Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?

by Melannie Svoboda SND on June 24, 2019

Today we are going to tackle one important theological question: Why did Jesus die on the cross? I am basing much of what I say on an interview with the theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, in U.S. Catholic (Dec. 2018). Her latest book is Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. 

Let’s start with the question: why did Jesus die on the cross? The 11th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, taught that Jesus (in Johnson’s words) “had to die a bloody and horrible death on the cross in order to save us from our sins, because God was offended by our sins and had to receive satisfaction.” God had “to receive a payback in order to forgive us.”

Where did Anselm come up with such a theory? He lived in a feudal society. If you broke the law, you had to pay back something to the Lord. You had to make satisfaction in order to restore the honor of the Lord and to restore civic peacefulness. Anselm concluded that, if this is the way the world works, this must be the way God works. We humans have offended God by our sins. We need to make satisfaction before we can be forgiven. But because we are human, our satisfaction would not be adequate. We need a sinless person—namely Jesus—to make satisfaction for our sins. Jesus did this by dying on the cross. Jesus atoned for our sins.

What’s wrong with this theory? Says Johnson, “No one had to die for God to be merciful.” In fact, Anselm’s theory goes completely against the teaching of Jesus in the gospel. If you look at the parable of the prodigal son, for example, the father displays complete mercy toward his son. He runs out to meet him, he hugs him, he restores his standing in the family. He even throws a party for him. According to Anselm’s theory, the father should have told his son to go and work in the fields for a certain number of years until he paid back to the father what he owed him.

In addition, Anselm’s theory goes against the Old Testament teachings. God is not presented as a Lord demanding restitution, but as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and forgiveness (Ex. 34:6)” Those words were God’s self-description given to Moses. Scripture scholar Walter Brueggmann calls that text, “a credo of adjectives about the character of God.” When we reflect on those adjectives, we see that this is the God Jesus believed in.

Johnson also says, if Anselm’s theory is right, we need only one chapter out of each Gospel—the one that describes Jesus’ death on the cross. But what about Jesus’ LIFE? What about his TEACHINGS? What about the RESURRECTION? If you leave these out and focus only on the cross and suffering, what “the Christian life should be disappears.” Johnson searched Anselm’s writings for the mention of the resurrection and could find it nowhere. She maintains that if you leave out the Resurrection, there is no Christianity.”

(All pictures are from Pixabay)

Other theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, criticized Anselm’s theory, but the theory persisted and continues to persist to this day. It influences our practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) and still permeates some of the Church’s devotions, prayers, sermons, and hymns. Look for it. It’s there.

In the person of Jesus, God chose to be one-with-us. What we go through in life by way of suffering and agony is known to God. “God, who created everything, chose to join the world’s suffering, to undergo it, and know what it means from the inside.” But that’s not all. The Resurrection shows God overcoming this horrific violence through love and God bringing new life out of tragedy.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, therefore, underscore God’s unimaginable mercy, all-encompassing love, and everlasting faithfulness. This is essentially the Good News we live and proclaim!

Is there anything in this reflection that stood out for you?

Do you ever feel you have to earn or win God’s mercy?

If we really believed in God’s all-encompassing love and unending mercy would we be better or worse human beings?

How do you try to love others as God loves you/us?

PS: Thank you for your prayers for last week’s retreat with the Youngstown Ursulines. And I want to thank these Sisters for their gracious hospitality, prayerfulness, and joy! I appreciated my time with them—and my stay in the “Pilgrim Suite,” Also, while there, I was very happy to connect with my friends, Angela and Joe of Canfield.

Reminder: I’m giving a weekend retreat at Christ the King Retreat Center in Albany, NY from July 19-21 in case you’re interested. Check their website for details.

This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), so today’s song is “We Are the Body of Christ” or “Somos el Cuerpo de Cristo” by Cortez and Hurd. This version is sung in both English and Spanish. (I’m sorry but I could not find a version with the lyrics.) Today 34% of U.S. Catholics identify themselves as Hispanic/Latino. As we listen to this song, let us pray for openness to diversity in our Church and world…and for a just and compassionate immigration reform in the US.

 

I encourage you to respond to today’s reflection below. We all love hearing from you!

 

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Magiera June 24, 2019 at 5:12 am

Great reflection Sr. Melannie!

If we truly believed in God all-encompassing love, it would change everything. I think we would stop negotiating with God and realize how much grace and mercy are surrounding all of us from our merciful God.

Namaste!

Kathleen

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Carol June 25, 2019 at 9:28 am

You’re spot on a Kathleen! I agree with you that we focus on working on our purpose/mission in life. The more we strive to be Christ-like, the more we live our faith. Why do we persist in trying to explain God’s intentions & rationalize why He does what he does! That’s futile! Simply follow Jesus’s example & give praise & thanks to the Trinity. Soon enough we will be in the presence of the Almighty & then we will know.

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John E Hopkins June 24, 2019 at 6:08 am

I second Kathleen’s comment, Sr. Melannie — great reflection!

If I’m not mistaken, I believe one of Elizabeth Johnson’s favorite psalms is psalm 103, and in that psalm we read these incredible words: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve,/ nor repay us as befits our offences” (NJB, v 10).

