to the maternal fatherhood of that compassionate God in whom he always believed. As Schürmann explains: “the will to serve of Jesus, the drive in him to love, and in a special way his command to love one’s enemies, and his love for sinners, all that together with his offer of salvation extended to the last moment, makes one believe that Jesus understood and accepted his own death as an act of love, intercession, blessing and full assurance of salvation”. He gave himself up (Gal 2,20) voluntarily; he was not handed over by his Father as an expiatory victim that substitutes for what we ourselves ought to do. Besides, neither did he give in to the power of his victimizers and executioners.
Subsequently his death was interpreted according to different models. One of them was that of the servant who serves and gives his life to the needy, devoting himself by acts of fraternal solidarity which were done day after day until his death. As servant, he revealed his message of hope. On the one hand, how much can a person achieve when they assume the goodness of their own nature till they can overcome the evil caused by the victimizer. On the other hand, evil is not an absolute reality that can prevail, destroy the mental and physical life of many people and dehumanize institutions. But whoever dares to live up to their human potential without allowing themselves to be dehumanized, can put a stop to evil when they neither reproduce nor penalize it.
In Jesus this hope is revealed: a new way of being human; one that carries another’s burden (Mt 8,17, 11, 28-30) and attracts all (Jn 12,32); one that never shifts one’s own burden on to another, or distances oneself from that person. One that maintains the dignity of a son or daughter while carrying the burden of brother or sisterhood
Author: Rafael Luciani