The Unexpected Beauty of Ransom


In late 1987, two American college students were exploring the jungles of Columbia. After obtaining a canoe, they embarked upon the Putumayo River and strayed into territory held by a Marxist rebel army. Formally known as FARC, these guerrilla soldiers abducted the students and held them captive for ten months in various jungle camps. By chance, I met the parents of one of them about a month after their capture.

At first, the FARC guerrillas thought the two men were CIA agents, though the students soon corrected this. But then their captors came to see them as hostages with economic value. Soon, their parents hired an American explorer, who found the hostages and their captors. After four months of negotiations, conducted by a Roman Catholic bishop, the students were released and taken to the American Embassy in Bogata.

For privacy and security, the family did not publicize the terms of release for the young explorers. But I believe it involved the payment of money, probably a lot of it. Ransom is a way to describe this kind of payment, where something valuable is exchanged for the freedom of captives. I have included here a copy of John Everett Millais’ painting, The Ransom. In it, we see an artist’s rendering of this kind of exchange, where a father hands over of fistful of jewelry to some men who have taken his daughters hostage. Revolutionaries and criminals have long used ransom as an efficient means of fund-raising, especially when their captives come from wealthy families or are politically well-connected. Google “hostage ransom” and you will find numerous cases.

Clearly, when payments are made to captors, the purpose is not to honor or reward the hostage-takers, even if providing money reinforces the logic of hostage-taking. Instead, these payments reflect an abiding concern for those who are held captive, awaiting redemption. We find another example of this in the ransom of the journalist, Amanda Lindhout, who was kidnapped in Somalia in 2008. The owner of the Calgary Flames hockey team, who did not know Amanda, was moved to pay around $750,000 to secure her freedom.

These contemporary examples of ransom are from a secular context. Yet, the concept of ransom is deeply rooted in our Judeo-Christian tradition, and it shapes how we understand redemption. A much-loved Advent hymn begins this way: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…” In the Old Testament, God’s promises inspire hope for the possibility of ransom, while God’s judgment warns of withholding ransom. The Psalmist sings the hope, “that God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol…” And the prophet Hosea speaks the threat: “Shall I ransom them from… Death? … Compassion is hidden from my eyes.”

These observations help us understand Jesus’ words in Mark’s Gospel, when he speaks to his slow-to-understand disciples. As Jesus tells them, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” We can find an unexpected beauty here in his reference to ransom, and to his sacrificial offering of himself.


This post is based on my homily for Sunday, October 21, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is the painting by John Even Millais, titled The Ransom (1860-02). Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.



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