Why Was Jesus Killed?

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Mark 14:1b The chief priests and scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him.

Mark’s most explicit and direct answer to the question, “Why was Jesus killed?” is that the chief priests and scribes wanted him dead. But if we ask the question with any seriousness, that can only be the beginning. Why did they want to kill him?

Christian theology has looked beyond this superficial starting point for cosmic reasons. Supposing that all things, or a least all things that fit the scheme of salvation, are ordered by God, we Christians have felt the need to explain why the terrible sufferings of Jesus were necessary. So we have developed theories, especially about the need for atonement, that explain that there was no other way in which we could be saved.

Our proposal for Biblical preaching is that we should listen very carefully to the proposals that come to us from the scriptures. We should really try to hear what is said there, the many diverse things, before we try to make sense of them in relation to our own thought and lives. My proposal this evening is that we look at Mark to see whether he offers a deeper answer to the question, “Why was Jesus killed?”

When we ask the question open-mindedly, it is strikingly clear that Mark was not interested in a cosmic explanation. If we search carefully we can find hints that in the material of which he made use there had been some incipient speculations. Jesus speaks once, for example, of giving his live as a ransom for many. But Mark places this in a context where the emphasis is on the importance of the life of service, not on explaining why Jesus had to be killed. To attribute to Mark a ransom theory of the atonement would be quite wrong.

Yet Mark does seem interested in the question, “Why was Jesus killed?” in a quite straightforward factual sense. And to that question he gives a quite straightforward answer. Jesus was killed because he attacked the priests.

This attack was in no way incidental. He went to Jerusalem for this purpose. He knew that he would be killed as a result, but he was not deterred by this. Indeed, he made no effort to avoid death. When Peter suggested that if going to Jerusalem meant death, they should not go, Jesus called him Satan. To be on God’s side was to go to Jerusalem, and the purpose of going there was to attack the priests.

Jesus’ single-mindedness on this point appears quite clearly in the story. When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem he goes directly to the temple. It is too late in the day for action, so he cases the joint and retires to Bethany. But first thing the next day he returns and immediately, physically and violently, he attacks those who carry out the temple business. He accompanies the physical violence with the accusation that they are robbers.

Naturally the temple authorities want to put an end to these disturbances. The problem for them is that Jesus has a large following among the crowds in the temple grounds. To arrest him without a riot would be difficult.

The next day when Jesus comes back again, the priests try a reasonable approach. By what right does he come to the temple and upset everything, they ask. Jesus’ claims divine authority, and he goes on to say that they will kill him and that God will destroy them in turn, replacing the whole temple system with him alone.

This response was not calculated to soothe the feelings of the priests. But they were still afraid of the consequences of an arrest. So they decided to try to weaken Jesus’ standing with the crowds. To that end they sent questioners to embarrass him. But Jesus outwitted them.

In the thought of that day the only possible justification for Jesus’ action and teaching would be that he was the Messiah. Obviously, the temple authorities did not believe he was. No doubt there were many ways in which this violent enemy appeared to them quite unlike the expected Messiah. Most obviously, he was not of the royal family, which is what was understood by being of the lineage of David.

So deeply entrenched was the expectation that the Messiah must be descended from David, that early Christians devoted a great deal of attention to proving that, despite Jesus remoteness from royalty, the husband of his mother could technically claim descent from David. Mark will have none of this. In his account Jesus boldly declares that the Messiah is not the son of David. He then proceeds with his attack on the moral character of his adversaries.

It is at this point in the story that my text appears. Quite understandably the temple authorities wanted to put an end to this disturbance and the outrageous claim that Jesus was the Messiah that was used to justify it and arouse the passions of the crowd. Still they must do it quietly; and with the help of Judas, they succeed.

Jesus does nothing to prevent this. Although he knows Judas is betraying him, he does not change his plans. When his supporters resists, he stops them. After his use of violence in the temple, this cannot be understood as total commitment to nonviolence. Clearly he is intentionally cooperating with his enemies.

The priests give him a fair trial. When the witnesses they call do not provide the sort of evidence their laws require for conviction, they despair. Finally they turn directly to Jesus, and he obliges by making explicitly the claim that has been implicit in his actions and teaching all along. Yes, he is the Messiah.

There could be no greater crime religiously speaking than for one who was not the Messiah to claim to be the Messiah. It was blasphemy. From the point of view of the temple authorities it was quite obvious that Jesus was not the Messiah. No doubt they could have explained their reasons at length in a scholarly way, but they felt no need to do so. Jesus was convicted by his own words, and justice required his execution.

In view of this story, we have no difficulty understanding why the temple authorities sought Jesus’ death. That was morally and religiously appropriate. What is not so clear is why Jesus acted as he did. He was not playing the role of a reformer trying to clean up the corruption in the temple. He is depicted instead as wanting to destroy the whole temple system. We are left to guess why.

The most plausible answer is that he saw the temple system and the Messianic one as in unreconcilable conflict. Since the heart of Jesus’ message as presented in Mark is the reversal of worldly roles, one may surmise that the temple system meant for Jesus the imposition of hierarchy in the name of God, the radical opposite of his message of service. Since the absoluteness of this conflict would not become clear unless he was killed by the temple authorities, he provoked them in every way possible, placed himself in position to be arrested, and provided the evidence for his condemnation.