The psalm also touches on the ephemeral nature of the human person — “his days are like grass…as soon as the wind blows he is gone” (15-16), but then the psalmist sings: “But Yahweh’s faithful love for those who fear him/is from eternity and for ever” (17).

Yes! As you write, “new life out of tragedy,” forever life! Good News indeed!

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Pete June 24, 2019 at 8:20 am

As theology theory has adjusted in the last 2000 years, we must remember that,”somos el cuerpo de Christo”, and I for one, am happy where it is. Monday morning gives my week a jump start. Thanks Melanie.

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Barbara June 24, 2019 at 8:49 am

When I think about what most of the “total readings” at Mass talk about how terrible we are and how unforgiving God is I feel very sad. This is not God. God is love, over and over and over. He always was and always will be the Holy One, loving each and every one of us. Thank you Melanie for being in my life and bringing God’s love to all of us.

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Marty June 24, 2019 at 8:57 am

As always my friend on this feast of the Birth of John the Baptist(last of the prophets)you show God still prophesies. I add from J.R.R. Tolkien:”Outof darkness of my life so much frustrated I put before you the one great thing to love on earth the BLESSED SACRAMENT…there you will find romance glory honor fidelity and the true way of all your loves on earth” this why Jesus died and ROSE!ALLELUIA

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Barbara Erdmann June 24, 2019 at 9:04 am

The punishment taken by the body of Jesus, also proved he truly died and was raised. No one could survive the awful brutality and not be dead. And yet he was seen by many after he rose. Thomas certainly was not the only sceptic.

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Jean Canatsey June 24, 2019 at 9:39 am

In his homily yesterday, Father said that every time we receive the Eucharist we are being “hugged by God”. I think that is a beautiful way to see and experience God’s love for us. As the Body of Christ, it is our obligation to do the same. What a wonderful world it would be if everyone was passing on those hugs.

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Josita June 24, 2019 at 11:32 am

Thanks again, Melannie for a beautiful reflection to start off the week.
It brought to mind one of my favorite hymns ” Loving and Forgiving are You , O Lord”..slow to anger, rich in mercy…..
It always brings tears to my eyes knowing the unconditional, deep love God has for me (us).
Enjoy your week and prayers for your next retreat. Love, Josita

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Jean Shott June 24, 2019 at 3:50 pm

What year did the interview take place? 1918 doesn’t sound right.

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Melannie Svoboda SND June 24, 2019 at 4:10 pm

You caught the typo, Jean! It was 2018… I just changed it. Thanks for noticing it, dear cousin! Melannie

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Mary M Nausadis June 24, 2019 at 4:44 pm

As Richard Rohr has said in numerous books, “why would we want to worship such a punitive God?”

A big part of my ministry is Spiritual Direction and this is a topic that begs to be understood by many of my directees.

Several years ago, a sister who was a facilitator of a class I was taking, said to me, “My God didn’t send his son to die for our sins”….I couldn’t believe my ears….it sounded heretical at the time, but then she went on to say, “My God sent his son to save us from ourselves, to teach us how to live in love, and he would do whatever it took , even if it meant dying on a cross”. That was a life-changer for me.

I’m familiar with that song because our church community helps support a hispanic church community in our city and once a year they come to us to worship and share their music, children’s dancing, as well as themselves. This song is sung each year and hearing it right now, helps me recall those children dressed in their country’s dress, dancing down the aisle after communion so earnestly.

Thank you Sr. Melannie

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Linda June 24, 2019 at 7:07 pm

I totally agree with everything you said and have done so for many years. There have been priests who have attempted to corrected our unhealthy theology, but they are not yet in the majority. Thank you for taking this Good News to a large virtual audience!

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Marilyn June 24, 2019 at 9:20 pm

I totally believe everything stated – thank you so much for this reflection – it nourishes my soul & I thank you so much

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Thomas DeFreitas June 25, 2019 at 3:42 am

“Do you ever feel you have to earn/win the mercy of God?” Oh, constantly, it seems! And unfortunately.

Happily, there are antidotes. Resting in the words of the Jesus prayer. Reading the luminous writing of the great English Christians Robert Llewelyn and Julian of Norwich. Recalling the Compassionate Mysteries in the Gospel, as I’ve termed them: the woman at the well; the parable of the prodigal son; the woman spared from stoning; the anointing at Bethany; the good thief.

Just as Dante wrote of Our Lady:

Your generous help is not content to rescue
the ones who ask for it, but countless times
you freely give before they even ask you

— so, too, with God’s love. It runs before us. It looks down the driveway and waits for us, eagerly, to come home. Or waits for us to wake up to the fact that home-with-God is where we are!

I’m far too muddled to sort out the controversy between Anselm and Elizabeth. So let me say that I side with Fr Frederick Faber (1814-63), who reminds us “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.”

Thank you, Sr Melannie, and everyone who comments, for consistently thoughtful observations!

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George Marsh June 25, 2019 at 7:41 am

Suffering people need to hear of God’s abounding mercy, endless love. We who believe what the world doesn’t show or teach will live to the fullest by sharing what Peter Abelard, Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, Francis of Assisi,
Julian, the poet Hopkins, Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr and Melannie share with us.

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Sr.Mary Beena SND June 26, 2019 at 12:36 am

Thanks a lot dear Sr.Melani for that profound reflection, beautiful one to dwell on the eternal mercy of God..

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