It didn’t have to end this way.
A question that perhaps every Christian has asked at some point is this: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Or perhaps more to the point: What kind of God would allow, even demand, the torture and death of his own son?
Writer Mary Gordon tells of a Jewish friend who became irate when speaking about the death of Jesus. “The idea that God would demand the death of his son was to him hateful,” she writes.
“For him such a suggestion was one of the things that made the idea of God untenable; even if such a God existed, he could not be a God of love; therefore, if he elicited any response it would be one not of love, but at best a rebellious contempt.”
If God did, indeed, demand Jesus’ death in this horrible way, then Gordon’s Jewish friend is right – such a God could not be a God of love, and should be held in contempt, not worshipped.
But Scripture tells us that is not the way it happened. Jesus’ story of suffering, death, and resurrection is not fated; the ending was not set in stone from before the beginning. Everything could have turned out differently.
Jesus was not a puppet in a script written in advance by his father. He was a human being struggling to be faithful, to live with integrity, to discover what he was called to do, and to have the courage to do it.
All along the way, Jesus had choices. He could have become a carpenter, married, and raised a family. In the desert after his baptism, he could have taken one of Satan’s offers for power, glory, and fame.
He could have stayed away from Jerusalem, where he knew authorities were waiting for him. He could have decided in the Garden of Gethsemane to run away, as he was tempted to do. He could have placated Herod or Pilate and begged for release.
Who would have blamed him?
All along the way there were choices – real choices that Jesus struggled to make. In that garden before his arrest, he prayed so hard and in such anguish, Luke tells us, that sweat poured from him “like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”
In our own day, Jesus and the life-choices he made are mirrored by those of Martin Luther King Jr. and El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Both King and Romero knew that if they continued on the paths they were on, it was likely, perhaps even inevitable, that their lives would end in violence. Both had opportunities along the way to stop, to take a different path.
They refused. The result: King, killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis; Romero assasinated while celebrating the Eucharist.
Both chose to continue on the paths that led to their deaths — not because they wanted to be murdered, but because they wanted to be faithful to what they believed God was calling them to do – to stand up for justice, to be a voice for those living in poverty and oppression.
Jesus, too, made his choices knowing what the consequences were likely to be. His death on the cross was not foreordained, but given the choices he made it was inevitable.
If Jesus didn’t have a choice, didn’t struggle, didn’t face his death with anguish and fear, then there is really no need for us to read the passion story.
We don’t learn from a puppet acting out a script. We learn from real human beings, struggling and succeeding; sometimes failing. We read the passion stories to learn our own ways of faithfulness, and to find ourselves within Jesus’ journey.
As Nikos Katzantazkis wrote in the prologue to his famous novel The Last Temptation of Christ, “In order to mount the cross, Christ passed through all the stages which men and women who struggle pass through.
“That is why his suffering is so familiar to us, that is why we share it, and why his final victory seems to us so much our future victory.
“That part of Christ’s nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand him and love him and pursue his passion as if it were our own. If he had not had within him this warm human element, he would never be able to touch our hearts with such assurance and tenderness, he would not be able to become a model for our lives.
“We struggle, we see him struggle also, and we find strength. We see that we are not alone in this world: He is at our side.”
Indeed, the story of Jesus’ passion could have been different—easier, simpler, happier. Thanks be to God it was not.
Not because God demanded Jesus’ suffering, or any suffering. But because there is suffering in the world and sometimes in our lives, because there is violence, and destruction, and death, so often among the weakest and most vulnerable of God’s children
And because we need to know how we are to keep faith with them, and with all who suffer, including our families, our friends, and indeed, ourselves.
Because the one who came to save us, to lead us into life and light, experienced these depths of the human condition, we know that at our darkest moments Christ understands and stays with us.
What Jesus as savior offers us is not immunity from pain and suffering, but his companionship in all our dark nights.
Theologian Paul Tillich puts it this way: “It is the greatness and heart of the Christian message that God, as manifest in Christ on the cross, totally participates in the dying of a child, in the condemnation of a criminal, in the disintegration of a mind, in starvation and famine, and even in the human rejection of Himself.
“There is no human condition into which the divine presence does not penetrate. This is what the Cross, the most extreme of all human conditions, tells us.”
Thanks be to God.