Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ John 12:1-11
Why did Jesus die?
This is a key question for the Christian faith.
Was Jesus ‘born to die’, destined to die on the cross? Was it a predestined, preordained plan by God? Was it like a heavenly rescue mission which Jesus and God the Father had planned before Jesus’ birth? Was it a matter of Jesus coming to earth, being born and eventually fulfilling his destiny? Was it all part of God’s grand purpose to forgive humanity of its sin, a sin which began in Adam and Eve and has been passed on ever since like a genetic problem?
Well, I think that is a lively and engaging narrative. But frankly I think for many people it makes little sense. They might ask, “Why couldn’t God just forgive? Why need he go through all this, sending his son to die?”
And I would agree – it makes little sense if we forget one key thing!
This is theology! It is an interpretation arising from a real person’s, actual, historical life. It is theology with hindsight. It is a grand theological narrative arising from a real historical narrative. That big, meta-narrative only becomes comprehensible if we first understand the historical narrative of the events of Jesus life and death.
So to answer, “Why did Jesus die?” I suggest you put aside all the stuff of that grand narrative and refocus on Jesus’ life.
So why was Jesus killed?
The answer is: Because of what he said and did against the backdrop of the politics of his time.
He was executed by crucifixion therefore his death must have had a political motivation, he must have been seen as a subversive.
It was a volatile age. Israel/Judea was the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. It was controlled through a local puppet rulers, with the oversight of ruthless Roman governors. Judea was known in the Roman Empire as a place of unrest and potential for rebellion. Just before Jesus was born there as a violent uprising that was focussed on the Roman-built city of Sepphoris. Sepphoris was within walking distance from Nazareth, where Jesus was brought up. The uprising failed and afterwards 2000 rebels were executed by crucifixion along the roads leading to the city. Many of the rebels were Galilieans.
The mere fact that Jesus attracted large crowds would have been enough to get him executed. It would look to the authorities like he was raising an army.
But there were other reasons why the authorities were threatened by Jesus’ action.
In fact right from the start of Jesus’ ministry he seems to inspire anger! In his home town the people try to push him off a cliff because of what he said in a sermon in the local synagogue.
His healing of people on the Sabbath was a big provocation to the religious authorities. It broke a commandment of God! And Jesus didn’t make things better when, confronted by those religious leaders, he calls them a bunch a hypocrites.
Then there was the accusation that he was a drunkards because he ate and drank with sinners (and therefore also unclean himself). Then Jesus raises the stakes by calling those same religious authorities ‘lovers of money.’
But it was the final events of his life that lead to his arrest. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. He mimics the Roman Imperial procession, and he makes a very public allusion to a popular messianic prophesy of a king who will save the people riding on a donkey.
Once in Jerusalem he hardly keeps a low profile. He turns over the tables in the Temple and declares the Temple a corrupt and dead institution that will one day collapse. But it is the event in the story at the top of this page, the anointing of Jesus by a woman, that is the final straw!
In the account in Mark’s gospel, the incident closes with this commentary by the gospel writer: Then Judas Iscariot who was one of the twelve went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
Events moved quickly after that and within days Jesus was arrested and executed.
I think there is something very moving, poignant and indeed, wonderful, that the final catalyst for Jesus’ death was his ministry to a distressed woman. And even more remarkable and wonderful is that in this moment it is not just Jesus giving something to the woman, ministering to her, but also Jesus receives from her and she ministers to him. As a testimony to this Jesus tells his scandalised companions, that the woman has prepared him for his death. Indeed!!
And in Mark’s gospel Jesus says her action will be remembered wherever the gospel is proclaimed in all the world. Which is what we are doing if you are reading this now!
Why did Jesus die?
Because he was uncompromising in his commitment to serve the most vulnerable and the downtrodden.
Because of his integrity.
Because he wanted and strived to free the poor from tyranny, whether it was religious or secular.
Jesus healed the sick. He gave hope to the abandoned. He set free the oppressed. That was why he died!
So now we can bring in that grand meta-narrative, written on the large metaphysical backdrop. The theology was not written by God or by Jesus! It is the church’s interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life on a big canvas. In essence it tells us of a Saviour sent by the Holy One to set all people free.
And it is true! But I think this big narrative only comes alive once we recall the actual events of Jesus’ life – how he lived for others and died because he kept true to his vision.
To follow Christ is to strive to keep alive that same commitment to God’s loving, redeeming work, in our lives and today.