WHY DID JESUS DIE?
We know where we are heading in this season of Lent. Easter is just round the corner.
Today I thought I’d cheekily peek ahead a bit and ask a question.
Why did Jesus die?
If you think about all that Jesus did and taught, the person he was, how come he ended up executed like a common criminal?
Now often a question can be answered at different levels.
So there were (and are) deep theological reasons we could give.
Christians might say things like:
Jesus died to show us how much God loves us.
Jesus died to show that death has been defeated.
Jesus died to save us from our sins.
Jesus died to show as part of Gods plan to break through to us.
There are different reasons we can give at a theological level.
But what about at a human level?
What, at the time it was happening, was the reason for his death?
Because nobody at that time said ‘We must kill Jesus to show how much God loves us.’
Nobody shouted ‘We must kill Jesus because its part of God’s plan’.
Nobody suggested that ‘We should kill Jesus because three days later he will be alive and we will know that Gods power is greater than the power of death’.
Nobody argued that ‘Jesus’ execution will be the completion of his mission on earth.’’
So from a human point of view, why did Jesus die?
One answer is that Jesus was killed by the Jews.
There’s a very strange verse in Matthew gospel – Chapter 27 verse 25.
Listen to this. The whole crowd answered, “Let the responsibility for his death fall on us and our children!”
This is the verse that gave rise to the scourge of anti-Semitism with terrible consequences – not least in the last century. All through world history Jews have been persecuted and ill-treated just for being Jews.
To treat someone as inferior because of their race is just the same as looking down on someone because of the colour of their skin, or their sexuality, or their disability. It is prejudice.
To discriminate against a person because they happen to be Jewish is racism. And racism is always wrong.
But it’s hard to mention anti-Semitism these day without briefly noticing a worrying recent development. It’s a phrase that is often in the news these days. But it seems as if the meaning of this expression is slowly changing (as sometimes words and expressions do) and taking on a more sinister meaning.
It seems as if the definition of anti-semitism is not just about being racist but now also includes any ‘criticism of Israel’.
I’m sorry, but there is no person or country that is above or beyond criticism.
All people and all countries make mistakes, and the idea that Israel alone in the whole world can never be criticised for anything it does is ridiculous – especially when you look at what life is like on the ground for the Palestinian people.
Disliking someone who happens to be Jewish is racism pure and simple.
That is anti-semitic.
Criticising the actions and policies of the State of Israel is not anti-semitic – it may actually the moral thing for us to do.
But when we look back to Jesus’ day, and our reading people weren’t thinking very much when they said that the Jews have to be blamed for killing Jesus.
The whole crowd answered, “Let the responsibility for his death fall on us and our children!”
There are a lot of problems with this verse.
Firstly, the ‘whole crowd’ – all of them? Can you imagine a huge crowd of people gathered at Jesus trial and every single one of them said exactly the same thing?
They are all saying these words in unison?
Secondly, listen to what it is that they are actually saying.
Apparently all descendants of these people have to be blamed for something done by their ancestors? Do you think that could ever be right?
Imagine you found out that one of your ancestors committed a crime and went to jail?
Does that mean that you need to go to jail?
Are you to be blamed for something done by someone else centuries ago?
That would be crazy…
Thirdly, Jesus himself was a Jew. And the disciples and all the earliest Christians were Jews themselves! Every single writer in the Bible (with the possible exception of Luke) was Jewish!
If it wasn’t for these Jewish people Christianity wouldn’t exist!
And fourthly, the Jews had no power to execute anyone. They didn’t run their own affairs. They were an occupied country and Rome called the shots.
Capital punishment could only be carried out by the Roman authorities.
I dare say there were some Jewish people who were annoyed or even threatened by Jesus’ words about wealth and power and selfishness, and many religious leaders hated the way Jesus contradicted their thoughts on God and scripture, so maybe some of them were glad to see the end of Jesus, but the idea that “the Jews” can be held responsible for the death of Jesus is way off target.
So we have to come to a better answer.
Who killed Jesus?
Here’s the better answer. Rome.
Jesus did not acknowledge Caesar and his kingdom. By his own admission Jesus was part of another kingdom. He marched to the beat of a different drum and lived an alternative lifestyle. His teaching often contradicted what was regarded as normal in his day and age in terms of culture, religion, politics and social status.
Not long after his death Jesus became known as the Son of God. There are different reasons for this. But that title was well in use in Jesus’ own day. It was well known by everyone. The ‘Son of God’ was the title that was given to the Emperor of Rome – to Caesar.
No person was more worshipped, or powerful or more feared or obeyed than Caesar – the leader of the mightiest empire the world had ever seen.
Compared to the wealth and might of Rome, this scruffy Jewish carpenter did not exactly appear to be much of a threat. He didn’t seem to have much in the way of backing – no weapons, no army, and he hadn’t engaged in any violent behaviour.
Yet he didn’t bow down to Rome, and some of his teachings seemed a bit dangerous and subversive, so it was simple enough to be on the safe side and remove him permanently from the face of the earth.
And so that’s what they did.
In a matter of hours, this strange Galilean would be lying dead, his few followers running away in fear and his teachings would be buried with him.
In a matter of years no one would even remember Jesus of Nazareth, while the mighty Roman Empire would rule over the world for all eternity.
