March 30, 2018


Why Jesus died for us

Why did Jesus allow himself to be arrested and be crucified, probably in the spring of 784 on the Roman calendar? And did he really think that God had abandoned him while he was dying on the cross?

Before Jesus went to Jerusalem, to celebrate the Jewish feast of Passover according to a different Jewish calendar a week before the usual observance, he and his Apostles were hiding from the authorities in a village called Ephraim, about 12 miles from Jerusalem at the edge of the Judean Desert. He went there after he raised Lazarus from the dead, and the Sadducees decided to get the Romans to kill him.

Why didn’t he escape there again? It would have taken him about 15 minutes to climb the Mount of Olives from the Garden of Gethsemane, and be on his way on a road that ran from there to the Judean Desert.

He didn’t do that because he chose to be crucified. As he had told his Apostles, even if they refused to accept it, that was his Father’s will.

Of course, he could have gotten away. He said, “Do you think that I cannot pray to my Father, who would at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?” (Mt 26:53). But he didn’t do that. He was determined to follow his Father’s will.

Jesus didn’t escape after his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus explained why: “What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour” (Jn 12:27).

It’s not that he wasn’t tempted to run when the time came. Just as any human would do, he wanted to get out of it. In his agony in the garden, knowing full well what was soon to happen, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.” But then he quickly added, “Still, not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42, Mt 26:39, Mk 14:36).

And God’s will was that our redemption would be achieved in the most perfect way. No mere human, no matter how holy, could take on the sins of all humanity and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. Jesus, and only Jesus, could do so, because only he was both God and man.

That was why God the Father sent his eternally begotten Son to Earth, to restore the harmony with God that had existed before sin disrupted it. In that way, he showed his love for us.

But didn’t Jesus feel abandoned by God? On the cross, he called out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34). No, he didn’t feel abandoned. He was praying Psalm 22.

If this had been Jesus calling to his Father in abandonment, he would have called out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” He always called God Abba (Father) when he prayed. He did so again with his final word, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

Psalm 22 begins with that lament of extreme anguish, but it ends with assurance of God’s triumphal reign. The middle, though, sounds like the description of the Passion that Jesus was undergoing. There is, for example, the old translation that said, “They have pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones.” However, a more recent translation is, “So wasted are my hands and feet that I can count all my bones” (Ps 22:17-18).

That’s followed by, “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots” (Ps 22:19). All four Gospels tell us that the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, but only John’s Gospel says that they divided Jesus’ clothing into four shares, one for each of the soldiers.

So why did Jesus have to die? Because of God the Father’s great love for us. He sent his Son precisely to die for us. His death by crucifixion—which Cicero called “the most cruel and disgusting penalty”—was Jesus’ purpose and mission. It was the reason that God became human.

Today, on Good Friday, we commemorate the accomplishment of that mission.

—John F. Fink

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