Jesus:  The Pure Victim

Isaiah 53: 1-11

Maundy Thursday/17th April 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Ask most Christians (and some non-Christians) why Jesus died on the cross and most will reply the tried and true answer, “Jesus died for my sins.”  But ask most Christians how Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished this amazing feat, ask to explain how it is that through the bruises of this one man, as Isaiah put it, we are healed, there are no quick, easy answers.  Replying, “Well, we just accept it by faith,” just isn’t good enough and it’s not intellectually responsible.

Millions of people have been bruised and abused by others in the history of the world; millions have been the recipients of untold violence that was not the source of healing.  Millions have been struck down, wounded, punished.  Millions have been oppressed and afflicted, millions have been slaughtered, million have been cut off from the land of the living and stricken.  We might even count ourselves in the collection of humanity that has been bruised – for all of us, in one way or the other, have been and are wounded.  Millions have known, we have known of people, we know for ourselves that it’s very difficult to see how all of this comes to any good.  It’s difficult to see how all this inflicted upon Jesus can be the means of health and healing, what the Bible calls salvation.   Jesus was a victim and he was victimized by human beings who were themselves born into a matrix of violence, victimization, and oppression – born into a world enslaved, as the Bible puts it, to sin.  Jesus was the victim of this matrix, of human sin.

And yet, irony of ironies, it is this forlorn and forsaken figure, this victim, this Jesus whom the witnesses of Jesus’ life saw as their hope.  The irony is that this one who was victimized is also the source of our hope.  “The crucified is God’s chosen:  it is with the victim, the condemned, that God identifies, and it is in the company of the victim, so to speak, that God is to be found, and nowhere else.”[1] If you want to find the presence of God, then look to Jesus.  This is not to say that God identifies with the victim in order to make them victims.  Nor does this mean that Christians have to become victims in order to experience God.  It means that God is at work in Jesus and through Jesus in a new and unique way.

If you were one of the first disciples, if you were a member of First Church, Jerusalem, you would be living with the fact that the one who was crucified and is now raised is still the one whom you betrayed and crucified.  The victim is their victim; the victim is our victim.  But this victim is different from all the others who were victimized by the matrix of sin in the world.  The source of our salvation, our healing, our hope is found in him, in what he did and also in what he didn’t do on the cross.  He’s the means by which new life is given to people.  But in order to experience salvation – in your heart, deep within your heart, not just in your head -- you have to look at him, you have to turn to the victim and learn from him, you have to face him.

And what we see operating in him is the way of God.  What’s so remarkable is that we’re able to “return to the victim in hope,” because, as Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, has put it, “Jesus embodies the condition of a pure victim.”[2]  What he means by this is that forgiveness is possible through Jesus, this kind of victim, because of the kind of person he was and is.  1 Peter 2:23 tells us, “When he suffered, he did not threaten.”  The witness of the gospels and the early church make it clear that “Jesus offered no ‘violence’ to any who turned to him in hope:  he accepts, he does not condemn, resist or exclude.  His life is defined as embodying an unconditional, universal acceptance, untrammeled by social, ritual or racial exclusiveness (the woman, the Samaritan, the leper, the collaborator, the sexually delinquent, the Roman soldier all receive grace and fellowship in Jesus.)”[3]  In Jesus Christ – on the cross and his entire life – we see God’s love pouring through this one who was victimized throughout his life and did not return violence for violence.

Jesus does what is impossible for any of us to do.  Jesus does for us what is impossible for us to on our own.  He breaks the chain of violence and the price of sin.  As we need to remember:  violence begets violence.  The victim becomes the oppressor and the oppressor victimizes.  Evil does not occur in a vacuum.  For example, Europe – Christian Europe’s! – “attempt to atone for a nightmare of incalculable violence against the Jewish people has produced a new race of victims in the Palestinians, and so set up a further chain of terrorist violence and counter-violence.”[4]  The one who abuses very often was abused.  Was Jesus’ betrayed by the lost childhood of Judas?  What was his childhood like?[5]

Jesus breaks that transaction between oppression and violence.  God will take our violence, our betrayal, our waywardness, our alienation, our sin – will take all of it into Godself – but will not react to us in kind.  God will not be reduced to our level. Because God is creative, God will free us for creative action.  How do we know this?  Because of the resurrection.  The resurrection is proof that God transcends and undoes this vicious cycle of oppressor and oppressed and creates a new humanity, capable of new relationships between people and with God.  Jesus refuses to take the role of the oppressor even though he was victim:  he does no violence, he has no desire to exclude anyone, he utters no condemnation of his accusers, especially when he is on trial, he does not yell and curse from atop the cross, he does not lash out with the desire to destroy, he does not wish the diminishment of anyone.  If scholars were ever to uncover a text that said Jesus was violent, destructive, possessed an exploitive personality it would fictionalize the gospels and completely undermine the church.[6]

But here we are in the sanctuary of this church, on yet another Maundy Thursday, embodying not violence, but fellowship.  For, we too, know the mercy of Christ.  We know the forgiveness of God and wish to share it.  Remember that the meal we share tonight originated “in the same night that he was betrayed.”  Those who eat at his table are his betrayers – then as now; “yet from the death and hell to which our betrayal condemns him, he returns to break his bread with us as before.”  This meal cannot be separated from the meals that Jesus had with his betrayers after Easter.  For this is more than just a commemoration of what Jesus did a long time ago.  “All meals with Jesus after Calvary speak to the restoration of a fellowship broken by human infidelity:  the wounded body and the shed blood are inescapably present.  We do not remember a distant meal or even a distant death:  we are made ‘present to ourselves’ as people complicit in the betrayal and death of Jesus – and yet still called and accepted, still companions with him.”[7]  Amazing.

[1] Rowan Williams, Resurrection:  Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Cleveland, OH:  Pilgrim Press, 2002), p.  5.  This communion meditation is heavily indebted to Williams’ insightful reflections upon the role of Jesus as victim and the implications this idea has for our own ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ. 

[2] Williams, p. 7.

[3] Williams, pp. 7-8.

[4] Williams, p. 12.

[5] I think of Edwin Muir’s (1887-1959) poem, “The Transfiguration,” when he imagines the promised future of God.  “Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,/ Christ the discrucified, his death undone,/ His agony unmade, his cross dismantled -- /Glad to be so – and the tormented wood/ Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree/ In a green springing corner of young Eden,/ And Judas damned take his long journey backward/ From darkness into light and be a child/ Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal/ Be quite undone and never more be done.”  Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), p. 200.

[6] Williams, 21.

[7] Williams, p. 34.