Did Jesus have to die? It’s a question that comes up often enough in my own life of faith and ministry. It’s a question that comes to the surface as I read today’s set of readings. The scriptures today challenge me, with their seemingly obvious invitation to draw parallels between Jesus and Isaac, God and Abraham, in ways that lead to some kind of conclusion where it is good and holy that patriarchs are willing to kill their sons. No. Thank. You.
I’ve seen how this plays out. We cast God as the one who demands death. We come to see God as the arbiter of our suffering and pain, and ourselves as merely acquiescing to the forces of “God’s will” as we encounter injustice. The fruits of this interpretation seem to be Christian apathy (if not collusion) in the face of violent oppression and the crushing forces of patriarchy and white supremacy.
In the Gospel of Mark, right before the account of the Transfiguration (and again twice after), Jesus predicts his suffering and death, and the disciples are troubled, and reject the idea. Jesus seems to know his mission will lead to suffering and death. He predicts it, over and over, and invites the disciples to follow in the way of costly discipleship. The disciples find Jesus attractive to follow, but don’t seem to understand the risk that a commitment to Jesus’ way entails.
How do we come to understand Jesus’ own prediction of his death? Do we believe in a God that incarnates into human history only to be killed to quench some kind of bloodlust? Does God demand death? Did Jesus have to die?
Today’s Gospel story of the Transfiguration helps me to find a different answer. We encounter Jesus with a few disciples on the mountaintop, having a mystical experience, experiencing closeness to God, and hearing clearly the voice of God calling Jesus beloved. The Transfiguration reminds me of this truth: Jesus does not come to this world to die, but to love. The Beloved One enters into our midst on God’s mission of love and mercy. Unfortunately in our broken world, an embodied commitment to love places us in the crosshairs of the powerful forces that dehumanize and annihilate. Jesus knew his mission would lead to a confrontation with religious and political authorities. Jesus knew that it could lead to death. Yet he remained committed to proclaiming God’s dream for the world. He did not enter into the journey seeking death, but following the path of love wherever it leads. Jesus’ experience of his own belovedness set the course of his life and lived commitments. The Transfiguration, where God decisively proclaims Jesus’ belovedness anew, reminds us that God does not demand death, but faithful witness to love – from Jesus, and from us all.
Today I hear the voice of God saying to me and to all disciples: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” How can we listen to Jesus during this Lenten season? How are we being called to follow his way of love, his mission of mercy through our lives today? What forces of oppression and death must we challenge? Are we willing to absorb the risks of a radical commitment to love?