Beliefnet
Reprinted from "The Last Week" with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

A common Christian understanding of Jesus's death is that it was a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. As we reflect on the extent to which this is present in Mark, we distinguish between a broad and a more specific meaning of the word "sacrifice."

The broad meaning refers to sacrificing one's life for a cause. It is common to refer to Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as sacrificing their lives for the causes to which they were devoted. Soldiers killed in action are often described as sacrificing their lives for their country. In this sense, one may speak of Jesus sacrificing his life for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God.

The more specific meaning of sacrifice in relation to Jesus' death speaks of it as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, a dying for the sins of the world. This understanding is absent from Mark's story of Good Friday; it is not there at all.

Indeed, this understanding may be absent from Mark's gospel as a whole. The three anticipations of Jesus' death in the central section of Mark do not say that Jesus must go to Jerusalem in order to die for the sins of the world. Rather, they refer to Jerusalem as the place of execution by the authorities. There is only one passage in all of Mark that might have a substitutionary sacrificial meaning. It is the passage in which, after the third anticipation of his death, as the Jesus of Mark speaks to his followers a third time about what it means to follow him, he says: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (10:45).

To many Christians, the word "ransom" sounds like sacrificial language, for we sometimes speak of Jesus as the ransom for our sins. But it almost certainly does not have this meaning in Mark. The Greek word translated as "ransom" (lutron) is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives (often from captivity in war) or slaves (often from debt slavery). A lutron is a means of liberation from bondage.

To say that Jesus gave "his life a ransom for many" means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage. The context of the passage in Mark supports this reading. The preceding verses are a critique of the domination system: the rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects, and their great ones are tyrants (10:42). "It is not so among you," Jesus says, and then uses his own path as an illustration. In contrast to the rulers of this world, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a lutron—a means of liberation—for many." And this is a path for his followers to imitate: so it shall be "among you."

Thus Mark does not understand the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. Claims to the contrary can only point to a mistaken reading of the single passage we have just explored.

How then does Mark understand Jesus' death? As his story of Good Friday reports, he sees Jesus' death as an execution by the authorities because of his challenge to the domination system. The decision of the temple authorities to take action against him was made after his disruptive act in the temple. These local collaborators handed him over to imperial authority, which then crucified him on a charge that was simultaneously and indissolubly political and religious: "King of the Jews."

As such, Mark understands Jesus' death as a judgment on the authorities and the temple. The "chief priests, elders, and scribes" have killed him, just as Jesus said they would. Judgment is indicated by the fact that, as Jesus dies, darkness comes over the city and land, and the great curtain in the temple is torn in two. And a Roman centurion pronounces judgment against his own empire, which has just killed Jesus: "Truly this man—and not the emperor—is God's Son."

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