Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI as a Good Friday reflection.
There’s always an out.
That should have been Jesus’s only thought as he went through his trial, or what attempted to pass for a trial that day before the Passover in the Gospel according to John.
There’s no such thing as the no-win scenario. There’s always a way out.
I went through the story and figured out how many times Jesus could have reasonably and successfully escaped his situation. It’s mind boggling that he was successfully tried and executed.
1) In the garden, when the soldiers and the police come to arrest Jesus, they ask for him to come forward. Jesus does so not once, but twice, asserting that he is the man they’ve come to arrest. If he’d kept his mouth shut or fled, he would never have been arrested in the first place.
2) At his trial before Annas, he is questioned about his teaching. Knowing his teaching to be truthful and right, even in the eyes of his people, he could have answered their questions. There is a reasonable chance that if they had nothing to charge him with, they would have let him go.
3) At his trial before Pilate, the poor case against Jesus is made abundantly clear. When Pilate asked his accusers what Jesus had done, they can’t even give an answer. “Well, obviously he’s a criminal, duh, or we wouldn’t have brought him to you,” they say–clearly avoiding answering the question because they can’t. Jesus could have gotten out if he spoke up.
4) Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews. Jesus asks him if others told Pilate to ask him this, further exposing the fraud of his trial. And yet instead of taking advantage of the situation, Jesus lets Pilate continue.
5) Even after all of this, Pilate still can’t make a case against Jesus. He attempts to set Jesus free, and when the crowd refuses, he has Jesus whipped and beaten, hoping that will satisfy the crowd.
6) When that doesn’t work, Pilate again tries to set Jesus free, and the crowd resists. Pilate again makes the case that Jesus is innocent, but the crowd persists. Pilate is literally fighting to save Jesus and has all authority to do so, but Jesus won’t say a word in his favor.
7) Pilate questions Jesus yet again, hoping to get anything at all he can use to set Jesus free. Again, Jesus refuses to help.
Finally, Pilate acquiesces to the mob’s demands and has Jesus crucified. Jesus makes sure that everything is as it should be—that his clothes are divided as prophesied, that his family is taken care of, that the scriptures are fulfilled. And then, willing, Jesus lets go of life and dies.
Seven times. Seven times, Jesus had blatant opportunities to escape his torture and death. The tactics used against him were laughable. The case against him indefensible. Seven openings for Jesus to take to get out of his fate.
He didn’t take a single one. And when it looked like he still might be set free anyway, he actually stepped in to ensure he’d go to his death. Seven times.
The most popular explanation for why Jesus did this is summarized in a theory called penal substitutionary atonement. It explains that Jesus went through all of this to his death instead of us because God’s justice needed to be satisfied. We were supposed to die because of our sin. And God, who is incapable of showing mercy or forgiveness, needed someone to die for the world to be right. Therefore, Jesus died in our place, a substitute for us, so that grisly justice might be done. It’s related to the ransom theory of atonement that says there was a price to be paid for us to be free of bondage, and the satisfaction theory that says Jesus’s death was to satisfy God’s wrath—a life needed to be taken, and only Jesus’s life could fully satisfy God.
These are my three least favorite theories of atonement, but they are the most popular of the prominent seven. They reduce Jesus’s sacrifice to a numbers or balance game. God required, Jesus provided. It’s just a transaction.
Nobody goes to their death for a purchase. Not willingly, and certainly not with the same devotion Jesus did. And further, such a transaction diminishes God, who in them is incapable of mercy and forgiveness.
There has to be more to Jesus’s death than just a payment. There has to be more than just this transaction, like Jesus is a product or currency to balance God’s checkbook. There has to be more to Jesus’s death than the idea that God needed Jesus to die.
And maybe there is. Maybe there is more to Jesus’s death than God needing it. Maybe it’s the other way around; maybe we needed Jesus to die.
It’s an interesting theory. Maybe we needed Jesus to die because there was no other way we could see just how far God was willing to go. How far could we push God? What would it take for God to give up and walk away from us, thereby confirming our idea that God is a horrible, angry, merciless God who’s only out to get us. How hard could we push? Could we force God’s hand? And so we did exactly that.
Making Jesus a scapegoat, we heaped on him every torture and pain we could, blaming him for everything wrong in the world. We were going to break God. We were going to be right. We stumbled our way through a trial, we put him up on a cross, and we watched him die. We watched the life bleed out of him until his eyes glassed over and his breathing stopped. Seven times he could have said no, he could have stopped it. But in the end, we did it—we proved how far we could push, how far God was willing to go. We forced God’s hand.
And only then, at the end, did we realize what we’d done.