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Chapter 22: God’s Redemptive Work in Jesus’ Human Life


The fundamental option of Christian life is the act of faith. But Jesus’ knowledge of his relationship with the Father rules out an act of faith for him, as the impossibility of sin on his part rules out a choice not to make a commitment he ought to make. Still, Jesus was capable of making a basic commitment, for his human heart was not predetermined to live his human life. Thus, he had to make a basic choice.

He chose to live his human life in fulfillment of the unbreakable communion between him and the Father. This is his basic commitment. It is a commitment to do God’s will, and so a commitment to the human good of religion. A Christian’s act of living faith and Jesus’ basic commitment are the same in one respect: Both are commitments to live in obedience to the Father. The Christian chooses to live as an adopted child of God, while Jesus committed himself to live as the Son he knew himself to be.

By giving individuals different gifts and tasks, God calls each one to carry out a personal vocation. One’s commitment to it settles in many ways one’s social role and personal responsibilities. Like each of us, Jesus had a personal vocation. As John’s Gospel expresses it, he was to overcome sin and death, and communicate divine truth and life to fallen humankind. In the Synoptics there are indications that Jesus discerned his personal vocation by combining and transforming three roles sketched out by the prophets as they looked forward to the inauguration of God’s kingdom—the roles of Messiah, Son of Man, and Suffering Servant. As part of his vocation, Jesus was to establish the new covenant and become head of the new family of God.

In living out his personal vocation, Jesus sets about doing what a human individual can to accomplish God’s will that humankind be freed of evil and fulfilled in human and divine goodness. Although ultimately he does this primarily by his willing acceptance of death, his life before then also carries out his mission. Its significant elements include prayer, by which he communes with the Father and discerns what steps to take; the proclamation of the kingdom and the call to repentance, conversion, and reconciliation; acts of healing and forgiving; and the gathering of followers as the nucleus of the new People of God.

Conflict with the leaders was inevitable. They regarded much of God’s creation as beyond redemption; they took a narrow, exclusive view of the community in friendship with God. But Jesus enjoins love for one’s enemies and prayer for one’s persecutors; he proclaims a community of friendship with God potentially open to all. The conflict comes to a head over Jesus’ cures on the Sabbath—his adversaries correctly perceiving that in acting as he did, he was expressing an understanding of good and evil radically different from theirs.

Jesus’ earthly life was not just ended but completed by his death, which best expressed his basic commitment and fulfilled his vocation. But his death was not a suicide: He foresaw and accepted it, but he did not choose it. That Jesus died at all was a consequence of the Incarnate Word’s acceptance of our mortality—something necessary if the human race was to cooperate in its own redemption. That he died a violent death was precipitated by his unavoidable conflict with those who felt threatened by his way of dealing with evil. He could have avoided death by abandoning his mission and so betraying his vocation, or by protecting himself with miracles and so nullifying the Incarnation. Instead, he accepted death, as the only option compatible with faithfulness to his vocation.

He accepted death in freely choosing to go to Jerusalem to share the Passover with the Twelve. The crucifixion and the Last Supper cannot be separated, and indeed, insofar as Jesus outwardly does anything to carry out his redemptive commitment, he does it on the latter occasion. The accounts make it clear that he was offering himself in sacrifice, that he was establishing a new covenant in his blood, and that he wished his words and deeds on this occasion to be repeated in memory of him.

Jesus’ free acceptance of death was redemptive in the following way. Since his basic commitment is to do the Father’s will, his acceptance of death in carrying out this vocation is a gift to the Father. Receiving and accepting this gift, God in turn raises Jesus from the dead. This gift and acceptance constitute a new relationship between Jesus as man and the Father, and this relationship displaces the alienation from God of fallen humankind. This new relationship is more than the friendship of the old covenant, for by it Jesus as Word communicates divine life to his human brothers and sisters.

The human action of Jesus in the Last Supper, completed by his passion and death, provides human persons with a new incentive to turn from sin. Moreover, Jesus is a kind of test case, and his resurrection is testimony that the life of one who strives to remain in friendship with God is not pointless. Thus Christians can live good lives even in this fallen world, firm in hope that life in union with Jesus will in the end mean fulfillment in him.