It is important to stress that there is no indication in Mark’s story that Jesus opposed the other major Jewish religious institution, the synagogue. On the contrary, he supported it. Whatever its limitations, he saw no contradiction between the basic structure of the synagogue and his understanding that religious leadership existed for the sake of the people. He found that at times the law was used in ways that subordinated human need, and he objected strenuously to that. But this was the kind of discussion that could occur within the synagogue. In the case of the temple, on the other hand, its structure inherently subordinated the real needs of the people to the power and wealth of the priests, and it did so in the name of a sacrificial system that was irrelevant to those real needs. This is so radically opposed to what God wants that it is worth dying to expose this contradiction.

Of course, in eliciting this proposal from the text I am already interpreting. I cannot avoid that. But I think the proposal is there. If so, has it any relevance to us today?

I am speaking of “us” as a group of Protestant ministers. If we take the “us” to be Christianity in its entire history, then it is clear that it has great relevance. Christianity has at times evolved hierarchical systems more exploitative people than the temple system to oppose which Mark tells us that Jesus had himself killed. That these systems have been periodically reformed, witnesses to the fact that Mark’s proposal has not been entirely lost on us. We Protestants may certainly claim that our churches are heirs to the synagogues and that our professional leadership defines its role as that of service or ministry.

So, perhaps, Jesus’ death has made its point. Perhaps we can congratulate ourselves on having heard and learned. Yes, I think we can. But if, according to Mark, the evil of exploiting human beings in the name of religion is so great that Jesus died to oppose it, a closer look at ourselves may be in order.

The form that our exploitation takes is called clericalism. Although we describe ourselves as ministers, we want to be properly recompensed for that service. We want status and financial security. We want a large say in determining where and how we will serve, and much of that say is in terms of what will work best for us. In my own denomination, the United Methodist, the proportion of total resources devoted to the education and support of clergy has grown greatly. We cannot “afford” much for projects designed to serve the poor because it is so expensive to maintain our declining institutions.

I am not so cynical as to say that the whole financial system of my denomination exists for the support of the clergy. Yet we are moving in that direction.

It is easy to respond to this charge by pointing out that at each step there are good moral reasons. Surely the church has responsibility to provide those who serve it with a living wage and security in old age. And surely professional staffs are needed to maintain the programs that keep people involved. That is all true. My criticism of the emerging structures has nothing to do with moral criticism of the clergy.

But Jesus’ attack on the temple system really had nothing to do with the moral character of the priests. Because of our inveterate moralism, we often suppose that the business carried on in the temple grounds was dishonest. But Mark says nothing about that. This business was the financial basis for the whole priestly structure and for the maintenance of the temple itself. Presumably the priests deserved to be supported. But to Jesus, this whole institution fundamentally misrepresented God. The system was wrong.

May it be that there is something profoundly wrong with our system, too? If lay people come to find that maintaining the clergy is their fundamental financial responsibility, then I think the answer will have to be — from the point of view of Mark’s proposal — Yes. Maintaining the institution of the church will then have become an impediment to ministry to human need rather than a means.

But perhaps Mark is wrong in thinking that such a change is wholly wrong. Perhaps Jesus was not the fanatic Mark portrayed him to be, or perhaps if he was, he was wrong to be so. Granted it is better when religious leadership really serves more than it is served, but perhaps in the real world both are always present, and perhaps we should not be uptight about the balance. Perhaps the maintenance of religious institutions is inherently important apart from just how they function with respect to service. And perhaps for the maintenance of such institutions, the professional leadership needs to be paid competitively with other professions.

This is how we really think, and we act on our real thinking and not on Marcan absolutist principles. Perhaps Paul’s theology has freed us to think more pragmatically about such matters. Perhaps our long experience with the church has enabled us to see that the direct application of ideal principles to institutions does not work. Our history provides us with many other proposals to which we need to respond. It is a mistake to absolutize any one, to deduce from it alone all that we should do.

But it would also be a mistake to set Mark’s proposal aside too easily. Perhaps he is correct as to why Jesus died. If so, it would be an irony indeed if we, who profess to follow him, once again produce the sort of institution for the destruction of which he gave his life. Perhaps we need to give more weight to the Markan proposal in the midst of our pragmatic and relativistic reflections about the church.

My intention in this sermon is not only to preach but also to illustrate the kind of preaching for which our book calls. Our most distinctive proposal is that we think of preaching in terms of proposals, that we bring to consciousness the ideas that really shape our actions today in relation to the proposals that come to us from Scripture. We do not argue that the Scriptural proposal should always take precedence over others. We do believe that again and again it will be found to have something to say, something that would not have occurred to us in just that way if we had not listened to the text.

But our hope is for something more. We would have preaching serve the Spirit. For us that means that preaching is itself in service to the hearer, and that the greatest service it can perform is to extend the hearer’s freedom. For me to press Mark’s proposal on you as God’s commandment to you today would tend to force you into the decision, Yes or No. That would serve freedom in a very limited way.

On the other hand, for me to present Mark’s proposal and then assure you that we already implement it, or else feel comfortable in ignoring it, would also expand your freedom a bit, if I got you to think about Mark in a fresh way. But if I can get you to think quite seriously, quite existentially, about Mark’s proposal in a way that also leads you to think about other matters that need to be considered, then there is a chance the sermon can expand your freedom more. It places on you the responsibility to think, while expanding the range of what goes into that thinking. It is in that context that the possibilities of really novel ideas are greatest, the sort of novelty that is the work of the Spirit.

We are in the midst of Lent, and our Lectionary invites us to respond to Mark. May we listen to what Mark says about Jesus and his crucifixion. And may the message of Mark expand our horizons, deep en our understanding, and open to us new ways of being in the world. As preachers, may we serve the Spirit as it leads our people into the freedom of new truth.