Let the Scriptures Speak
But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death,
because it was impossible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:24)
… realizing that you were ransomed from your
futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors. (1 Pet 1:18)
“But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21)
Redemption is one of those biblical words with a powerful, but largely forgotten image at its root. It comes from a Latin word meaning literally “buying back”—as in the liberation of a slave by ransom. So to be redeemed means to be freed from slavery. Unfortunately, some theologians, over the centuries, got distracted by the literal image of buying back and asked, in the case of Christian redemption, to whom the payment was made. This led to theories about Satan somehow getting paid off. The point of the word redemption, of course, is the essential metaphor of release from bondage, not the commercial transaction by which such release sometimes occurs in society.
On this Third Sunday of Easter, it is worth noting that each of the three readings speaks of the resurrection of Jesus and its consequences in terms of release from bondage.
First, we hear a section of Peter's speech at Pentecost (the first sentence, followed by the middle third of the speech). We hear Peter (or Luke the speech writer working with second-generation hindsight) applying Hebrew Scripture to the experience of the resurrection. Earlier, the speech interpreted the prophetic utterances of the Spirit-filled community as realizations of Joel's prophecy about end-time “wonders and signs” and the pouring out of God's spirit upon all flesh. Now, in this part, the speaker announces that the mighty works Jesus did were already end-time wonders and signs worked by God.
Then Peter proceeds to show how Scripture also helps us understand Jesus’ resurrection. He observes that Psalm 16 (attributed to David, as all of the psalms were in those days) uses words that really make no sense as applied to David. For David says in the psalm, “Nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.” Well, says Peter, we have to acknowledge that David's body did indeed suffer corruption; it had been moldering in its Jerusalem grave for a good thousand years. The words of the psalm find their fitting application in Jesus. As the remainder of the speech spells out, “Since [David] was a prophet and knew that God had sworn an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that neither was he abandoned to the netherworld nor did his flesh see corruption” (First Reading [Acts 2:30-31]).
We are so accustomed to thinking of Jesus rising from death on his own power that we forget something: the usual New Testament language about the resurrection is that God raised Jesus from the dead. In other words, the resurrection is not simply an act of the Son; it is a Trinitarian affair, with the Father raising the Son in the power of the Spirit.
This way of speaking of the resurrection (and our participation in it) as a liberating act of the Trinity is also reflected in the Reading from 1 Pet 1:17-21. The author reminds recently converted Gentiles scattered among the Roman provinces of Asia Minor that they have been delivered from the futile way of their ancestors by the Blood of the Lamb. Here the liberation image is linked to its roots in the redemption from slavery in Exodus. Christians are involved in a new Exodus.
Finally, freedom talk surfaces in an ironic way in today's Gospel. The forlorn disciples say to the risen, but still unrecognized, Jesus: “We were hoping that he was the one who would set Israel free.” They thought that the recent death by crucifixion of their master had signaled the end of that hope. They were not impressed by the news of the empty tomb and the women's talk about a vision of angels declaring Jesus alive. Were these disciples wrong to hope for a political liberation of Israel? Not really. For Israel's hopes for “the Age to Come” entailed the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel and the freedom from foreign empires that they had enjoyed under David. It will take a lot of post-Easter reflection and the grace of Pentecost for them to recognize that these hopes for restoration and freedom are fulfilled in the kingdom of God now guided by the spirit of the risen Lord, although he reigns in a very different way than they had expected.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University