HOW CHRIST GAVE HIS LIFE AS A RANSOM FOR MANY
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Monday, St. James, Apostle, July 25, 2016
2 Corinthians 4:7-15, Psalm 125, Matthew 20:20-28
Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.
"But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'" (Matthew 20:25-28).
Here is Jesus' teaching about how his disciples are to be the first of all. They are not to follow the pattern of worldly leaders who lord it over others and make their authority felt. Rather, the one who wants to be the first and the greatest among us must be the servant and slave of others. He must go out of his way to offer service to others. Then Jesus gives himself as an example of this service, for he "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).
Jesus served others in many practical ways, casting out demons, forgiving sins, healing the sick, and above all by preaching the gospel of salvation through faith in him. We are to do the same. This is the way we are to be great and the first of all. We are to do it by serving others in this way. This is a very humble way of being first, not at all the worldly way of doing it.
The most important way of being first among Jesus' followers is to preach the gospel. This can be a lowly and humble task. Not everyone wants to hear the gospel. Not everyone believes in the gospel. Not everyone will accept the gospel or us who preach it. So in trying to preach it, one becomes a servant and slave of others. But this service we offer in preaching the gospel is incalculable. It is the greatest service that we could ever offer to anyone. The gospel transforms peoples' lives, when they accept it with faith. It frees them of the burden they are carrying, the burden of their past and present sins, the burden of their guilt and their fear of hell.
The gospel then shows them a new way to live. It releases them from the dungeon they were in, in the confusion of their mind and in their evil desires, according to their passions, and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit to endure what previously overwhelmed them. The Holy Spirit guides them in the correct way to do things and shows them how to overcome temptation and the snares of the devil all around them.
The gospel is expressed in one verse of today's gospel reading, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). Not only did Jesus not come to be served but to serve, but more than anything else he came "to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).
What does ransom mean? How does Jesus ransom us by giving his life for us? This is not a perfect analogy of ransom, where he pays the person holding us captive our ransom price, and then that person who had captured or enslaved us sets us free. Christ did not do that for us. He did not ransom us in that way. He did not pay anything to the devil to set us free, as some of the Fathers of the Church thought. Rather we owed a debt to God. God is all just, and for every time in our whole life that we have turned away from him and sinned, he must punish us in justice. So our debt with God has built up over time.
If God does not punish us, then he is not just. Adolf Hitler killed six million completely innocent Jewish civilians, simply because he hated Jews. Then he committed suicide. Could a just God just let him off with no punishment? How could God be just if he would just let him off without punishing him? Hell was made for people like Adolf Hitler.
How about all our sins? Where do we deserve to go in justice for them? We cannot justify ourselves by our works, as St. Paul teaches us (Romans 3:20, 28: Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9). So we must all be bound for hell if our good works can't save us.
This is why Christ's ransom of us is so important. We are hell bound in justice because of the sins of our whole life, from our childhood and youth until now. We are like captives on death row awaiting our day of execution, which will be the day of our death, which might come at any moment. We are bound for hell because of our sins, which require just punishment.
But Christ was sent into the world to ransom those who repent and call out to him in faith. How did he ransom us from death row? How did he ransom us from falling into hell the moment we die? He didn't pay the devil anything. Rather he paid our debt with God that we had with him for our sins. How did he do that? He volunteered to suffer in our place, that is, instead of us, for our sins. "Christ died for our sins" (1 Corinthians 15:3). Where did he do that? He did that on the cross. So our just and necessary debt with God, which must be paid for God to be a just God, has been paid for us by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on the cross.
We are therefore ransomed from hell. Christ paid our price to God, and God accepted his payment and set us free from our debt, dismissed his case against us, and released us from our sins and their just punishment, when we repented and called out to him in faith.
St. Paul says "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2: 5-6). Then St. Paul says, "For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle" (1 Timothy 2:7). This was Paul's life, to preach this liberating gospel. People who are weighed down with fear of death and the punishment they know they deserve after death are now ransomed and liberated. We are set free from this fear by Christ who "gave his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). Christ came so "that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Hebrews 2:14-15).
God himself became a man and suffered our penalty for our sins. This became effective for those who believe in him and truly repent of their sins and leave them behind them. So the Bible uses ransom language to describe this. A ransom price was paid by Christ to God to release us from hell as the just punishment for our sins. "You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:20). Christ "gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2:14). "Our Lord Jesus Christ ... gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father" (Galatians 1:4). "The Son of God ... loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
Just as the scapegoat bore the people's sins upon himself and took them away from them into the desert (Leviticus 16:21-22), so Christ bore our sins upon himself to take them away from us. As the Suffering Servant suffered vicariously for our sins (Isaiah 53:5-6, 10), so Christ suffered for them, in our place, that is, in place of us, to ransom us from them. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:5-6). "Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days" (Isaiah 53:10).
So this is the gospel we preach. Preaching this gospel is the main way we can serve others and lay down our life for them. Humbly doing this service as a slave of others is how we will be first in the kingdom.
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