Re-reading Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice, I ran across this passage. I love how he reads Jesus’ response to the crowd’s answer to his question regarding how the owner will treat the tenants who murdered his son.
Anselm begins with the universal extent and profound depth of human sinfulness. Both are realities. But this general truth is not an adequate departure point for understanding the specific import of the cross. Rather it should be the other way around. We must start with the concrete nature of the sin in Jesus’ death in order to articulate its connection to our wider human condition. Treating guilt and sin as a single undifferentiated quantitative value was one of Anselm’s mistakes. After all, Jesus confronted the realities of sinfulness at every step in his prepassion life. And in every case he encountered those realities in concrete shapes, like greed or envy or deceit or pride. The general truth has a particular face in the case of the crucifixion as well. Specific understanding of the cross must begin not with the question of how God can be justified in forgiving the guilty. That is a second-level question. The beginning point is provided by the biblical context for the cross, the thread that runs through Abel and Joseph and Jonah and Job and Susanna and Daniel and the Psalms and the Prophets. Its question is, how can God be justified unless God sides with the unanimous victim, unless God vindicates and redeems the scapegoat?
Only the extraordinary conviction that God does in fact redeem the victim, coupled with the Gospel revelation that God has actually shared the place of the scapegoat, can lead to a further question. If God vindicates the sacrificed, if God has even been the object of our sacred persecution, then how can God be justified inn saving the guilty, i.e., the victimizers? And the guilty are all of us, because, Christ excepted, there is no one who is a scapegoat who would not or has not belonged to the crowd. Now the issue of guilt arises dramatically, for if God is to do justice for victims, how can God fail to do justice against their persecutors?
In seeing Christ on the cross, in the light of the resurrection, believers see what has happened…and not just to Jesus. What is revealed is not only the enormity of such violence against God, but the evil of our longstanding scapegoating against each other. We can no longer saw we know not what we do. And when this abyss opens before us, the order or magnitude of this sin appears virtually unlimited. It is the dimensions of grace that bring home to us the real nature of wrong. We see that Jesus does not deserve to be on the cross. That allows us to see that those we put on the cross in the same place Jesus occupied, for the same socially unifying purpose, do not deserve their scapegoating at our hands (whatever their real sins may be). And when this awareness comes to us, a third link falls into place. We are the ones who deserve the punishment we have readily meted out to others. We are the ones who deserve to be in Jesus’ place, but he has taken ours.
Jesus tells a parable in which the landlord of a vineyard sends messengers to collect his rent, only to have the tenants beat his messengers. When he finally sends his son, the tenants kill him and throw him out of the vineyard. At the conclusion of this parable in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks the crowd: When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time’” (Matt. 21:41).
…Jesus allows his listeners to draw their own conclusion about the wrath that should fall on the collective sin of the tenants. And then Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected / has become the cornerstone; / this was the Lord’s doing, / and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Matt. 21:41).
…When his listeners emphatically render a sentence of death against the tenants, they are condemning their own practice, and the practice that will claim Jesus. What does it mean for Jesus to respond to their outburst by quoting this passage from a psalm of deliverance? And particularly, why does Jesus introduce it as though it contradicts the judgment of wrath they have just pronounced: “Have you never read…?”
Jesus is the murdered son of the owner of the vineyard, and when he returns in the resurrection he does not do what the crowd who heard the parable expected and demanded. He does not put anyone to death. He brings mercy to the tenants and intends for the management of the vineyard, the kingdom of God, to be under a new lease, one without sacrifice…
Anselm is not wrong to link the scope of the wrong done to Christ with the scope of the fault among us. But he is wrong to suppose that God’s whole purpose was to somehow balance these out. We have rightly understood the wrong of the cross only when we realize it is the same as the wrong done to others. Like someone writing in ever larger letters, God has met our congenital blindness to our own sacrificial practice with an extreme demonstration. IF we can begin to see the truth here, then we can see it elsewhere.
I discuss this parable to illustrate that when we connect the story of Jesus’ death with a practice in which we participate, the reflexive response is a sense of our own guilt. As Girard puts it, “Christianity refers back to humanity the violence that humanity has always projected onto its gods. That is why we accuse Christianity of being so judgmental about our guilt…because in order to defend our victims the gospels are obliged to condemn their persecutors, that is to say, us.” The cross reveals the evil of scapegoating sacrifice so plainly that we spontaneously condemn it. And when we then see that this practice is our practice, our own judgment falls back upon us. The acute sense of responsibility for Jesus’ death is, then, one of the signs that one has been savingly affected by it. We do not clearly see our sin until we see how God has acted to save us from it. (emphasis mine)