Wasn’t it necessary that the Christ should so suffer …?” That doesn’t fit the myth.
There is a popular myth that warms the heart. It speaks of justice and vindication and is the stuff of great legends. In it, we separate the great heroes and heroines from lesser mortals.
It runs something like this: Evil stalks the earth, intimidating the good. There is invariably a bad man, a bully, who remains unchallenged because it seems nobody is strong enough to stand up to him. He has his way for a long time. Who can oppose him? But there lives someone, the true hero (a male in the classical legend), who, while actually being stronger than the bad man, for reasons that are not yet clear, puts up with the bully and accepts from him every kind of insult and humiliation. Nobody understands why and the hero’s reticence to act is seen as a sign of weakness. The bully is strong and the hero is weak. But, at the end of the day, the hero has his vindication. The time comes when the evil man pushes him too far and then, long after lesser mortals would have acted, he stands up, assumes his full strength, and completely humiliates and annihilates the evil man. Moreover his final vindication is not just the humiliation of his enemy but the recognition by the people that he, the seemingly weak one, was the strong one all along.
You see this, for example, in countless films. The ultimate cowboy movie, Shane, works precisely this theme: Alan Ladd is the strong, silent type. His quiet strength is seen as weakness, until the bad guys push him too far. When he finally is goaded into fighting, he proves the strongest of them all. More recently, Kenny Rogers sold millions of copies with a hit recording, The Coward of the County, a song about a man who was considered a coward by everyone, until one day the bad men pushed him too far and he proved that he was, underneath his shy, weak exterior, the strongest of all.
There is something inside us that would like to see Christ in this sentimental way: the reluctant hero, The Coward of the County, Shane, the strongest man of all who is reticent about using his muscle … until he is pushed too far!
What is interesting however is that Christ never used his muscle in this way, even when he was pushed too far! No amount of goading, humiliation, accusations of cowardice and weakness (“If you are the Son of God, come off of that cross!”) turned him into that hero of myth who warms our hearts with a last minute vindication, proving that he was all the while superior. Jesus does not suddenly, after one final insult, turn upon his enemies and say: “That’s enough! I’ve had enough! Now you will find out who’s strong and who is a coward!”
His death didn’t warm any hearts and his vindication, the resurrection, initially didn’t either. Even his closest apostles didn’t understand. They, like us, wanted him to be that great hero, the Shane of Israel, who shows his power at the last moment and muscles his enemies into submission. Thus, even after the resurrection, when his disciples met him on the road to Emmaus, they were still lamenting about a story that didn’t end like Shane or like The Coward of the County.
Their hero had died without flexing his muscles, without showing at the end that he was the stronger. Now he was trying to explain it to them: “Wasn’t it necessary to suffer like that, to not use the world’s muscle power, to not confuse the ways of God with the ways of humanity?”
They hadn’t understood him earlier when he had said the same thing about the misunderstanding of older brother of the prodigal son: “Wasn’t it necessary that we should celebrate because your younger brother was dead and now he is alive.”
Yes, isn’t it necessary that God should love so lavishly? Isn’t it necessary that a God who is love beyond all measure and understanding should give himself over that freely? Isn’t it necessary that if you give yourself over freely, and mean it, you will sweat blood in a garden? Isn’t it necessary that fathers and mothers who truly love their children should have to put up with so much? Isn’t it necessary that God should not be as defensive as human beings, even when pushed by evil? Isn’t it necessary that God should approach us in vulnerability rather than muscle us into submission? And yes, isn’t it necessary that the power of God be tied to a wisdom, a love, and a patience that runs considerably deeper than our adolescent and sentimental understanding of it?