March 8, 2010: Why Was Jesus Crucified?

Posted on : Mar 8th, 2010 | By | Category: Still Speaking

Someone once asked me at a Spiritual Retreat: Why was it necessary for Jesus to die? And why such a violent death? If God is God, why can’t God just forgive us? That is a good question. Maybe we should look at it again as we prepare for Easter. This is a question many have tried to answer through the ages. Each of the Gospel writers answers this question differently in an effort to make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the implications for us as Jesus’ followers. In the Letter to the Romans the apostle Paul even supplies us with not one, but six different possible theories of how it is that Christ’s death saves us. The reason he did that is that no single explanation seems to be totally satisfying.  The best known theory today is called “penal substitutionary atonement.” (It was developed in the 16th century by the Reformation Theologians.) I know – it’s a mouthful! It refers to the doctrine that there is a penalty for sin, and God punished Jesus instead of us. I know, you don’t have to tell me – it does sound unjust, and seems to portray God as vengeful and is incompatible to the Abba God that Jesus reveals to us. Some even see it as a form of “cosmic child abuse.” It’s almost two thousand years after the fact and we are still struggling to explain why Jesus “had to” die. Maybe the Apostle Paul knew best; just throw out a bunch of theories; somewhere in all the different images the truth must lie.

Or maybe we should ask the question differently: Why was Jesus crucified? Why, I can’t help but wonder, did the Romans crucify Jesus? After all, Jesus was an itinerant rabbi whose ministry was largely confined to the countryside and villages of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. He was just a wandering preacher from an unimportant backwater of the great Roman Empire, right? In the eyes of the Roman authorities that would make him unimportant, insignificant and invisible. We should be surprised that they took any notice of him at all!

Why did he attract their attention? What was he saying and doing that ruffled their feathers so much?  He was, after all, executed as an enemy of the state between two other criminals.

If he had been the kind of teacher popularly portrayed in the North American church, a master of the inner life, teaching the importance of spirituality and a private relationship with God, he would have been supported by the Romans as part of their rural pacification program. That was exactly the kind of religion that the Romans wanted peasants to have. Any beliefs that encourage magic, passivity before fate, and a withdrawal from the world of politics and economics into a spiritual or inner realm would have met with official approval. (William Herzog) Teaching about the end of the world may have attracted some attention, but then again, apocalyptic preachers were nothing strange or uncommon in the time of Jesus.

Remember what happened to the prophets in the Hebrew Scripture who spoke truth to power, when they exposed social injustices? Preachers, pastors, priests, teachers, writers, poets or journalists are not imprisoned, executed, or assassinated per se, but if their teachings or writings expose oppression, exploitation, discrimination or injustice they become a threat to the “powers that be” of this world. Just ask the Nelson Mandelas, the Martin Luther Kings, the Desmond Tutus, the Cesar Chavez and the Mahatma Gandhis of this world. You’re in for trouble when you become an enemy of the social order that sanctifies oppression and injustice. The world has not changed that much in the past two thousand years.

Remember the sign that hung above Jesus’ head? Mockingly it read: This is Jesus, the king of the Jews. It seems he was executed as a subversive to the Roman order and deemed a false claimant to political power in Judea. Don’t forget Rome upheld the kingship of Herod Antipas in Galilee, and it dominated the life of the imperial province of Judea.*

Some claim that Jesus’ public ministry was not directed against the political rulers of his day – neither against Rome nor against Herod; that Jesus’ teaching was about the coming Kindom of God in the future, and only marginally politically. Maybe, but that doesn’t explain why he upset the rulers of the temple so much. It couldn’t be because he claimed to be the messiah – many have made that claim, some with military ambitions. So far we know of nobody who was put to death by the Jewish authorities for claiming to be a messiah. And the claim of blasphemy, that Jesus claimed to be the “Son of God?” The Jewish authorities had the authority to stone him for such a claim. Instead, they handed him over to the Romans. Why? He must have been politically suspect. Don’t forget he died by crucifixion, a form of execution reserved for political criminals. Jesus wasn’t publicly humiliated and violently flogged and crucified because of some individual disagreements with some Pharisees on how to interpret Scripture, or because the priests thought his claims bordered on blasphemy. That does not explain why the Romans executed him. Rather it seems that his public crucifixion made him an example to all – it communicated loud and clear that this is what happens when you threaten the status quo, when you speak truth to power.

I think our problem is that we have tamed Jesus into a meek, passive, mild, soft spoken, apolitical persona. Such a person would not have been a threat to anyone and would not have died such a violent death at the hand of the state. The Jesus of the Gospels is radical, unsettling, offensive and tends to make outrageous statements. Jesus believed that with his coming into this world, the Kindom of God started here on earth.  With his birth and ministry God has started a new thing on earth, the realm of God. Jesus spelled out the justice of the reign of God which exposed the injustice of King Herod’s Kingdom and the Roman Empire. Jesus made no secret of what he saw as his ministry when he stood up in a synagogue at the very beginning of his public ministry and announced what he came to do: Jesus stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of God is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:16-18) What a statement! Such an ambitious ministry objective was certainly going to get him in trouble – and it did.

Jesus upset the “powers that be” so much that his public ministry only lasted three years before it was stopped with a violent death. Rome probably thought that would put an end to the nonsense, but it did not. And that is what Easter is about.

We’ll talk more about it next week; I would love to hear what you think!


*For more on the subject, see Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, by William R. Herzog, 1994.