What is Redemption
As a seminary student at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, I valued my time sitting in any class that Roy L. Heller taught. Dr. Heller was my Hebrew professor and my Old Testament professor; and I still enjoy hearing him teach at Church of the Transfiguration on Sunday mornings. I remember one day in particular, sitting in his class, hearing him describe the Hebrew word go’el, the word we translate into English as “redeemer.” The light he shed on the subject was overwhelming and offered me an understanding of redemption that I never really grasped before.
Typically, when I think of redeeming something, I think of coupons or even Groupons. When I was a kid, I thought of redeeming the hundreds of tickets I’d “won” at places like Chuck E. Cheese or Dave and Busters; of course, the prizes I redeemed my tickets for were never as valuable as the money I’d spent winning them in the arcades. And my husband will attest to my love for sales and coupons. I make every effort not to buy something at a regular price, unless we are in dire need of the item.
But that kind of “redeeming” isn’t exactly what comes to mind within the walls of a church or the confines of the biblical narrative. “My Redeemer” and “The Redeemer” appear throughout the Old Testament in the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets, and other Wisdom literature. In the prophet Isaiah (59:20), we hear that God will redeem those who are repentant. But when we turn to the New Testament, when we look more deeply into the scriptures of the Christian faith, we find… Jesus. Throughout the New Testament we find many references to Jesus as the One who redeems us from slavery to sin, the law, the power of Satan, judgment that is to come, and death; we mostly find these references in the Epistles.
What we do find in the Gospels is not much talk about “redeemer” but more talk about “ransom.” In order to truly understand this idea, we must return to the Hebrew word go’el. In the Hebrew, a redeemer is one who does the righteous deed for a near relative. For example, a redeemer would purchase a field that was sold in a time of need because a relative had fallen into debt; a redeemer would purchase an Israelite slave who had sold himself into slavery in a time of need or poverty, in order to set him free. Often, a redemption price is also called a ransom. Dr. Heller described this in a contemporary example: suppose you are at a restaurant and you can’t pay your bill, so the manager requires you to wash dishes in the back until you are able to pay your bill; thankfully, a relative happens by the restaurant, realizes that you’re working in the back, pays your bill and relieves you of your required service.
Redeeming is so much bigger than just trading in a coupon for a discount or turning in some tickets for a prize. Redeeming is the kind of work that demands great sacrifice for nothing in return; it requires love beyond all measure; and it mandates that the one who redeems is responsible for the one who is redeemed, both the wrongs done to him and the wrongs done by him. And so, God is the redeemer of Israel in the Old Testament—both responsible for saving Israel when it is in trouble and saving Israel from itself. For us, Jesus is the primary figure of redemption: he saves us from ourselves and he saves us for himself.
In our own worship services, specifically Holy Eucharist, Rite II, we say (through the celebrant’s words) that we celebrate and remember Jesus’ own work of redemption by offering a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving through the elements of bread and wine that are becoming the Body and Blood of Christ. The work of our redemption has already taken place—Jesus offered himself on the cross, a ransom for many—and when we gather together as communities of faith to worship our God, we are called to remember that redemption. The word for “remember” here isn’t as simple as looking back fondly on a good moment. No, this is the kind of remembering that you do with your whole self: past, present, future, mind, body, soul. And that kind of remembering changes us, each and every time we do it.
That’s the tricky thing about redemption in Christianity… We don’t get to go on about our business as usual; we are changed. We are redeemed from sin and death, but we are also redeemed for something else. We are redeemed by Jesus for the kingdom of God—for the greater purpose of serving the Redeemer. In the Catechism section of The Book of Common Prayer, under the questions about Sin and Redemption, we read that Jesus “The Messiah is one sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation,” (BCP, 849). We are redeemed for the purpose of living in harmony within the kingdom of God and all that God has created, humans and creation alike. When we turn from sin we are changed into people redeemed for a purpose greater than ourselves.