For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
Negotiating with the bad guys is never a good idea we are taught. Our country has a strict policy of not negotiating with terrorists because it is thought that it gives in to their pressure and validates them in some way. Even if it means the death of our citizens, negotiating or paying some sort of ransom contradicts our larger strategy of fighting against evil. Similarly when there is a kidnapping which intends to extort payment, the police and other officials advise against paying any ransom. If money can be procured from such actions, more kidnappings will be encouraged.
But in scripture the term “ransom” is sometimes used to refer to the act of God giving his Son up to death on the cross. Does that imply that there is some evil force in the world that God is negotiating with? Is Jesus some sort of cosmic payment to the devil in the hopes that we will be spared death ourselves? If so, it’s not a good strategy. Evil still remains. Death does not stop with Jesus’ crucifixion. The beloved children of God still end up in the grave. Suffering continues despite Jesus’ life and death. Even his resurrection does not put an end to that.
We stray in our understanding of this term when we imagine that God is an angry, vengeful, petty being who demands some sort of payment to keep him from condemning us for eternity. The logic of that doesn’t quite add up as God would actually be paying himself off in such a transaction. The term ransom can get us into trouble, entrapping us in thoughts of reward and punishment rather than the gospel of grace and forgiveness through Christ.
But the term does make some things pretty clear about who God is and how God works. The New Testament Greek words for ransom and release share the same root. God, through his Son, releases us from the bondage of sin and death. While sin and death remain, they do not fully determine us. God does what we cannot do for ourselves. God makes a sacrifice for us, gives of himself, so that we may know his great love for us. Such an action reveals, not a mean-spirited God but a loving and generous God.
In our world, when ransom is demanded by some group, the perpetrators are hoping to use the compassion of the person’s loved ones to gain some payment. And those loved ones want to do anything they can to save the person who is being ransomed. The use of that term in scripture helps us understand that God cares deeply for us and will go to any length to foster a deeper relationship with us. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He saves us from hopelessness and despair. He gives us new life and hope. If we think of God only as the distant and harsh God who demands a payment for our sins, we have forgotten the notion that God is the one who does the paying for us. God doesn’t demand ransom. God provides ransom. God doesn’t hold us prisoner. God frees us.
God releases us from all that binds us.
Lent is now upon us. Draw near to God in faith. Meditate on his great love and generosity. Make use of the sacraments and liturgies of God’s Church. God is not waiting for us to come up with some way of making things better with him. God himself acts to make all things well.
We have been set free. But do our lives reflect that gift? How would you live this day differently if you truly believed that God has intervened to rescue you from that which takes life away from you? God doesn’t negotiate with the evil forces of this world. God absorbs evil. God transforms evil. God’s nature is to create, to save, to sustain, to nurture, and to invite. How are you responding to that great gift?
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.