A Ransom for Many
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: James 5: 13-29; Mark 10: 35-45
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” — Mark 10:45
This passage reveals how human the disciples were and how divine Jesus is. They are full of ambition and rivalry, he is humble and generous, they are in it for the glory, he is on his way to shame, they want to rule, he wants to serve. Theirs are the marks of the human, his are the signs of the divine.
When you summarize the situation in this way you see how it is self-evident that the divine must be like this. Because He already has glory He does not need the envy of pitiable men, because He already rules the earth he does not need the sad sovereignty of this world. Because God needs nothing, not even what we call dignity, he can put himself at our service and give his life in our stead.
These unspoken assumptions are a foil to the sneaky ambition of James and John. Indeed, they are so base that Matthew (20:20-21) amends the story to make their mother the one who asks Jesus to give her boys the places of greatest power and highest dignity in his Kingdom. Matthew must have thought, “Ambitious mothers are the stuff of folklore and comedy, but obsequious disciples who betray their friends are from the quotidian world of competition and violence, and we can’t have James and John, these top drawer disciples, shown up as just like us, so we’ll blame it one their mother.” Thus another mother takes the rap for her children, serves as their whipping boy, and gives her reputation to ransom them.
God needs nothing to be sure, but God wants something absolutely: He wants me to love Him back, consciously and constantly. God loves me absolutely and is devastated when I spurn His love. God will go to any lengths to win it back. He will humble Himself not just to our level but lower, to the level of our servant, and not just a regular servant but one so abject that his very life is in our hands. He came to serve us and to give us his life, and that is the only way He can set us free from the prison camp of self-delusion and mutual destruction, where violence in its many modes – revenge and treason, falsehood and flattery, the phony face and the poison tongue, and so on, and so on – hems us in. He went into that concentration camp instead of us; he bared his breast to that violence instead of us, he lifted from us the weight of our chains and opened the gates of the camp. “You are free to go,” he says. “Where shall I go?” I ask. “Come to me,” he says, ” and I will give you rest. Take up my burden, feel how light it is, and my yoke, feel how easy it is, and come, follow me (Matthew 11:28-29 paraphrase).” And I say, “Yes Lord, but I am too proud to serve and too much a coward to risk my life, so I think I’ll stay in this camp with the violent friends I know, until I get a better offer. Thanks but no thanks; your way is too hard.”
The historical background of this text is the widespread phenomenon of kidnapping and ransom in that time and place. Many little wars produced many prisoners to be ransomed, so you could all of a sudden find yourself in need of a savior. Imagine the relief when someone shows up to pay your price and set you free. He would be giving you back your life. If furthermore he told you that he was doing this because he loves you absolutely, one might expect that you would be thankful, and possibly even love him in return; but we know better than that; we know how readily ingratitude (“sharper than a serpent’s tooth”) trumps thankfulness, and how hard love comes.
Never mind, the next time you are kidnapped or taken prisoner he will again be there to serve you – by giving his body to the lash in place of yours, taking the violence off your back and laying it on his own. He will again step forward to be “wounded for your transgressions, bruised for your iniquities, and heal you with his welts” (c.f. Isaiah 53:5 paraphrase).
By now you realize that we are considering one of the great theories of the atonement, the ransom theory. Surprisingly, Christian theology has been hard put to explain why Jesus had to die for our salvation. Lacking a theory of violence very early we turned to metaphors drawn from life. The lambs that died daily in the temple, the benefactors who ransomed prisoners and on occasion even substituted themselves for a prisoner, these were the bases of the metaphors for two important images of what Jesus did for us. They and others we have no time to mention, all have one form of violence or another as a focus – in these cases the violence of slaughter, and the violence of abduction and imprisonment. Our abducted, tortured and murdered Lord appears as the revelation of the horror of violence and its anguish, identifies with it, bears it, and thus makes it bearable. How? I don’t know how, but I do know that …, and “that” is “all you know and all you need to know. (Keats).” That in Jesus God takes the violence into himself is the crowning miracle of our creation, the moment when the Creator takes destruction into himself and re-creates it as the New Creation.
Read again this story of typically human selfishness as James and John try to get one up on their friends and colleagues. Honor among thieves! Pshaw, what about honor among saints? If this happens in the small community of the disciples of Jesus, the founders and exemplars of our faith, why am I surprised that the least honorable people I encountered in my life were church elders, saintly ladies and substantial citizens. I know why my Lord preferred the company of so-called sinners, but he did put up with the disciples and that is a great comfort to me.
So what shall we do now? The average preacher in my social world would say, “Go now and be a servant like Jesus,” and that is indeed in the text; nevertheless I think such commands are ironic, but I don’t have time to prove that now. The downside of trying to serve and to give your life like Jesus is that it adds to the mountain of guilt that already weighs us down. I can barely keep from screaming when my pastors tell me to go forth in the power of their puny sermons and change the world. Sheer, witless pride!
Therefore, I say the opposite, let Jesus serve you and give you his life! See what happens then. Don’t be like Peter who, you remember, would not let Jesus wash his blessed to receive than to give, especially with God, feet (John 13). Let Jesus serve you and see what happens! I dare you. Remember, it is more for what can we give God? Only our love and humble trust, a humble love that will let Him do for us the loving things we really cannot do for ourselves. Let go and let God love you. He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. So reach out your hands and take it!