Oscar Wilde was a great, if flawed man, and a very great writer. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, based on his own experience of imprisonment, is strangely neglected even by those who love Wilde; I consider it a masterpiece which should be popular, as it is written in a popular form, and in words which are familiar to everyone. It can easily be found online.
It tells of the last weeks in the life of a man found guilty of a “crime of passion”, while also describing the bleakness, cruelty and fear of life in the prison. In the jaunty rhythm of the ballad stanza, he focuses especially on the day of the hanging, sparing few details, and its effect on the other prisoners.
And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.
And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
With the scent of costliest nard.
Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?
And he of the swollen purple throat.
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.
The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.
And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ’s snow-white seal.
I have been a part-time Prison chaplain in my time, and have wrestled with the task of communicating the challenging and consoling truth of Jesus to the men caught in that system. Of course there were men, and women, who saw the chaplain as a bad joke, but others looked for a saving truth so earnestly that I was almost scared to speak. The word had to be simple and come from the guts. Jesus, the criminal and friend of criminals made sense to them, when the bloodless theologies of liberalism did not.
A young woman in my present congregation who had heard my sermon, in which I denounced the theology that says Christ took on himself the divine punishment that we deserved, asked me in some bewilderment, if I didn’t believe in the blood of Christ?
Her earnestness got to me: how could I have given that impression? I, who know so well how my arrogance, greed, lust, anger, laziness, fear and selfishness have made others bleed? Who know how much forgiveness means and costs? Who hope that any service I’ve given to Jesus may have let me wash even a corner of my robe to make it white in the blood of the Lamb?
My biblical studies have made it clear to me that the picture of God punishing Jesus for our sins is unbiblical, and turns the loving God into a vengeful tyrant. I hope that I can persuade this good sister that the doctrine of “penal substitution” is mistaken.
The bible does however give us powerful images of the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. For example it is called, “a ransom for many” – in this phrase many means all. The ransom, which is Jesus’ life poured out in pain, is paid, not to God but to the powers of evil who enslave human beings. It is like the payment made to the owner for the liberation of a slave. Yes, that makes profound sense to me. It is my heart, hardened by the powers of evil that enslave me, that keeps me from God’s love. Jesus bloody death breaks my heart, when I see what these powers are doing to him, and opens it to God.
Then there’s the picture of Jesus as a high priest who offers to God for the sins of the people, not animal blood, but his own blood. The idea of sacrifice is to offer something perfect to God as a way of renewing one’s relationship with him. In ourselves we are incapable of this true offering, because we are afraid of suffering. Jesus does it for us. The gift he gives to God is his lifeblood. If I trust in Jesus, and identify with him, I am accepted with him in God’s everlasting relationship of love.
These are, I must emphasise, pictures or metaphors, invented to help people understand the death of Jesus. There are many more of these in the Bible, each giving a different interpretation of the blood of Jesus. Their common basis is that the death of Jesus, like the life of Jesus, reveals a loving God.