There was a time when ransoming captives was a very relevant act of mercy. Moors from North Africa regularly captured unlucky Europeans and then demanded ransom from their unfortunate families.
Kidnapping for ransom was a special problem in Spain whose southern provinces were under Mohammedan control. Religious orders like the Mercedarians, founded by St. Peter Nolasco, were instituted precisely to purchase Christians held captive in the Moslem world. These religious orders would beg funds used for the release of captives whose families could not afford the bounty. Ransom was a major preoccupation in the early medieval world.
When Jesus declares in today’s Gospel that the Son of Man has come “… to give his life as a ransom for the many,” the ancient and medieval worlds knew exactly what he meant. The devil was holding mankind hostage thanks to original sin. Adam and Eve had ceded the human race to Satan by their profound disobedience. Now Jesus would offer his life, his death on the cross, to purchase back all those souls otherwise lost to hell for eternity. St. Paul reinforced this notion of ransom when he wrote to Timothy that Jesus Christ was the man “…who gave himself as a ransom for all men.”
Certainly mankind is in the clutches of the evil one. Original sin is an undeniable phenomenon for anyone who reads the daily newspapers. Murder, rape, greed, lust and envy are the stuff of daily life. The devil still holds sway over much of mankind’s activities. Ancient authors thought that the death of Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, would be sufficient compensation for Satan to release the human race from bondage. What greater ransom could be paid to the devil than the death of God’s own eternal Son? Thus Jesus redeemed mankind, that is, “bought back” mankind from the snares of the devil and the penalty of eternal damnation.
The trouble with the ransom theory of salvation is the thought that God would actually deal with the devil in any way, as if the two were equals. God paying the devil a ransom, especially with the life of his own Son, is repugnant to any right thinking believer. This ransom theory of salvation would yield during the Middle Ages to a satisfaction theory which proposed that the death of Jesus was not a ransom paid to the devil but a just debt paid to God who had been rightly and infinitely offended by our first parents’ ancient sin. This theory, promoted by St. Anselm of Canterbury and refined by St. Thomas Aquinas, speaks more of God’s justice than his mercy. Under the ransom theory, the devil was bought-off. Under the satisfaction theory, God is paid-off. Neither proposition exhausts the possibilities of God’s economy of salvation.
The death of Jesus was neither a ransom paid to the devil nor was it simply a debt paid to God. The death of Jesus was the result of Christ’s bearing witness to the truth. The mission of Jesus was to bear witness to the truth regardless of the consequences. Jesus bore this witness perfectly. His life was a statement that the religious authorities and secular rulers could not abide. It was neither the devil nor God who demanded Jesus’ death. He died as a result of mankind’s intolerance of the truth. Mankind preferred to kill the truth rather than face it. Happily, for his obedience in bearing witness to the truth, the Father raised Jesus Christ from the dead, exalted him, and made him the source of eternal salvation for all who would accept the truth in Christ. Thus God’s plan for salvation rightly celebrates the obedience of Jesus more than it highlights a payment to the devil or a debt due to God.
Jesus knew that his sacrifice could appear as a ransom to a conniving Satan. Jesus knew also that his sacrifice might be understood as compensation for mankind’s obligations to God. But Jesus knew best of all that his sacrifice was an errand of truth, winning lavish mercy for an un-expecting and un-deserving mankind.