In our reading from 1 Timothy, St. Paul says that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all.” What is a ransom? Why is Jesus a ransom? For whom is He a ransom? A ransom from what?
A ransom is an economic term – a price paid for the release of hostage. You might have heard the term “a king’s ransom”. It comes from the capture of the English King Richard the Lionhearted by Duke Leopold of Austria in 1192. He was held for a ransom of 150,000 marks, equivalent to several millions of dollars today. But Richard was so beloved by his people that all the people of England helped raise the money. People were taxed, churches gave up valuables, monasteries turned over a season of wool harvest. In 1194, the price was paid and Richard was set free with a king’s ransom.
We’ll come back to the idea of ransom later. But, before telling us that Jesus is a ransom for all, Paul says that there is only one God, one human kind, and one mediator between the two. A friend told me an arresting story recently, graphic in detail and deep in insight. It underscores the truth that there is only one human kind.
She and her family were scattering the ashes of her mother. As is the case with many families, her relationship with her mother was very difficult. Her mother was mean, judgmental and hurtful. Despite so many attempts at reconciliation and peace, a lifetime of pain was packed into the ashes inside the urn.
As the family gathered in a circle, the urn was passed around for each member to spread a portion of the ashes. When the urn reached my friend and she began to scatter her mother’s ashes into the air, the wind suddenly changed direction. Then the ashes that represented all those years of hurt came back and clung to her clothes and her skin. She told me that in that moment, she had three rapid-fire thoughts.
The first thought was “you are gone – you cannot hurt me anymore.” And that was true. Her mother was no longer physically present and able to inflict pain. But, her second thought was “that’s not true – past wounds will continue to hurt me and make me suffer.” And that is most certainly true. Faulkner famously said, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.” Sticks and stones do break bones, but words do damage too, long after the speaker can no longer speak.
Then right on the heels of these first two thoughts came the third. From outside of herself came this verse of Scripture: “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In that moment an electrifying clarity came to her, even as her mother’s ashes rested on her forearm. “I, too, am a sinner, with my own issues and complications. Who am I to judge?” And for a moment, the pain and turmoil vanished and she experienced peace. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” tells us that there is only one human kind In relation to God – the kind that has sinned. All the distinctions between people all fall away.
Since we humankind love to make distinctions among ourselves, Paul opens this passage by urging us to pray for everyone, including those who govern us. You will have noticed that the Prayer Book follows Paul’s instruction. Each Sunday during our Prayers of the People, we pray for our president, our governor, and our mayor. I love the fact that the 3 current holders of those offices span the spectrum of political difference. And yet we pray for them without distinction. To say the least, that is an unusual posture in today’s divided world.
There is a prayer in our Prayer Book that says that God has made of “one blood all the peoples of the earth.” But, because we have all sinned, we tend toward tribalism. This was true even in my extraordinarily homogeneous high school. Although we all came from the same 5-mile radius in West End Richmond and 99% of us were of the same ethnicity, we quickly divided ourselves into the categories of Jocks, Freaks, and Band People. There was some occasional crossover between the Freaks and the Band People, but generally the camps were rigidly divided.
Our fellow parishioners Mike and Emily Callahan had an experience that reminded them that there is only one human kind. We’ve been praying for them and their son, Jack, for several months now. Jack is a 3 year old with a rare form of cancer. He is being treated at a Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia right now.
Recently they were in a park with Jack in downtown Philly. Because of his chemo, Jack has no hair. People obviously notice a 3 year old with no hair and assume that he has cancer, but they do not know what to say. Well-healed people hurried by them, eyes downcast, as if the Callahans were invisible. Mike and Emily get it – they know that people don’t know what to say. When they sat on a park bench, a homeless man came up to sit next to them. It was obvious that he had not bathed in a long time and his clothes were horribly dirty.
To Mike and Emily, he said, “Can I ask you a question?” Overcoming the usual urge we all have to avoid beggars, and assuming he wanted some money, Emily said, “OK.” The man looked at Jack and asked, “Does he have cancer?” When she said yes, the man teared up, paused, and said, “That is just so unfair. He doesn’t deserve that. I’m so sorry.” Then he asked, “Would you mind if I prayed for Jack?” Mike and Emily were profoundly moved and grateful for this man. He then prayed a powerful prayer for Jack and walked away. That was a positive reminder that our divisions and judgments are often mistaken.
In the U2 song, “One”, Bono sings, “One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.” The problem is that we don’t do what we should. Jocks, Freaks, Band People, well-healed and homeless people, sick people and healthy people, presidents, governors, and mayors, daughters and mothers, those who pray and those who don’t, you, me and the boy next door, all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Who are we to judge? We aren’t. God is the judge – not you, not me. We have all failed the test, every one of us, and God does not grade on a curve. There is only one human kind, the kind that doesn’t do what we should. Fleming Rutledge urges us not to whitewash the problem. She says, “The human predicament is so dire, it cannot be remedied in any ordinary way. If we fail to see this, then we have not yet ‘considered the weight of sin’”.
Thankfully, we are not left alone to be crushed under that weight. Paul says that God “desires everyone to be saved.” He writes, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all – this was attested at the right time.”
This ransom, though, was very different than a king’s ransom. Instead of the many paying the price to ransom the one king, the one king paid the price to ransom the many. We were held hostage by the dual Powers of Sin and Death. The scripture says that you were “bought with a price.” And the price paid to set you free was the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. His death for you, for all, is the true King’s Ransom. Amen.