Why Jesus Died…And Why We’d Probably Kill Him Again

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Did you ever wonder why Jesus died? That may seem a strange question, as we’re so used to assuming his death that we often give it little real thought. And I’m not looking for an immediately theological answer, like “to take away sin” or “in order to redeem us.” No. I mean, why did Jesus die? What made people so mad they’d kill him? After all, it seems like he basically comes proclaiming the kingdom of God by teaching, preaching, healing people, feeding people, and forgiving sin. Right? So what’s so bad about that?

This week’s gospel reading offers an answer. Jesus is dining at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. Before we go any further, we’d better remind ourselves that the Pharisees were actually the good guys in First Century Judaism. I know we know that, but it’s so easy to forget. So let’s cover the basics. The Pharisees were the ones that cared deeply about their religion, the ones who took responsibility for it flourishing. They were the elders, church council members, Sunday School superintendants and the like of that day.

So Jesus is dining in a Pharisee’s home, when all of a sudden a woman — and not just any woman, but a woman with a reputation — breaks in and starts weeping at his feet, literally bathing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and then kissing them and anointing them with oil. It’s hard to over emphasize the scene this would have created. Seriously. Think, majorly, majorly scandalous. Which is what gets the Pharisee thinking, actually smirking, at Jesus’ expense: “If this man were really a prophet, he’d know what kind of woman this is….”

Turns out, though, that Jesus is a prophet — he not only knows what kind of woman this is but what kind of man Simon is and even what he’s thinking. So Jesus tells a little parable about a creditor forgiving the debts of two borrowers and asks Simon who he thinks will be more grateful, they guy forgiven fifty denarii or five hundred? Duh. Simon answers five hundred and Jesus tells him he’s right.

It’s a setup, of course, as Jesus then compares Simon’s lack of basic social manners with the woman’s extravagant hospitality. Whereas the woman knows both her sin and her forgiveness and consequently lives out her gratitude, Simon, Jesus implies, does not act particularly grateful because he doesn’t believe he needs forgiveness…and, Simon must infer, will not be forgiven.

And that’s what gets Jesus killed. It’s not the preaching, teaching, healing or feeding. It’s not even the setup. It’s the forgiving. Forgiveness, you see, implies need, guilt, and brokenness. And so while there’s nothing better than being offered forgiveness if you know you need it, there’s simultaneously nothing worse than being offered forgiveness if you don’t. (That’s why, by way of example, Pat Nixon called Gerald Ford’s pardon of her husband, “the saddest day of my life” — she believed to the end that her husband had done nothing wrong.)

This is what gets Jesus killed and, truth be told, why we’d probably kill him again. No one — not me, not you, not anyone you’ll ever meet — wants to admit need, guilt, and brokenness. We might do it, but only because we have to, only when we’ve run through every other option, only when our back is to the wall and we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Why? Because admitting our need, guilt, and brokenness demolishes all of our illusions about self-sufficiency. Since Eden on, humanity has been plagued by a keen ache and piercing hunger to make it on our own, to need no one, not even God (and maybe especially not God).

Most of the time we’re able, if not to actually to be independent (really — think of all the people we depend upon), to at least act that way, to keep the illusion fresh. Until Jesus comes along and offers us forgiveness, that is. From the anger and shame and embarrassment we feel at his mere mention of the word, we know he has us. We know he knows us. We know the jig is up, just like that. Our pretense fails, our dream dies, and we die with it.

And so rather than die we kill him. We did then, and we’d do it again. We are Simon, and Caiaphas, and Pontius all rolled into one. But Jesus is more than a prophet. He’s also the Lord, the Son of God. He knows what kind of people we are, even what we’re thinking, and he comes for us anyway. That’s what love does — it refuses to count the cost. But it’s more than that. Because Jesus is Lord he not only comes and dies but he’s also raised again. And then we’re stuck. If he won’t stay dead, the jig is really up. Because there he is, still knowing us, still loving us, still forgiving us. And this time, with no way out, we die — to the pretense, to the denial, to the illusion — only to be raised by the love and forgiveness Jesus has embodied all along.

This is why Jesus dies. And why he’s raised again. So that we might know the fatal delusions we live and die by and be encountered, known, and loved by God’s Son. And if we now find ourselves now weeping along side this nameless woman — and who knows, perhaps Luke declines to identify her precisely so that we can see ourselves in her — then who can blame us? Forgiveness, mercy, grace has such an otherworldly, heartbreaking character that it does that.

Yeah, this is why Jesus died, and why he was raised again. And, when you think of it, it’s why we preach. It’s just too much to expect anyone to just die all on our own, and so we need a little help. We need the preached word to reveal our need, to put us to death, so that we might hear the same word and be raised to new life. It may not always be easy work — that’s for certain — but it sure is good work. Thanks for doing it.

Yours in Christ,