Was the crucifixion of Christ a failure?
During his 2015 apostolic journey to the U.S., Pope Francis gave a homily at a vespers Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. During this homily, the pontiff said:
We can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world. … But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion in the first days and years of our vocation and, need I say, it calls for great humility. The cross shows us a different way of measuring success. Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus … and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross. (Emphasis mine)
The Controversy that Shouldn’t Have Been
Now, Pope Francis does have a tendency to say things that cause people, especially traditionalists and political conservatives, to wince. At the same time, many of the same people would take issue with him if he said, “I like gelato.” And to be fair, like a basketball player who doesn’t commit fouls, a pope who never says anything controversial isn’t doing his job. But this statement shouldn’t have been controversial at all; not even Francis’ most virulent critics inside the walls should have objected to it. In fact, it shouldn’t have been necessary to add the words “humanly speaking.”
But not all Francis’ critics are inside the walls. Many Evangelicals will take issue with what he says because he’s the pope (and popes are almost by definition wrong about everything). That’s how I found out about this passage: A high-school classmate condemned Francis to Hell on Facebook for saying this. “No matter what context you put it in,” screams the unnamed author of On the Edge Again, “… the POPE clearly said JESUS failed at the cross[;] there is no excuse or explanation that can be offered to counter this statement that POPE FRANCIS said.”
Baloney. Context always matters because context helps us understand the author/speaker’s intent. Ironic and sarcastic statements often depend heavily on their context. To strip away the context is to risk misrepresenting the intent of the statement and does the author/speaker an injustice, which is why logicians consider out-of-context or selective quotation an informal fallacy. When it’s done deliberately, especially when creating “proof texts”, it’s a form of false witness. In this case, since the deprivation of context serves to portray Pope Francis as denying the Christian faith, we can consider it calumny (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2477).
Crucifixion as a Sign of Failure
From a merely human perspective, Jesus’ life did end in failure.
Crucifixion wasn’t a death awarded to heroes, great statesmen, or wealthy benefactors; it was reserved to slaves and non-Roman criminals, the lowest of the low. Roman citizens, if they were beaten, were struck on the legs with staves—painful, but not crippling. The Roman flagellum, on the other hand, had pieces of bone attached to the ends of its flails which could shred skin off the muscle. Forty lashes could kill a weakened man. Only very rarely—I think only in cases of parricide—were citizens scourged. Mostly slaves and non-Romans suffered this horror.
Crucifixion was a slow, torturous death. To breathe, you had to push up against the nail(s) in your feet or ankles, sheer agony. Death by asphyxia came either when you were too weak to keep pushing—which could be a matter of days—or when a soldier broke your legs so you could no longer push. While most depictions of the Passion show Jesus’ loins decently covered, the victims were usually naked so onlookers could gawk at and jeer about their physical defects.
The Romans meant crucifixion to be as humiliating as it was painful. They meant it to be an object lesson to others; the best example of this was Marcus Crassus’ staging the crucifixion of the Spartacan rebels along the Via Appia. By contrast, citizens were ordinarily beheaded or garroted in private; only the worst crimes were made public spectacles … at least, prior to the accession of Nero. The Sanhedrin knew this, and knew the people who witnessed Jesus’ death would count him damned: “… for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13).
Only the failures of the first-century Mediterranean world died by crucifixion.
“No Form or Majesty”
Who was this Jesus person, anyway? Until three years before his death, he was a nobody, an obscure tradesman from the hick town of Nazareth in the rural region of Galilee. He had no prior reputation as a scholar, so far as we know. In his home town, he was dismissed as “the carpenter’s son”; i.e., no one of importance. Even his family didn’t think much of him. He had little money of his own, no house of his own. He was born among sheep and died among criminals … poor, lowly, and humble.
Even during his ministry, Jesus didn’t go out of his way to rub shoulders with the people who had what Ashkenazic Jews would later call yichus. Instead, he consorted with lowlifes—the poor, the sick, prostitutes, drunkards, and the despised tax collectors. One of the latter became one of his inner circle, which was filled with fishermen and other nondescript people. He even ministered to Samaritans and, once, the slave of a Roman centurion. His popular appeal, however, was ephemeral; the people who shouted “Hosanna!” on his entry into Jerusalem screamed “Give us Barabbas!” at his trial before Pilate.
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (Isaiah 53:2-3)
… [T]hough he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
A Stumbling Block and Foolishness
Jesus’ crucifixion was a failure in human terms because, as St. Paul said, “… [T]he wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). Jesus didn’t come merely to save a self-appointed social-religious elite but rather to offer eternal life even to the dregs of humanity.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus preached an inversion of the human order: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last;” “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted;” “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He started, very sensibly, with the lowlifes because that’s where the sinners were: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus spurned the scholars as “hypocrites” and denied that wealth is a mark of God’s favor.
Yet Jesus’ revolution was only indirectly a social revolution and not at all a political revolution. If anything, it was a revolution of submission, an exercise in civil obedience. He preached adherence to the Law of Moses “until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-20). He not only paid the temple tax but advised paying Roman taxes as well (Matthew 17:24-27, 22:21). He acknowledged (albeit grudgingly) the religious authority of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:2-3). Saint Paul later argued that civil authorities were servants of God in their own right (Romans 13:1-7). Jesus was not a first-century Che Guevara.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ “revolution of submission” turned the world upside down (cf. Acts 17:6):
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-25; emphasis mine)
“The cross shows us a different measure of success.” The world’s way of thinking accounts the crucifixion of Christ a failure because the world has false ideas of success. Wealth, power, fame, achievement—these things aren’t bad in themselves, but become false idols when they’re not subordinated to our true telos, our final cause or purpose: “… to serve and love God and offer all creation back to Him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 358). They’re things that “flesh and blood” (cf. Matthew 16:17; 1 Corinthians 15:50; Ephesians 6:12)—Man as mere creature, deprived of the grace of enlightenment—foolishly supposes can complete and perfect us.
That the world could account the Crucifixion a failure has been known by every Christian worthy of the title “saint” for 2,000 years. It can only be a scandal and a heresy to those Christians who know all about the Bible and little to nothing about the gospel. It’s not simply that they’ve missed Pope Francis’ point. They’ve missed Jesus’ point as well.