“After he had received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” (1)
There is sad irony that Christ’s crucifixion has served to set-up new victims even after the sacrifice of the ultimate victim. Finding scapegoats has a long and shameful history. For centuries, humanity has tried to find someone to blame for what we cannot fathom or comprehend. It seems to me that when we think of the crucifixion we often try to understand who should take the blame: whether the proverbial “Jews” of John’s gospel, the Romans, the chief priests and the elders, the Pharisees, or maybe, today, we can blame Judas.
At first glance the story we are reading this week comes off with a whole cast of evil characters. Except that we miss the whole point of the story if we try to sniff out its cause. I think that we have victimized Judas and all the rest of them long enough.
I have been guilty of the pack mentality. I have often embraced a view of Christ’s Passion that falls neatly into the idea of Jesus as suffering victim; of Jesus as having suffered and died for us so as to allow both our social and religious identity to be maintained “by fixing on someone or some group who can be thrown out, anathematized, [and] cursed. [What Thomas Merton called] “The semi-conscious group dynamic of ganging up against someone [that] leads to a sense of unity. [A] kind of unity [that is utterly dependent on] ‘the cursed one’ to be able to maintain itself.”(2)
Many of us have indeed been used to viewing Jesus as the sacrificial victim. I was raised on the concept. I suspect that many of us continue in that view. Jesus seen as cursed by God so that we can be saved. It works for lots of us, keeping the crucifixion at a safe distance, not challenging preconceived notions of who is in and who is out; who is right and who is wrong. We know who the bad guys are; everything appears as black and white, with no shades of gray to disturb the pattern.
I am incapable of explaining the mysterious drama that we commemorate this week. But, I don’t think that my inability to explain frees me from the necessity of trying to understand. This afternoon, I would like to suggest an alternate view of this incomprehensible act of Jesus’ death on the cross. A view that by making us vulnerable ourselves puts us at much greater risk; but worth taking because it contains the promise of eternal life.
What if we were to consider an alternate view that says that Jesus’ death on the cross is a continuation of Jesus teaching us? Jesus again teaching us about the original purpose and nature of God’s creation. That rather than another in a long series of attempts to satisfy some imagined blood-lust by our Creator, that rather than “saving-victim” we were to consider Jesus’ death on the cross as the final explosion of the myth of sacrifice as the ultimate way to get it right with God. What if the crucifixion were that great and utterly gratuitous expression of God’s love for us showing us that it is possible for us to live as Jesus lived? I mean to live precisely as though death were not.
In John’s gospel, Jesus freely chose to go to his death. Despite Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate’s pivotal roles in the drama, neither his disciple, the leaders of the Jews nor the Roman authorities were his true rivals. Jesus’ only true rival in this drama was the myth of death so firmly planted in human consciousness. The death-giving notion that sin must be death-dealing rather than life-giving; the notion that our relationship with God hangs on a very tenuous thread, that we only get a limited number of chances to make it right, and that only a properly performed sacrifice will get us more chances.
Jesus knew that the only way to explode this myth was to undermine it by entering into it. To willingly choose to lose to those who needed to win to teach us that we will live even when we seem to lose. To prove to us that we will live even when we seem to die. To defeat the myth from within by showing us that ultimately God has nothing to do with death or with our sacrifices. That the lie that we are all subject to a death sentence is part of that great lie planted by that greatest of all Great Liars.
Now the power of Jesus contained in being able to lose goes way beyond any need to win. The power of losing is precisely the power of God because it says that Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to lose to teach us that we can be free of any compulsion to win. We can be freed of a compulsion for victims and sacrifice. That he went to his death voluntarily was incomprehensible to both his friends and foes. In that willing embrace of death Jesus willingly lost to our mistaken need to survive by creating human victims, “in order to show that no one ever need create victims to survive again.” (3)
What Jesus shows us in his death is the power of one who does not know death, “for whom death is not something, with which he is in rivalry, in short, it was the power of God.”(4) I say this was Jesus’ teaching to us because his losing to death was not done to appease the Father but to get through to us. To help us finally get it; here is where the notion of Jesus’ “once- for- all” sacrifice finds its place, to help us understand that we do not have to live our lives as death’s victims that we can live as though death does not matter because it doesn’t. The crucifixion is precisely God’s gift to us because it is something done solely for our benefit and not as propitiation to a wrathful sacrifice-hungry deity. A “once-for-all” sacrifice because it makes our need for future sacrifice totally unnecessary and unreasonable.
I said earlier that this view, if you choose to adopt it, will put you at great risk and it will. The risk, as I imagine it, is the complete lack of any assurance that you and I will not end up as victims ourselves. But, in and through his death on the cross, Jesus has handed us that “once-for-all” sword giving us power to sever the Gordian knot that binds us to the twin illusions of death and the doom of sin.
It can, I believe, free us from any need to bow to the power of death allowing us to claim life and love as our own.
- James Alison. Faith Beyond Resentment. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2001, p. 147.
- James Alison. “Contemplation in a World of Violence: Girard, Merton, Tolle,” A talk given at Downside Abbey, Bath, October 3, 2001, p.iii.
- James Alison, On Being Liked. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2003, p. 40.
- Alison, p. 41.
Many of the ideas expressed in this sermon have their source in the writings of René Girard especially in his works on mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism.
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