My first assignment as a Catholic high school teacher, fresh out of graduate school from Notre Dame, was to teach Scripture to juniors. During Holy Week, I prepared a series of presentations on the Passion, helping them understand the distinctions between the four gospels, showing where Jesus fulfilled the scriptures, comparing Jesus’ last words on the cross, and emphasizing the Christology of each gospel account. I spent Holy Thursday talking about the actual crucifixion, emphasizing the horror and the physical pain of it, hoping to shock students into a sense of gratitude for his suffering.
Instead, a sharp young man named John raised his hand and asked me: “Mr. Weber, isn’t this focus on death a little over the top, a little macabre? If Jesus died today, would Christians being wearing little electric chairs around their neck two thousand years from now? Isn’t that a little sick?
I confess his question stopped me in my tracks. “Yes,” I stammered. “We might be wearing electric chairs.” “But we’re not focusing on the crucifixion because of our morbid fascination with death,” I stumbled on. “It’s because of “vicarious atonement.”
“Vicarious atonement,” I repeated. The class looked at me blankly, quickly growing disinterested. “You know,” I said, “the idea that Jesus takes our place—that “through his stripes we were healed.” I looked up from my explanation only to catch half the class yawning.
That was an important moment for me as a young teacher. I had worried in graduate school that high school would not challenge me intellectually, but here I was, in front of 16 and 17 year olds, and knew the “right answer,” but I was unable to articulate it in a way that it mattered to them. My words were mere platitudes. THIS, I realized, was the essence of the intellectual challenge of high school teaching—to take ideas and make them real! I had failed in my first real challenge to that end.
A few years later, I was asked a similar question (but with less flair). This time, I was able to tell them a story I had read:
There was an Indian tribe, led by a wise and just chief, which found itself in the midst of a long drought. The drought dried up the crops, and soon a famine plagued the land. Food within the tribe became so scarce that some of the Indians began to steal food from each other.
The chief, realizing that stealing bred a mistrust that was far more dangerous to the health of his tribe than hunger, called his people together and swore an oath, saying that “Anyone caught stealing would be beaten in the center of camp for all to see, nearly to the point of death.”
Two days later, the chief’s advisors came to him, worried: “We’ve caught the thief in the act.” “Good,” the chief said, “call our people, and chain the thief to the post in the middle of camp. Justice will be done, as I swore.”
“But chief,” they said, “It's your mother.”
The chief was filled with great remorse, for he loved his mother greatly. But he had sworn an oath, and he knew what justice required. “Bring her to the post.” “But she will surely die! ” they protested. “She is too old to survive it.” The chief looked at them, and said sadly, “Do as I say.”
The tribe gathered. They tied the old squaw to the post, hands over her head. She was thin, bony from hunger, fragile looking. All eyes turned to the chief, waiting for his signal. To the astonishment of all, the chief walked to the post, covered his mother with his body, and tied his hands above his head to hers. “Let the debt be paid, “ he said, “Begin.” And the chief took on all of the blows, writhing in pain, bleeding.
My students were silent. I let it sink in for a few moments.
"Couldn't the chief have just waived off the debt, sparing his mom?" I asked them. "Yes," a student said, but that would have made him unjust, someone who plays favorites." "He would have lost a lot of respect," said another." "All true," I said, "but was there an even deeper reason?" They thought for a moment. "They wouldn’t have cared as much about his requirement not to steal had there been no punishment," a girl said, "They had to see and feel the punishment for the oath to matter" said another. "And when the chief substituted himself, it mattered even more," someone else added.
"So it wasn't so much for the chief's sake that the debt had to be paid," I asked "but for his people's sake?" They nodded in agreement.
"Go to Church on Good Friday, " I said, "to thank Jesus for what he's done for us. "