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Mercy, maths and the Crucifixion

Fr Jim McDermott SJ  |  27 January 2016

In the teaching of the Catholic Church, God’s forgiveness of our sins is only possible because of Christ’s death on the cross. But what does this really mean? Fr Jim McDermott takes a deeper look. 

The older I get, the more I feel like I might be becoming kind of a cranky Christian. It’s not just that I find myself yelling at the neighbour kids to get off our lawn – excuse me, are they planning to reseed those divots themselves? 

No, it’s bigger than that. Beliefs and teachings that earlier in my life I accepted without question now stick on my tongue. I can’t just swallow them because someone tells me. 

Take for example the way we Christians can talk about the death of Jesus, the mathematical ways we sometimes interpret our belief that ‘Jesus died for our sins.’ Jesus dies = We are saved.

In the calculus of the ancient world, that kind of an equation made sense. Gods were believed to be appeased through violence. The stability of society was reestablished through sacrifice. 

But we are not living in the ancient world. We know today that murder does not save. Indeed, as the recently deceased philosopher René Girard wrote, Jesus’ cross was an indictment of that way of thinking. It displayed the innocent victim, the brutality at the heart of such an equation. 

I know, these questions seem kind of above our pay grade, don’t they? How could we possibly claim to appreciate God’s sense of order or logic? Seriously: even the words theologians use to try to understand the mind of God are hard to understand. And don’t even get me started on explaining the Trinity. To paraphrase Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind, ‘We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ them babies.’ 

But still, ‘Others’ death=Our salvation’ sounds an awful lot like human logic, doesn’t it? And what kind of a God would be OK with human sacrifice anyway? Not one we would hope to meet when we die, I suspect. Or even run into at the footy. (In fact I’m pretty sure I have met that God at the footy. He seemed especially keen on the hot jam donuts.)

It just doesn’t add up. And honestly, I don’t know about you but I don’t want my nephews and nieces growing up thinking God might work like this, might in fact require or be responsible for anyone’s death. The story of our salvation is the story of God rescuing humanity from precisely such notions and societies. Even in the Old Testament, where God is often portrayed as violent and unpredictable, God at times comes to rescue Israel from Himself. 

When it comes to the crucifixion, we need other ways of thinking. Jesus is not the answer to a maths problem. He does not ‘solve for X.’

I’ve tussled and turned with this for some time (even before my ongoing descent into old man veranda yelling). And the idea that has most helped me is that when it comes to the logic of God, maybe we need to stop thinking in terms of ritual scapegoats and start thinking in terms of love. 

He’s just that into you

Jesus is a man, God become flesh, who came among us because he saw how much we were in need, how hungry and confused and sad we were, and wanted to be the light that would shine in our darkness, illuminate the Lord who loves us, and help us on our way.

And his death really came from that commitment. It was just as true then as it is today: If you really want to scare people, tell them that you love them. His commitment threatened both individuals great and small, and the overall religious and political systems, which marginalised some to ‘protect’ the faith or state. And so of course some wanted him dead. 

Jesus could have run away or stopped preaching. But that would have meant walking away from the people, those who knew they were hungry for hope and kindness and looked to him for help, and also those who were just as hungry and didn’t know it, whose pain was pushed back behind their rage and grief and condemnation. 

Walking away: that’s not who God is. So Jesus kept on going, knowing it probably would not end well for him. And boy was that an understatement. 

Faithfulness – for me, that’s the key that unlocks the story of our salvation. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus is a story of God demonstrating, not some sort of weird ancient murder logic, but a dogged unrelenting faithfulness to us. Jesus was so faithful to us that he not only came down to earth to be with us, he refused to run away when threatened. And when he died, God the Father raised him up, demonstrating in one final and miraculous way just how committed to us he is. 

It’s a package deal, Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection. Together they express one truth, that God does not give up on us, ever. That he will be faithful to us to the very end – and even after that. 

They call it Good News for a very good reason. And I guess Good Friday, too. 



Topic tags: ourrelationshipwithgod, people’sstoriesoffaith, scriptureandjesus

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