Saturday, October 20, 2018

Atonement is Found In Service

 Proper 24 --Year B -- Sunday closest to October 19 -- Gospel: Mark 10:35-45

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.  -- Mark 10:45

The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were experiencing some moments of overblown importance and obnoxious privilege.  They audaciously request of Jesus that they be seated on his right and left hands in heaven as though it was going to be some heavenly banquet forever and ever.  Justifiably, the other 10 disciples were a bit insulted.  The pericope closes with Jesus' corrective to the two and the statement printed above. 

The New Testament writers wrote with a purpose.  The primary purpose was to shape the perspective and developing doctrine of the early Church.  The Gospel of Mark came to the Bible party.  Christian theology was growing when Mark was written.  We can see in this passage a reflection of the idea of "ransom theory" as one of the three-plus means by which the church was trying to explain how Jesus' life and death accomplished atonement.  Virtually all translations of this verse are identical.  The Greek word "lytron" is translated pretty uniformly as "ransom."  Strong's Exhaustive Concordance defining lytron (3083) likens it to the money spent to purchase a slave, which is also imagery used by the author of Mark in the prior verse (10:44) ".whoever desires among you to become first must be slave of all." 

Ransom theory goes something like this: because Eve (and Adam) sold their souls to the devil in the Garden of Eden Jesus' blood was necessary to buy our souls back.  In other words, we are slaves to sin and to be freed from that slavery we had to be bought back.  This is transactional theology at its finest.  Leave aside the ethics of slavery, of being possessed by someone other than ourselves, and the possible implications that we aren't responsible for ourselves - especially our ability to do wrong. This theory puts a price on each of us and while blood/sacrifice isn't exactly monetary, the sacrificial system in Judaism had gotten boiled down to that -- seen most dramatically in the scene of Jesus overturning the merchant tables at the Temple.  But is this really how we should read it?  Is it what Jesus meant?  I think not.

Atonement is not a transactional activity -- not an "I'll give you this if you give me that."  It cannot be boiled down to a cost or be given a value.  The blood Jesus had in his body was a limited sum. In this transactional view, how much blood is needed for each person's transgressions?  Let's say 1 drop saves a person.  But what if the person is especially bad?  A serial murderer for instance.  Does that person require maybe 2 drops?  Then, there have been billions of people who have lived and died needing atonement.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to think the drops of Jesus' blood might have run out by now?  This is ridiculous logic.  

Atonement is not transactional, it is relational. Jesus wasn't saying he died in exchange for us.  He died pointing the way forward for us.  It is in serving others, as Jesus himself served, that we are placed on the pathway to wholeness and peace.  The most disturbing aspect of James' and John's competition for First Place was the fracture it created in the community of disciples.  Carefully constructed competition can be a positive motivator for a group of people to achieve more, but it tends to turn into a much more powerful destructive force that can blow up a community, or literally the world -- e.g. arms races.  We never see Jesus competing.  "If you want to be first you need to be in service to all," is Jesus oft repeated message.  He said it.  He demonstrated it.  He lived it to the last second of his life. Then, left us with the words, "Go and do likewise."  HIs "ransom" was his labor-- his payment was his service, his life work given as a hope and example for us to emulate.  Care about others more deeply and compassionately.  We are at-one-ed with Christ when the others in our lives and our community/world are cared about, loved, and served.  Go and do likewise.    

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