Why did Jesus die? His message and the movement he led was subversive, a threat to national security. It was as simple as that.
In weighing the various scriptures that relate to the question of why Jesus was killed, I give the most weight to the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-19). This is Jesus’ own version of the story of what he saw happening that would lead to his death.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants features God as vineyard owner, the earth as God’s vineyard, and human beings as tenants. The vineyard owner expects to receive some of the harvest, and sends his servants, again and again, to collect what is owed. But the tenants are wicked—they beat the servants and send them back empty handed. The tenants are supposed to be responsible to the vineyard owner, but they take over the farm. Finally the vineyard owner takes a chance—he sends his beloved son, saying, “Perhaps they will respect him.” But the tenants see the son’s arrival as an opportunity to do away with him and take ownership of the vineyard themselves. They kill the son and their own destruction follows.
How could this story be any clearer? Where in scripture is there a more succinct interpretation of Jesus’ death? God created a beautiful world—a fruitful vineyard, a garden, and entrusted it to human beings who were commissioned to care for it and share its fruitfulness. When they failed to do so, God sent prophets again and again, and continues to do so, to remind human beings, especially those in positions of power, of their calling and responsibility. Finally, in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, but instead of the people respecting him, they conspired to have him executed. Why? Because the leaders of the people chose in their greed and lust for power to usurp the place of God and to use violence to dominate creation, and because the people followed, thus demonstrating their complicity.
Jesus died not because God required a human sacrifice on behalf of sinful humanity. Simply put, he died because he challenged the authority of the religious leaders who collaborated with the Roman occupation. The popular movement Jesus led threatened the established order, so he was killed as a subversive. The religious leaders did not want Rome to punish Judah for disorder as they routinely did with other conquered peoples who threatened the “Pax Romana,” a so-called “peace” based on domination and violence (see John 11:47-53). The Ruling Powers could see no other way.
According to this story that Jesus told, the death of Jesus was not God’s intent. God sent Jesus (as God in turn sends us) to heal, teach, proclaim the Good News of God’s all-inclusive love, and to show what human life and community can be when lived in the presence of divine Love. Clearly, such a life was (and is) a threat to the Powers that Be.
The execution of Jesus was a travesty—an affront to the love and justice of God. The surprise is what came about after his death. Jesus, the homeless healer and prophet, who had suffered the shame of crucifixion and death, appeared to many, leading them to claim that “the Lord has risen.” This brought about a spiritual breakthrough and a paradigm shift in the understanding of divinity, not based solely on Jesus’ death but on the way he lived his life. His message, values, and way of being were vindicated. Worldly status does not confer virtue. Wealth does not signify divine favor. Might does not make right. This in itself is a subversive message.
Jesus made clear to his followers in many of his teachings that a person’s moral stature is gauged on how they treat those members of our human family who are poor, hungry, thirsty, sick, weak, incarcerated, excluded, maligned, all who are victims of violence or injustice. He said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40)
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