A 'WHO DUNNIT' WITH A GRACIOUS TWIST
Do you like a good 'Who dunnit'? A murder mystery, a crime story of some sort, where you get to try to figure out 'Who dunnit'?
There was a movie several years ago (1996) with Mel Gibson and Rene Russo called "Ransom." Gibson was a wealthy airline owner whose young son gets kidnaped and held for $2 million ransom. The first attempt at a drop for the ransom goes bad, and then Gibson decides to turn the tables, offering the ransom money to catch the ring leading kidnaper. It's also a 'Who dunnit' movie, because the audience gets to see who the 'grunt work' kidnapers are but not the ring leader. No, the ring leader turns out to be . . . well, maybe I shouldn't tell you. It would spoil the 'Who dunnit.' Let me just say that there's a definite twist at the end. The one who is demanding the ransom is a surprise, someone you wouldn't expect.
In our Gospel Lesson this morning, we have a 'Who dunnit' and a ransom. Jesus concludes with these words, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." The Son of Man as a ransom for many. The term "Son of Man" is a bit vague, though we generally agree that Jesus meant to refer to himself. So Jesus pays a ransom. And the ransom is paid "for many." That's kind of vague, too, but presumably it means that it's for us, humanity: Jesus came to ransom us away from whoever has a hold on us. The question remains, 'Who dunnit'? Who is it that Jesus is ransoming us from? Who demands the ransom?
Let's be clear: This is the most important 'Who dunnit' we could possibly attempt to figure out. It's the 'Who dunnit' that our very lives depend on, for we are the ones who are ransomed from death. Jesus is the one who pays the ransom. But who is demanding it? 'Who dunnit'? Who has us in captivity? Who might kill us if the ransom can't be paid?
This is the most important 'Who dunnit' because I think the most common answer has been: God. Some might say it's Satan. Jesus pays the ransom to Satan to set us free. But I'm not sure that's the most popular answer when we consider the most common form of the doctrine of atonement. Atonement is the act of reconciliation with God in the cross of Jesus. And doesn't the most common notion of atonement go something like this: God is a just and punishing God whose wrath would consume us because of our sins if Jesus didn't step in and pay the price for us. Does that sound familiar? And doesn't this idea of atonement assume that the 'Who dunnit?' is God? That Jesus came to satisfy God's anger at our sin? That Jesus came to pay the price for our sins?
But like that Mel Gibson movie, I think that Jesus came to not only pay the ransom for us but also to reveal the real culprit or culprits, the one or ones behind the demand for the ransom. And like the movie, I think there's a definite twist at the end, when Jesus goes to the cross. The demander of the ransom is unexpected.
In solving this 'Who dunnit,' let's begin with the popular notion: that it's God who demands the ransom. We have this idea about a God who's maybe like a stern father: he's loving, yes, but he also makes you toe the line. You better believe he'll punish you if you misbehave. Isn't that how we often view God? But in claiming that Jesus came to show us who his Father in heaven is, I believe that Jesus came to change our minds about God in this most crucial of ways. God does not demand a punishment to be paid. God is not like our stern father.
My favorite story about changing our minds about God is one from Christian counselor Dennis Linn, a personal story about how his mind was changed about God. (1) He tells of Hilda coming into his office one day because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She described how her son was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder and then ended her list of her son's "big sins" with, "What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?"
Pastor Linn tells how he himself believed in the popular version of God being something like a stern father, but the counselor in him didn't want to say so. Instead, he began by asking Hilda what she thought. But Hilda herself was still trapped in that same idea of God. "Well," she replied, "I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell." Sadly, she concluded, "Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell."
Again, Pastor Linn didn't want to directly agree with her so he tried another indirect tactic. He had Hilda close her eyes and imagine herself sitting next to the judgment seat of God. He also had her imagine her son's arrival at the judgment seat with all his serious sins and without repenting. Then he asked her, "Hilda, how does your son feel?" Hilda answered, "My son feels so lonely and empty." So Pastor Linn asked Hilda what she would do, to which she responded, "I want to throw my arms around my son." She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.
Finally, when she had stopped crying, Pastor Linn asked her to look into God's eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced her son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another. What Pastor Linn said he learned about God that day is this: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most. God loves us unconditionally.
Isn't this the God that Jesus came to show us? I think that St. John put it most clearly when he begins his first letter: "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). No darkness at all. To me, this means that God couldn't be the angry one who demands a ransom. No, as St. John goes on to say over and over again in this letter, God is love. Not God is love and sometimes anger, sometimes a justice that needs satisfying by punishing wrongdoers. No, God is love. Period. I think that's what Jesus came to show us on the cross. Jesus came to fundamentally change our minds about God so that we might give up the false notions about gods who demand things like punishments and ransoms. Yes, Jesus came to pay the ransom for us, but it wasn't to God.
Then, 'Who dunnit'? Who did Jesus come to pay the ransom to? Is it Satan? This is closer, I think, but still gets us off track. Jesus does talk about Satan in some crucial ways, but this can get us off the track of the real 'Who dunnit.' No, the cross gives us a definite twist at the end. The cross shows us that the real 'Who dunnit' is . . . us! Yes, us! Jesus came into history so that we could finally give up our false notions about God, so that we could finally give up trying to blame someone outside of history like Satan. Jesus had to come into history so that we could finally see that we are the ones who demand the ransoms for our own souls. We are the wrathful ones who kill each other.
This is what this entire section of Mark's Gospel is all about! Jesus is desperately trying to teach his disciples the truth. Three times he tells them point blank who he will be handed over to -- in other words, who it is who will demand the ransom. Just before our Gospel Lesson today, we read the third prediction:
Jesus took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again." (Mark 10:32b-34)Could Jesus make it any more clear for us? He was handed over into human hands! We are the holders who demand ransom! That's the twist! And a mighty big twist it is, to be sure. It's one we still refuse to see. The church has still continued to teach a false punishing God who demands the ransom. Next week is Reformation Sunday. I suggest to you today that this is still one of the ways in which the Church is desperately in need of reform. We have to stop teaching this view of God in the atonement, that Jesus must pay the price to an angry, punishing God. No, this is what Luther tried to tell us, that God is fully a God of grace and love. Next week, I will continue this theme of the desperate need for reform in the church today.
This morning, I will simply end with that message of amazing Grace! That Jesus comes to pay the ransom for us and to us. He hands himself over into our hands, submits to our punishment, submits to our death, and God raises him up. Jesus shows us that God is not about death and killing and ransom. We are! No, God is about life, eternal life, about raising people to new life. That, my friends, is the 'Who dunnit' story with the most important twist imaginable at the end, the twist of a loving God who saves you and me from our own deadly plot by allowing the Son to pay the ransom with his life -- a life which is then given back to him so that he might share it with us, and so that we might share it with others. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, October 19, 2003
1. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.