Today we are going to tackle one important theological question: Why did Jesus die on the cross? I am basing much of what I say on an interview with the theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, in U.S. Catholic (Dec. 2018). Her latest book is Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril.
Let’s start with the question: why did Jesus die on the cross? The 11th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, taught that Jesus (in Johnson’s words) “had to die a bloody and horrible death on the cross in order to save us from our sins, because God was offended by our sins and had to receive satisfaction.” God had “to receive a payback in order to forgive us.”
Where did Anselm come up with such a theory? He lived in a feudal society. If you broke the law, you had to pay back something to the Lord. You had to make satisfaction in order to restore the honor of the Lord and to restore civic peacefulness. Anselm concluded that, if this is the way the world works, this must be the way God works. We humans have offended God by our sins. We need to make satisfaction before we can be forgiven. But because we are human, our satisfaction would not be adequate. We need a sinless person—namely Jesus—to make satisfaction for our sins. Jesus did this by dying on the cross. Jesus atoned for our sins.
What’s wrong with this theory? Says Johnson, “No one had to die for God to be merciful.” In fact, Anselm’s theory goes completely against the teaching of Jesus in the gospel. If you look at the parable of the prodigal son, for example, the father displays complete mercy toward his son. He runs out to meet him, he hugs him, he restores his standing in the family. He even throws a party for him. According to Anselm’s theory, the father should have told his son to go and work in the fields for a certain number of years until he paid back to the father what he owed him.
In addition, Anselm’s theory goes against the Old Testament teachings. God is not presented as a Lord demanding restitution, but as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and forgiveness (Ex. 34:6)” Those words were God’s self-description given to Moses. Scripture scholar Walter Brueggmann calls that text, “a credo of adjectives about the character of God.” When we reflect on those adjectives, we see that this is the God Jesus believed in.
Johnson also says, if Anselm’s theory is right, we need only one chapter out of each Gospel—the one that describes Jesus’ death on the cross. But what about Jesus’ LIFE? What about his TEACHINGS? What about the RESURRECTION? If you leave these out and focus only on the cross and suffering, what “the Christian life should be disappears.” Johnson searched Anselm’s writings for the mention of the resurrection and could find it nowhere. She maintains that if you leave out the Resurrection, there is no Christianity.”
Other theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, criticized Anselm’s theory, but the theory persisted and continues to persist to this day. It influences our practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) and still permeates some of the Church’s devotions, prayers, sermons, and hymns. Look for it. It’s there.
In the person of Jesus, God chose to be one-with-us. What we go through in life by way of suffering and agony is known to God. “God, who created everything, chose to join the world’s suffering, to undergo it, and know what it means from the inside.” But that’s not all. The Resurrection shows God overcoming this horrific violence through love and God bringing new life out of tragedy.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, therefore, underscore God’s unimaginable mercy, all-encompassing love, and everlasting faithfulness. This is essentially the Good News we live and proclaim!
Is there anything in this reflection that stood out for you?
Do you ever feel you have to earn or win God’s mercy?
If we really believed in God’s all-encompassing love and unending mercy would we be better or worse human beings?
How do you try to love others as God loves you/us?
PS: Thank you for your prayers for last week’s retreat with the Youngstown Ursulines. And I want to thank these Sisters for their gracious hospitality, prayerfulness, and joy! I appreciated my time with them—and my stay in the “Pilgrim Suite,” Also, while there, I was very happy to connect with my friends, Angela and Joe of Canfield.
Reminder: I’m giving a weekend retreat at Christ the King Retreat Center in Albany, NY from July 19-21 in case you’re interested. Check their website for details.
This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), so today’s song is “We Are the Body of Christ” or “Somos el Cuerpo de Cristo” by Cortez and Hurd. This version is sung in both English and Spanish. (I’m sorry but I could not find a version with the lyrics.) Today 34% of U.S. Catholics identify themselves as Hispanic/Latino. As we listen to this song, let us pray for openness to diversity in our Church and world…and for a just and compassionate immigration reform in the US.
I encourage you to respond to today’s reflection below. We all love hearing from you!