The Ransom

Exploring the Atonement, one tree at a time, ending with the Rood, the Ransom.

Proper 20c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
There is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.
We continue today with our readings from the letters Paul the Apostle wrote to his disciple Timothy with a short portion from the first of those letters. In a few words Paul declares his gospel — affirming that it is for this that he was appointed a herald and apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. He even adds a parenthetical “I am telling the truth, I am not lying” just to emphasize his point.

He begins with a restatement of the Jewish creed: There is one God. But he then quickly moves to the Gospel truth that there is one mediator between God and humankind. This is Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

What Paul speaks of here is a crucial doctrine at the heart of what the Christian faith is all about: the Atonement. This doctrine asserts that Jesus somehow made right all that had gone wrong since humankind fell through sin. He did this by his birth, life, death and rising, mediating between God and humankind and settling accounts between them, making them “at one” — in case you wonder where atonement comes from.

But just as our other readings today show us that there are many different ways to settle accounts — some of them involving cheating customers with phony weights or a thumb on the scale, some involving a bit of clever discount bookkeeping — so too there are many different ways in which the single doctrine of the Atonement has been understood through Christian history. None of these understandings has ever been settled upon in mainstream Christianity as the only right way to understand the Atonement — in fact, what marks off most of the side-streams or backwaters in Christian history is their exclusive attachment to one explanation at the expense of all the others! So I give thanks that in our Anglican tradition we are free to explore and embrace all of the different ways of understanding the saving work of Christ — more grateful for the fact that Christ has saved us, than concerned with exactly how he did so. In fact, we are so grateful, we sing about it. Almost all of our hymns today reflect on one aspect or another of the Atonement. (From the Hymnal1982: 495, 368, 167, 158, 685) So let’s explore this stream of tradition a bit, starting with the words of Paul to Timothy.

He describes Jesus as a ransom. Some early theologians picked up on that language of “ransom” and wondered — to whom was the ransom paid? Some came to believe that by falling and failing as humanity did, we became captive to the one who led us to fall: Satan. So God ransomed humanity by paying Satan the ransom of Christ Jesus. This idea held on for quite a while, but eventually dissatisfaction with this line of thought developed: Why should God pay Satan anything! Why should God owe Satan anything at all? And so the ransom came slowly to be transformed into more of a debt, a debt that we incurred, a bill we had run up. Humankind had effectively gone into debt by disobeying God, to whom we owed obedience. Because this debt was owed to one who is the ultimate Good, God himself, it could only be satisfied by one, the debt could only be settled, as the hymn we sang before the Gospel (#167) puts it, by one who was “good enough to pay the price of sin.” So Christ paid our disobedient debt through his perfect obedience.

This “satisfaction” theory held on for quite a while — as you see from the hymns today, it forms a part of our devotional life — and it held sway for quite some time, but at the Reformation other ideas came forward. For example, the Evangelical Martin Luther didn’t find the idea that God was a creditor who held debts was entirely fitting, as it seemed a bit too commercial. So he drew on elements of Scripture that strongly portray Jesus as one who takes on our punishment, the punishment due to us — death — on our behalf, as a substitute, himself sinless, but reckoned as among the sinners in our place, taking upon himself the sins of the world.

Now, that’s a perfectly Scriptural view, and it’s a view forms a major part of our devotional life and theological life as Anglicans. At the offertory today, we will sing one of the great hymns that come to us from the Lutheran tradition: Herzliebster Jesu: Ah, Holy Jesus. (#158) As the third verse puts it: “The Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered, the slave has sinned and the Son has suffered” — why? — “for our atonement.” Pay attention to that as you sing the offertory hymn.

This idea of Jesus stepping into our place wasn’t quite strong enough for some of the most extreme Reformers, like Calvin. He wanted things a little “harder” than that. He insisted that the Atonement was more than voluntary substitution, and he stressed the notion that what we had done in the fall was not just a mistake, this was a criminal offense against God — a crime that warranted the death sentence. So in Calvin’s hands the Atonement took on a judicial or legal air, with God as judge, jury and executioner — as well as victim, since Christ is both fully human and fully God.

In more recent times some theologians have tried to hark back to some of the early musings of the fourth to the eleventh century, arguing for a more mystical understanding and a less legal understanding of Atonement — drawing on Paul’s teaching (1 Cor 15:2) that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The notion here is that just as the fall of Adam touches all of humanity, so too does the redeeming act of Jesus in the Atonement — not simply focused on his death but on his whole Incarnation, life and teaching, Resurrection and Ascension — bearing a redeemed humanity along with him even to the throne of God. This sense of being made clean and redeemed by Christ is common in much of our tradition, including the hymn Rock of Ages (#685), that we’ll sing at communion — we are cleansed by his blood, the blood of his death, which is not punishment or debt paid on our behalf, but something in which we participate by our communion in him, being, as Paul said, baptized into his death, and so that we share in his life. (Rom 6:3-5)

+ + +

As I said before, and as you can see from the selection of hymns we sing today, all of these various views of the Atonement find a place in our Anglican tradition. They all have some basis in Scripture, and none of them is singled out — as is true in Calvin’s Reformed Protestant tradition and in some other Protestant sects — as only one acceptable way to understand the work of Christ in the Atonement. So because we are free to wander amidst this forest of different ways of looking at things, not getting focused on just one tree or another, I’d like to take a slight liberty and offer one more twist on things, returning to that word ransom, that comes to us from Paul’s letter to Timothy, but to look at it in light of that strange reading in today’s Gospel.

In this parable Jesus describes a rich man whose manager has been mismanaging his business. The text says, “squandering” — and it’s the same word used in the immediately preceding story of the Prodigal Son; the Prodigal Son who squandered his inheritance, in the chapter just before. In this case it must mean the manager is not a very good manager, is spending more than he is taking in, selling short and buying long. The rich man naturally calls for the manager to produce the accounts. And what does he do? In order to make friends with his master’s debtors he fiddles the books even more, getting from the debtors only a fraction of what they owe, even further depleting his master’s balance sheet.

The surprise comes when the master finds out about this, and instead of putting the crooked — there’s no other word to describe him — manager into jail, commends him; he doesn’t condemn him. The normal expectation is turned upside down. The manager has, in effect, ransomed himself at his master’s expense — it’s the master who is losing out here — and yet the master commends him for it.

So what I’d like to do is turn the ransom of Christ around in a similar way. Rather than stressing that humanity was held captive by Satan or death, or owed a debt to God, or committed a crime against God — all of which are true — what if we think of Christ’s ransom as being paid to us! Like the Prodigal Son or the shifty manager, we in effect hold God hostage — or try to do so — by our actions. As with the father of the Prodigal and the master of the manager, though, God doesn’t play that game — God goes along with it; he pays us the ransom himself, in the person of his Son giving himself to us. He brings out the ring and the robe and the shoes for the Prodigal, he kills the fatted calf; he commends the manager with a pat on the back; he forgives us even from the cross, completing there the Atonement by paying us the ransom of his life, what we demanded in our folly, but which he paid in full — not to God, but to us.

It is to us that Jesus gives himself, to us and for us, because he loved the world so much that he would not allow us to be lost. We held God hostage by our sins, and we crucified him when he paid us the ransom that we demanded in our folly. And by that cross we are saved. Praise be to him, by whom that price was paid!+