The ethical importance of Jesus’ death

The way Jesus died is an example of the way Jesus lived

Ted Grimsrud

Originally published in Gospel Herald (April 4, 1995), 8-9.


“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice…’My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?… Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last” (Matt. 27:45-50).

This text brings us to the end of the story of Jesus’ life.  It is a tragic end, a devastating case of humankind’s inhumanity.  Jesus is executed in an utterly barbarous way.  He is crucified–grievously tortured and put to death.

Jesus was a uniquely good human being who stood for life.  To see this person who lived so fruitfully meet with such a death challenges us in a powerful way.  Was such a way of living futile? In a world which would murder such a person is there any room for goodness, love, and compassion?  Does Jesus’ death negate his affirmation of life?

I believe that even in this darkest of stories we may nonetheless find an affirmation of life.  This story exposes and thereby weakens the powers of the death, so widespread in our world.  We find elements of loyalty and faithfulness amidst the betrayals and injustice.  The way Jesus faced death underscores the quality of the life he lived.

The story of the end of Jesus’ life exposes the powerlessness of death.  This story tells us the “emperor” of power politics has no clothes.  This exposure, in itself, can be liberating.

Jesus catches up in his life and teaching our ideals for what human beings are meant to be.  Jesus reveals God fully present and incarnated in human life.  As such, Jesus is not some otherworldly superman.  Jesus is a human being, the most genuine human being, for sure–but one of us.

Because of who he was as a human being, Jesus being treated as he was by the religious and political leaders reveals that those leaders were against human beings.  They murdered the best of human beings.  Jesus revealed God’s endorsement of human beings.  When the leaders did Jesus in, they were rejecting God.

In the history of Christianity, people in churches have often, in practice, rejected God in similar ways by trusting in power politics, institutional loyalty, and “sacred ceremonies and rituals” that are exclusive and coercive.  Religious people have in actuality been willing to sacrifice human beings; to commit murder (through war and capital punishment); and, in other less dramatic ways, to do violence to human beings.

The cross of Jesus was not a unique event.  Many, many times political and religious institutions have acted with this kind of violence.  I read recently about the Nuremburg trials, where Nazi leaders were tried by the victorious Allies after World War II.  The article pointed out that many of the so-called war crimes committed by Germany–such as bombing civilians and murdering prisoners of war–were also committed by the Allies.  Both sides felt this massive sacrifice of life was necessary for the so-called greater “good.” Churches on both sides blessed these atrocities.

This revelation of the tendencies of religious and political powers-that-be can be liberating.  We can see, through Jesus’ fate, that these powers may actually be rejecting God.  When we see that, we will no longer give them our allegiance.

I am not speaking of violent revolution or even anarchism but an eyes-wide-open, critical attitude.  The state continues.  Religious institutions continue.  They generally deserve our cooperation.  But they are not the direct agents of God.  Often they are acting out rejection of God.

Jesus’ death may actually help us affirm life if it helps us to be free from the claims by the powers-that-be on our ultimate loyalty.  Genuinely to learn from Jesus’ death will help us to live out a “politics of Jesus” as an alternative to power politics–freeing us to base our lives on Jesus’ way of love rather than on a dog-eat-dog approach.

The story of Jesus’ death contains elements of loyalty and faithfulness.  Certainly it contains much fear and betrayal–think of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter denying that he even knew Jesus, and all of the other male disciples fleeing.

But in Matthew’s narrative, we read: “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.  Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matt. 27:55-56).

In the context of a world collapsing and the sheer terror which had overwhelmed Peter and the others, we read a poignant account of sustained loyalty and commitment.  Mary Magdalene might have been Jesus’ best friend, the most faithful of his followers.  She stayed as close to Jesus as possible throughout these terrible moments.  In fact, she is pictured later as the first to discover the empty tomb.  She, for one, did not desert Jesus.  She remained nearby, even in the face of the terrible mob violence that took his life.  She was courageous and faithful to her friendship.

Luke’s Gospel reports that Mary had experienced deliverance from demons, thanks to Jesus.  She gained from this an unshakable commitment to him, a capability to follow in his way of courage and faithfulness.

Mary’s loyalty shows goodness in the midst of brokenness.  The almost overwhelming reality was that of brokenness, bad news, violence, and disarray.  Somehow, though, the little light of love, loyalty, and care remained flickering.  These women didn’t save Jesus or step in and destroy the people who derided Jesus or overthrow the religious and political leaders.  They simply hung around, staying with Jesus as best they could.  They kept the light flickering.

By doing so, they provided the foundation for what happens a few days later.  Somehow, against all hope, the flickering light of love and loyalty–a continued affirmation of life in the face of such a shattering death–flamed back up when Jesus was discovered still to live.  These women were the only ones who provided continuity from the life of Jesus as teacher and healer through his death to the restored and reinvigorated community of the resurrection.

Ultimately, we see in the way Jesus died a clear example of the way he lived.  That is, he faced death courageously, without compromising his style of life, with an awareness of those around him, and with a clear sense of purpose and self-awareness.

Jesus died for the sake of living truthfully.  He died because he did not give in to the devil’s temptations. Remember the story of how Jesus, at the beginning of his public ministry, retreated deep into the desert and came face-to-face with the devil.

These temptations foreshadowed what Jesus would face throughout the rest of his life.  The people sought to make him king.  He fed the multitudes.  He was followed as a wonder-worker.

Jesus’ basic temptation was seeking, first of all, to do what was most effective.  Jesus rejected this temptation.  Placing the priority on effectiveness, even in trying to fix brokenness, ultimately only adds to the brokenness.

This is the sentiment behind Jesus’ response to Peter when Peter tried to talk Jesus out of taking the path of suffering.  Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!” That is, you are offering Satan’s temptation of seeking effectiveness first.

Jesus’ response to the devil emerged from his own deep struggle.  He asserted: Trust God.  Trust in God’s abundance.  In doing so, we will have no need to think of how to manipulate and control in order to be effective.  Jesus’ life, right up to and including his horrible death, witnesses to that rejection of idolizing effectiveness and self-protection and his corresponding trust in God and God’s abundance.  That trust meant that he did not have to fight back.  He did not have to give up on love for other people in order to protect himself.

This story of the death of Jesus affirms life. In seeing the powers of death exposed, we are helped in seeking to live freely from submission to those powers.  We see the significance of the seemingly small, flickering light of loyalty and faithfulness to Jesus’ way, even when it seems smallest and least relevant. Most of all, we see the connection between a life well lived and a death well faced.

Jesus points us to God, to God’s character as it genuinely is.  In so doing, he encourages us.  Even in the face of death, God’s gift of life may be affirmed.  Even in the face of death, we may trust in God’s abundance.

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