Or at least, that was the idea…
The kingdoms of this world have always been able to bring good things to people.
The Romans were responsible for good inventions, and brought benefit to many.
The Romans brought a kind of stability and order to the world. Many of their innovations were helpful. The roads that they built in order for their armies to move about quickly also enabled greater communication between countries and enabled trade.
It would be tempting here to describe the scene (What have the Romans ever done for us) in Monty Python’s film “The Life of Brian” to point out benefits that Rome brought to the world.
But it wasn’t all good.
The whole order was built on cruelty and injustice.
Society had huge divides between rich and poor, people could literally be bought and sold, dissenting ideas had to be put down, Caesar had to be worshipped, and if the Romans arrived at your door the choice was simply submit to Roman rule or die!
The Roman Empire collapsed through infighting, greed, moral decay, ambition and corruption, and every kingdom ever seen on earth ends up going the same way.
When you think of all the advancements we have in our world now in the areas of science and medicine and in creature comforts we all benefit too.
We have moved on and life has become easier and better – in some ways.
But the kingdoms of our world are not enough.
The big powers in our world with all their power are not enough.
For the same human failings that beset the Roman leadership still are seen today.
Our world needs something more.
And it’s the influence of another kingdom.
What Jesus did was that he took on what was considered normal and he changed it.
And he brought a new perspective.
It used to be taken for granted, and considered perfectly normal
that might is right,
that the ones with the most weapons make the rules,
that the rich dominate the poor,
that people can be exploited and even owned as slaves,
that men are more important than women,
that there’s one rule for the powerful and another for the ordinary
that quite simply people are not equal because we are all of different worth.
Maybe it seems unfair but hey, the world is unfair, and that’s just the way it is.
Nowadays the world is still unfair and we are still working on making Jesus’ teachings a reality – but we have changed a lot.
Reflecting on the teaching of Jesus, Paul wrote those famous words about the way we should regard one another – there’s no difference between Jew and Gentiles, between slaves and free, between men and women.
Now when Paul said we are all equal that sounds like no particular big deal to us – but that only shows how far we’ve come and how much Jesus’ kingdom values have actually changed our thinking.
Back in the day when Paul wrote, these words were totally explosive and basically unthinkable.
Yet few people in our world today would take issue with it.
How come we think it is right to care about our neighbours and consider people to be equal in value, and we agree that something should be done about slavery and discrimination?
How come we think that society has a duty to care for the poor, that the disabled should be supported?
How come we even think about international development and how come we give aid to people in need whom we’ve never even met on the other side of the world?
How come we think about building a fairer planet for everyone?
Why do we even care?
Why do we think about anyone other than ourselves and our own family?
Because of Jesus. His teachings have slowly begun to change human behaviour and they have actually changed what we used to consider normal.
There are people today who are all for equality and peace and human rights and women’s rights and they have no particular faith outlook. They don’t think about God – they may well not believe in God. They may be hostile to the idea of God.
And it’s good that they care about making the world better. And it’s good when we can all work together locally and globally for common causes.
But the fact is that these values (now so widely shared) have come to us through Christianity – through Jesus and the values he proclaimed.
We have moved on in our understanding through the influence of Jesus’ teachings.
We realise what a better, fairer world could be like.
But still we don’t have it.
Things may be better in some ways but there is work to be done.
Because the human kingdoms of our world won’t deliver it.
Right now we live in a kingdom in a bit of a crisis. Our so-called “united” kingdom is anything but. One way or another Brexit has managed to make just about every single one of us worried or angry or upset. All that has happened has been a mess.
Every single day we hear it in our news. Every single day we face the confusion and wonder where we are headed.
Now this issue is not unimportant. The differences between a hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no Brexit at all will have some impact on us all. It does matter.
This is presented as the BIG question for our kingdom.
But a far more important question for our time would be to ask why do we need food banks in the 7th biggest economy in our world?
That’s a real kingdom question!
Why do we continue with such inequality as the gap between richest and poorest continues to widen?
That’s a real kingdom question!
I saw a televised debate recently where Dominic Raab (who is one person tipped to be next Prime Minister) got into a conversation with a disabled woman in the audience. She was talking about the suffering caused by austerity measures, and asking why more could not be done to support and protect disabled people and the weakest members of society in general.
Raab started off by saying that it would be lovely to do more, but obviously there was only so much money in the kitty, and hard choices had to be made.
And then he said to her ‘There is no point in engaging in a childish wish-list.”
In Dominic Raab’s kingdom, support for the poorest folk in our country might be a “childish wish-list”
But in God’s kingdom it is a demand!!
Jesus was put to death because his kingdom embodied values and priorities which upset the existing order.
As I said at the beginning, there are different answers we can give to why Jesus died. Some of them are theological, and of course they are true enough.
But here is another reason. And it is also true enough.
Jesus died because he came to show us a better way to live, that would bring change and transformation to the world and we are called to continue his work.
If we are to honour Jesus in our lives and if we are to set out to follow in his steps we need to do all we can to embody the values of the kingdom as individuals and as a church.
The values Jesus proclaimed are the very values of God.
If you like, the kingdom is what our world would be like if we put God in charge.
Jesus lived his whole life as if God was in charge. As if what God wanted for this world mattered more than anything else.
We Christians are called to do the same.
Galatians 3: 23-29
7 April 2019
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