Sunday, 18 October 2009

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 10:35-45, Isa 53:10-11
Suffering is something that none of us like, yet, we heard in today's gospel the Lord Jesus say of Himself not only that He would die but this is why He had come into the world: He had "come... to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45) -a reference to His approaching crucifixion. He came into the world to do this for us because He obviously felt that we needed this done for us -but I thought that today I would say a little about this word and concept of "ransom".

A "ransom" is a sum of money that is paid for something. If somebody has been taken prisoner or hostage then a ransom is the payment that is made that their release. And there are many places in the New Testament where the death of Jesus is referred to as a "payment" (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:19, 1 Pet. 1:18).
But this might seem like a curious thing because the death of Jesus is not a sum of money.
In addition, if the death of Jesus is a payment then WHO does Jesus need to pay? There are a number of answers to this question: He paid the devil, He paid Himself, we might even say that He paid us.

Scripture says many times, and we find it quite frequently on the lips of our Lord in the gospels, that Satan, the prince of all the devils, is also "the prince of THIS world" (e.g. Jn 12:31, Jn 16:11, Eph 2:2, c.f. Jn.8:34; 2 Pet. 2:19). Now, when Jesus says that Satan is "the prince of this world" he is referring to this world in as much as it exists as a place of sin: as a consequence of the Original Sin of our first parents and as a consequence of the personal sins of each one of us ever since, we live in a world that is intertwined with sin.
Scripture tells us that when Satan rebelled against God, Satan and all his fallen angels were cast out from heaven. But they have not yet been cast out from this world because WE choose to allow him to reign in this world, in our hearts.
Each time we sin we make ourselves slaves to sin and slaves to the one whom Jesus called "the Evil One"(e.g. Mt 13:19). We have given ourselves over into the captivity of the Evil One. And as slaves of the evil one we need to be bought back from him: we need someone to pay the price that will “ransom” us back from him. This is what Jesus did on the cross.

That said, God does not really NEED to pay the devil anything. The Lord God Almighty is called "Almighty" for a reason: He is Almighty over all things, even over the devil, even the devil whom He allows to continue to tempt us. So, when theologians speak of the death of Jesus being a ransom paid to the devil this cannot mean something that Jesus literally NEEDED to do. (And it was not a literal payment because it was not money.) Nonetheless, Scripture uses this language of "ransom" and "payment" because it expresses the truth that the demands of justice have been satisfied. God is not only merciful He is just as well, and in seeking to save us from our sins He did not wish to be seen to cheat the devil or even to cheat Himself: Scripture tells us that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), and by the Lord Jesus dying for us He intended that none of us should doubt that the wages have been paid, and paid for us: paid for me, and paid for you.

So, if Jesus is more Almighty and the devil and thus did not NEED to pay a ransom to the devil, if the Lord did not NEED to satisfy justice and so did not need to pay a ransom to Himself, then many have noted that it was nonetheless "fitting" that He should pay such a ransom for us. But the ransom Jesus paid, the suffering He endured, was infinitely greater than it NEEDED to be, even for this “fittingness”: as the great hymn of Saint Thomas Aquinas puts it, "one drop" of the infinite merits of God's dying on the cross was more than "ransom for a world's entire guilt". As St Alphonsus sums it up, the cross was given to us as a sign of love, a sign that we might not doubt that God loves us -the cross is more about love than about justice. It is a sign to us, and thus, in a more extended sense, if we are pondering WHO the ransom was paid to we might even say it was paid to us.
As I started by saying, He did not choose to die because He liked suffering, rather, He chose to die that we might never doubt that the “price”, the "ransom", has been paid for our sins. “You are not your own, for you have been bought at a great price. [Therefore] glorify God and bear Him in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19).

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