Why Did Jesus Die?: Keep Asking
By Madison McClendon
In English worship this Lenten season, more than one preacher has reminded us of a truth: when asking why Jesus had to die, the answer is often simpler than complex theories of the atonement would have you believe. The truth is that Jesus was human. And so he died, in the same way you and me and all other humans will die eventually.
So the question, for me, is deeper than why Jesus died, the question is why he died the way he did. He was killed before he could live to the point that many of us hope and pray for, to die surrounded by loved ones and family, connected to others who will grieve us but can celebrate with us a long life. He died in pain, where for many of us what we desire most from our death is an easy struggle. This was a question that bothered the writers of the Gospels, too, and anyone who believed as we do that Jesus is God. If God is so powerful, why would Jesus die the way he did?
Jesus upset the power structures of his time, calling on Rome to stop oppressing people, as well as calling on specific religious leaders of his own faith to remember what God was about in the world. He healed people on the margins, loved those who he wasn’t supposed to love, and, driven by his own deeply Jewish faith, insisted that the outward forms of religion mattered only when married to a deep and abiding passion for justice and love, a passion that on its own mattered more than any rules about the Sabbath or concerns about religious order. His message inspired the poor around the sea of Galilee and in Jerusalem; it made people think that Roman rule was not forever, that the wealthy and powerful were not the ones God had blessed most richly, and that simply “keeping the peace” wasn’t the will of God, not when peace meant injustice.
And this put Jesus on a collision course with the authorities; Jesus died when he did and how he did because this is how people who challenge the kind of power Rome once held often died. He died because he said there was another way, and that other way was not what imperial Rome wanted to hear.
In our lives, we still see people dying because they don’t have the right kinds of power. People die from treatable, manageable diseases like diabetes because they cannot afford insulin. People are imprisoned unjustly, or die under suspicious circumstances in police custody. Young people die in their schools, because a powerful lobby controls our entire public conversation about violence and the weapons of wars on our streets. Just like Jesus, people today still know what it means to die of unjust causes.
And yet, despite knowing that standing up for what he believed in could get him killed, Jesus chose to stand up anyway. He chose to tell Rome that the Temple was not a place for bankers to keep people impoverished. He said that religious rules were no reason not to love a blind beggar. He said that the Kingdom of God was more powerful than a Temple, more powerful than an Empire, more powerful than human hands. He said that people mattered, and that their lives were of impossible value. He chose to live.
And so this Lent, what matters most to me is not that Jesus died, though he did die. What matters most to me is not even why he died the way he did. What matters most to me is that he lived in the service of God. Throughout his life, he stood up for marginalized people, he learned from them, he grew with them and alongside them, and he said that the image of God rested upon them and would flow through their liberation. What matters to me is that this life, lived so freely and so openly to others, was a life that could not be killed by Rome or religious leaders or death itself, but burst open in resurrection. And what matters to me is that this life, this life that Jesus led, is a life to which I am called also.
As we move toward Holy Week, let us remember what it means to live like Jesus, and strive to live the way he did: in courage, and hope, even if to do it we must defy the powers that can kill our body. And may we pray, should we have to face that most difficult test, that our hope will be rewarded through the promises of resurrection, and the glories of a world renewed in love.
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