“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).
Part of training for ordination used to be a stint serving in hospital chaplaincy; and it still is in some cases. The idea at the time was to put ordinands into a clinical setting where they would have to deal with potential life and death situations, and learn what it is like to minister in difficult contexts. One of the lessons that was impressed upon me in my training was that there are no easy answers to the difficult questions that arise in the midst of human suffering.
We know that God is sovereign, and that the “whole world is in his hands,” but it’s not a good idea to offer the simple solace of “it’s the will of God” in the face of tragedy. First of all, it may not be very comforting or helpful; second of all, who are we to presume to know what God’s will might be? Of course, there may come a time when knowledge of God’s will may be a great comfort to us; and it is possible for us to have insight into that will. The Apostle Paul writes that with transformed minds we may discern what the will of God is (Rom. 2:2), have insight into the meaning of it all, but it does required the transformed mind. We should be cautious when we weigh in on the lives of others, especially in extremis.
Our Gospel reading today gives us a significant example of Jesus’ understanding of his own death, unique in its clarity. In the face of the cross, the church has pondered long and hard the meaning of Jesus’ death for humanity. There are no easy answers. Is Jesus’ death a tragedy, or does it have meaning for us? Pondering on these things requires that our own minds be transformed to understand the will of God.
The Gospels present us with life and death situations, where Jesus ministers to people in extremis, even raising the dead. At the end of the Gospels we are confronted with Jesus’ own death and the empty tomb. We wonder what this means for us, in the sense that God’s action in raising Jesus from the dead has a life and death significance for us now.
The important word here in our Gospel today is “ransom.” Jesus gives his life as a ransom for many. There’s no doubt that this is a reference to his death, and its application to us. A ransom is an exchange of one thing for another. It’s the price that is paid, and in this case the price is paid for us. Note that here the “for many” is a Hebrew turn of phrase meant to expand the terms of the ransom, not to limit it. It does not mean that some are necessarily excluded. “For many” means that more are included than we might expect at first.
In the Old Testament, the idea of ransom was found in the legal code of Israel. We are probably most familiar with its use in hostage situations, “paying a ransom,” but it was not so in ancient Israel. A ransom was monetary compensation paid after the commission of a crime, including capital crimes; or to redeem a slave; or to pay for certain sacrifices. Sin and death, slavery and sacrifice, law and lawlessness: all are dealt with under the heading of ransom. So when Jesus says that he gives his life as a ransom for many, his words speak to us.
St. Paul reminded the Christians in Rome that they had been slaves of sin but are now free (Rom. 6:22). He told the churches in Colassae that they had been dead in their sins but having been ransomed are now alive in Christ (Col. 2:13). God had actually erased “the record that stood against us with its legal demands,” St. Paul wrote. “He set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). All of this is rooted in the words of Jesus himself, where he describes himself as our ransom.
This is where we take our stand, on the firm ground of ransom. “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). It’s this ransom, Christ given for us, which we celebrate in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist. As Jesus says to James and John, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mk. 10:39). The reference is to his death, and to their sacrifice of themselves, but also to the sacraments that Jesus commanded and the church would continue to practice.
That brings us to our celebration today, as we re-affirm our baptismal vows and celebrate the sacred mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. Here in these sacraments our ransom becomes real. The spotlight is on our confirmands but we are all implicated and involved. We are the ones who have been ransomed. Jesus’ death and resurrection are God’s answer to the tragedy of sin and death. It’s not an easy answer but a profound one, borne by Christ himself. Jesus ransoms us because he loves us. His death and resurrection means life and peace, reconciliation and ransom, for me and for you.
- The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee