Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why Must the Messiah Die?

Why must the Messiah die?

Despite a few mysterious prophetic texts that seemed to intimate this possibility (e.g. Daniel 9:26), the idea that the Messiah could arrive and subsequently be killed was radically counter-intuitive to most first-century Jews. 

Yet the conviction of the early Christians, based on Jesus of Nazareth’s own teachings about himself, was that the radically counter-intuitive impossibility was actually prophesied, if one had the eyes to see and the ears to hear it in Israel’s Scriptures.

The Readings for today's Mass offer us two of the most poignant prophecies of the suffering of the Messiah.

Isaiah 50:4-7, the First Reading, is part of one of the several enigmatic “servant songs” characteristic of the second part of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66).  (I follow Benjamin Sommer in seeing Isa 40-66 as a literary unit.  I love his scholarship generally.)  The subject of these “songs” or poems is a mysterious “Servant” of the Lord, who is described variously in the first, second and third person.

Isaiah 50:4-7 is a first-person account of the Servant.  He refers to his persecutions: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.”  Yet he is confident of vindication: “I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”

This is the lesser of two passages in Isaiah that speak of the sufferings of the Servant.  The other, more famous and longer, passage is Isaiah 52:13–53:12, which the Church saves for the Good Friday liturgy.

With respect to both passages, we may well take up the query of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:34): “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?”

It is a puzzle.  Traditionally the passage has been understood as the writing of Isaiah the prophet of Jerusalem.  Yet we know of no physical persecution of Isaiah like this.  Modern critical scholarship divides Isaiah into at least three different main sections, with different authors and a multitude of anonymous “redactors” or editors.  Isaiah 50 might be attributed to an exilic “deutero-“ or “second Isaiah.”  Yet nothing is known about the personal life or ministry of this hypothetical prophet, aside from speculation based on the text of the oracles themselves.

The common conviction of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth is that these texts speak of Him; moreover, that the prophecies of the Scriptures of Israel only make sense and come into focus when seen in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of this Jesus, who was and is the anointed Servant.

The Responsorial Psalm is perhaps the most dramatic in the psalter, and has always been understood as a prophecy of the passion.

In Christian interpretation, we are used to thinking of the Old Testament as speaking literally (for example, of the “promised land”), but these literal statements receive a figurative fulfillment in the New Testament (the “promised land” = heaven).  In certain instances, however, this pattern is reversed.  Psalm 22 is an example. 

In certain places, the psalmist (David, according to tradition) describes his afflictions in a way that can only be figurative or hyperbolic: “I am poured out like water,” “all my bones are out of joint,” “they have pierced my hands and feet,” “I can count all my bones.”

We know of no instance where any of these things were true literally of David or any other Old Testament figure.  They are emotive overstatements of the psalmist’s suffering.  Yet, they receive a literal fulfillment in Christ.  The literal fulfillment in Christ’s passion is a condescension of God to us.  It is God writing in big letters in order that we get the point.

Another example of condescension is found in today’s Gospel.  Zechariah 9:9 speaks of the Messiah coming to Jerusalem on a “donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  By itself this is simply Hebrew poetic parallelism.  Only one animal is meant.  Yet in Matthew’s gospel, we see that Jesus has the disciples procure both a donkey and it’s colt in order for him to ride on.  Jesus’ intention was, in a sense, to overfulfill or fulfill to the letter the prophecy in order to drive the point home to the surrounding crowds.  “That’s strange!  Why does he have two animals? .... Oh,  I get it!”

Back to Psalm 22: this psalm is one of the most complete Todah psalms in the entire psalter.

Todah means “thanks” or “praise,” and the Todah is the “sacrifice of thanksgiving” legislated by Moses in Leviticus 7:11ff.  It was a kind of animal sacrifice not offered in reparation for sin, but out of thanksgiving for some saving act that the LORD had done for the worshipper. 

Excellent work on the Todah and its significance for the psalms has been done by Hartmut Gese, followed by Joseph Ratzinger, and summarized superbly by our own Michael Barber.

The Todah was a festive sacrifice offered as part of a lived cycle of experiences in which you (1) began in a situation of distress, (2) cried out to God, (3) made a vow to offer the Todah if God would save you, (4) God saved you, (5) you paid your vow by offering the Todah sacrifice in the temple, (6) you had a festive party as you and your family and friends ate the meat of the sacrifice and all the bread that was required (see Leviticus 7:11ff), and (7) you gave public testimony to all assembled in the Temple concerning how God saved you. 

Interestingly, the Passover, if categorized according to the genres of sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7, would fall under the category of the Todah sacrifice.

The Todah is significant to the Psalter, because it seems that a large number of Psalms were written for part or all of the Todah cycle described above.

Important Todah psalms include Psalm 116 (my personal favorite), Psalm 50, 56, 100, and several others, including perhaps the most complete, today’s Psalm 22.

Jesus cites Psalm 22 from the cross.  The so-called “Cry of Dereliction,” (“My God, My God ...”) is, of course actually the first line of Psalm 22.

I think Jesus’ cry from the cross is over-read theologically sometimes, as if it indicated that Jesus felt utterly separated from the Father or lost the Beatific Vision. 

I do not contest that Our Lord’s sufferings were extreme, and difficult for us to comprehend, but the Cry of Dereliction is not proof that he lost the Beatific Vision or experienced radical separation from the Father.

The psalms in antiquity were almost certainly not known by their present numberings, because the numbering systems varied according to different editions of the psalter (for example, Qumran’s 1QPalmsa).  The way to refer to a psalm was probably by its first line—a practice similar to the traditional Jewish naming of biblical books by their first words (also done in the Catholic tradition with Papal documents).

So when Jesus cites “My God, My God ...” from the cross in today’s Gospel, he is really making a reference to all of Psalm 22, inviting the bystanders to interpret what is happening to him in light of this psalm.

With that in mind, fast forward to the end of Psalm 22.  How does the Psalm end?  In suffering, or ...?

Then ask yourself the question, “Do you think Jesus knew how the Psalm ended?”

I suspect he did.  Though he was in agony on the cross, he also knew this was the path to triumph (see Mark 8:31;9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29)

So why must the Messiah die?  The proximate explanation is: to fulfill the prophecies.  As the Gospel Reading states:

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear.  Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
But ultimately that only backs the question up.  Why would God inspire the prophets to predict this?  Why was it in God's plan?

There are many approaches to answer that question.  One of the approaches has to take into account the fact of God's creating a world in which other personal agents are truly free--able to choose evil, able to choose against God and other persons and bring harm to others.  If it were not possible for humans to choose evil, they would not be free: they would be pleasant robots.  Yet, if God created a world in which evil were realizable but he spared himself ever experiencing it, it would give grounds to his opponents to accuse him of permitting others to experience what he would never suffer himself.  But if Christ is the Messiah--in fact, the LORD himself--then we have no distant God who allows suffering only for others, but one who accepts it also himself, and transforms it; redeems it; makes it a way to new life.


Tim Weidner said...

Thank you for this, Dr. Bergsma!

Matthew Kennel said...

Dr. Bergsma,
Thanks so much for this week's post. I am really enjoying the weekly posts on the readings! I have two comments for the week

1) With regard to the servant, I particularly fancy the idea found in N.T. Wright which addresses the difficulty raised by those who claim that the servant is really Israel. He points out that this is a false dichotomy, because on the Cross Jesus is Israel's representative, "Israel-in-person," perfectly fulfilling the "Israel vocation," the "way of being Israel," which he himself had laid down in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. he walked the second mile, he took up his cross, he turned the other cheek, etc.). (Jesus, Israel, and the Cross; Also, chapter 3 of his book, Evil and the Justice of God)

2) With regard to Jesus and Psalm 22, I think that Psalm 22 is helpful in interpreting John 19:25-27. If Jesus was really taking up Psalm 22 and praying with it, then his gift of his Mother to John/Church and of John/Church to his Mother can be seen as an action which is deliberately symbolic and prophetic. To quote a blog post I wrote back in December,
in the mysterious providence of God, the Mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, played a special role. In meditating upon Ps. 22, Jesus must have seen his holy mother as the special locus of God's activity. It was her womb from which God took him. It was on her breasts that God kept Jesus safe. It was by the nourishment provided from her breasts that God made him grow. From his very birth, he must have thought, he was dedicated to God, a reference not only to his own willful obedience to the Father, but to that of his Mother, who brought him to the Temple to be circumcised on the eighth day, fully identifying him with God's covenant people, Israel.

Jesus, although greater than a prophet, was a prophet, and prophets in Israel used symbolic actions to express the message that God had given them for Israel. If, indeed, Jesus was meditating on God's past faithfulness to him through his Mother, and if Jesus was meditating on and enacting the new future, in which Jew and Gentile alike would share in God's kingdom, it only makes sense to see Jesus as intentionally connecting his other great action from the Cross with these two themes. God, who had been faithful to him in the past through his Mother, would be faithful to him again through his Mother, by bringing, through her, many sons to glory (c.f. Heb 2:10).

fact said...

so what I hear in this is that:
1-the God of Israel, who theoretically needs nothing, still wants to be paid off in blood.
2-He had his prophets foretell the payment.
3-He got what he wanted in the death of Jesus.
4-The people, for their part, are happy to offer someone else's life to satisfy the thirst for blood. ...

how depressing

Unknown said...

Hey John,

Great post! I am relating, as I am writing my paper right now on the liturgical backdrop to Hebrews and I am finding the todah throughout the Letter. You know Swetnam's work on chap. 13. Look at Psalm 118 (a todah psalm)quoted in 13:6 in the context of the whole chapter...very profound!



John Bergsma said...

@fact: You're not really getting the point of Christianity. Jesus is the God of Israel. He's paying the penalty himself, so that others don't have to. If Jesus isn't God (Arianism, etc.) then your point is valid. If he is, than it's not.

John Bergsma said...

@Matt: Amen to that.

Micah said...

What an intentionally depressing way to see things! Might I point out that:

1. Regardless of whether He needs anything, we still owe Him. A king may not need the help of his avowed soldier, but if that soldier flees, he nonetheless has violated his vow, and owes reparation. Further, it is for our good, not just for God's glory, that this debt be paid. As long as it was owed, humanity was in a state of injustice and lacked integrity. Our owing Him, and our being unjust, do not in any way reflect badly on Him.
2. Yes, because He loves us, He wants us to be aware of the cost of our sins. Nonetheless, most failed to get the message.
3. If by "what He wanted," you mean "to manifest His great love and mercy by willingly taking on the weight of sin Himself and suffering at the hands of sinners to make atonement for sin and offer salvation and justification to all men, as well as to provide a model of radical fulfillment of divine will by trust in the Heavenly Father," then I suppose I have no argument. It would be ridiculous, though, in light of the full Christian understanding of the Passion, to paint God as some blood-thirsty hate-monger who was satisfied by the death of His own Son. No, He was owed something by us because we are blood-thirsty ourselves in our sinfulness, because we are hate-mongers, and in our sinfulness, He still chose to love us. To attribute hate or blood-thirst to God would be preposterous. We're the reason anything is owed; that's not God's fault. On the contrary, He has done nothing but love us to the end.
4. The people were murdering an innocent man, not to appease God, but because of envy. Yet this God whom they crucified, whom you call bloodthirsty, offered Hisown blood for them and called on His Father to forgive them from the Cross.

How beautiful...

Soutenus said...

How wonderful to find this blog and, in particular, this post.
I am not as erudite as the author and, I fear, my comment may seem trivial but I will plow ahead none the less.
I have always felt that when Jesus cried out the words from Psalm 22 it would have been abundantly clear to those listening that he intended them to think through to the rest of the psalm.
As a child those words, spoken by Jesus, frightened me to the core. I knew The Father loved His Son -- more than we could ever understand. My parents told me that God loved me more than even they could (and I knew they loved me with all of their hearts).
So, (I used to think) why would God abandon His Son -- and if He really did abandon Jesus what chance did I have.
My parents must have somehow calmed my fears because I grew up trusting God to the depths of my being.
But . . . . every time this reading came up I used to feel panicked inside.
Then one day I read ALL of Psalm 22. I read to the story's end (I knew the Psalms were not numbered back in the days of Jesus:-)
I felt sure that, just like when we start nursery rhymes with our kids and they know the rest . . . that the people hearing Jesus knew the psalms (no Bibles back then - oral tradition).
Such peace surrounded me.
Even if I am wrong -- I felt that God wanted to reassure me (and anyone else who felt panic at those words). I am not a Bible scholar but I know enough to realize that He has us all in the palm of his hands and he knows every hair on our heads and we just need to trust Him and follow Him.
Your post was most edifying! I am going to share it with my kids and keep coming back for more!
Thank you for blogging!!

Unknown said...

Dr. Bergsma,

Wonderful post. I hope you and your family are doing well. In addition to the prophecies of the prophets themselves, he is suffering the curse(s) attached to each of the covenants. Many of these curses specifically mention death. By him bearing the curse, it enables us to receive the blessings. Examples:
Adamic Covenant - Gen 3:17-19
Noahic Covenant - Gen 9:5-6
Abrahamic Covenant - Gen 17:14
(Not a curse but a prophecy Gen 22:8)
Mosaic Covenant - Deut 21:22-23
Davidic Covenant - 2 Samuel 7:14

These are just some examples but I believe it is very telling about why the Messiah must die.

Charles said...

Good question,

I believe that since the Antichrist had to come anyway,which was the real reason for Lucifer's rebel in order to become man himself since he possessed all what he wanted,and keep all the souls and kingdom for eternity,he failed in his first attempt and Jesus destroyed true his death instead. Now he is working to vindicate himself when he comes in the near future.Jesus was murdered because the Jews taught that He was Satan's Son the Antichrist.The bible started this battle when Chain killed Abel which it is quite obvious that Satan realized that Jesus will be born definitely through Abel. God allowed this to happen as a prophecy that Jesus will be killed by mistake by Satan himself, and through that killing, which was Satan's favourite job,He kills himself.

Olivia said...

Very well said!!! People like you make me proud to be a Catholic. Thank you and God Bless!

Micah said...

@Charles, where in the Bible does it say that Satan wants to become man? The Tradition of the Church is that his sin was pride. Why would a prideful angel want to become man, a lower creature? No, he hates humanity because he hates God, and like any terrorist whose enemy is invincible, he attacks the children and tarnishes the image of that enemy.

The Antichrist is not Satan. He is a human only by nature, a vessel for demonic possession, yes, but not a devil himself.

JCA said...

I love your post Dr Bergsma.
The salvation of man has been the sole pursuit of man through the ages. God has created man out of Love n has condemned him out of Justice. Since from the beginning it wasn't God's intention for man to die and it was the sin of man that has brought him death and separated him from God, God in His infinite Mercy had decided to redeem man cos man couldn't save himself. Here comes the need for a Messiah. The purpose of this Messiah was to restore the Life which man has lost through sin, n to do this, He must conquer death( which came from satan), n since Lucifer was the highest angel in heaven before his fall, no angel could pay the price but someone who is greater than him and that is God( Jesus )Himself.And that is why He must conquer death by His own death by rising from the death and restoring life(eternal) back to man.