How much is one human life worth? The head of our government’s compensation fund for 9/11 victims, Kenneth Feinburg, had to wrestle with that question over 1,500 times. In his book, appropriately titled What is Life Worth?, Feinburg shares his agonizing struggle in trying to ensure that victims’ survivors received a fair compensation for their loss. The average victim’s family received $2 million dollars. But not everyone received the same amount. For instance, the amount awarded for stockbrokers was higher that that awarded to military families, because stockbrokers’ annual salaries were higher. But some military families complained, saying that their relatives would have left the military soon and taken higher-paying civilian jobs. Feinburg also heard from people whose relatives had died when the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. But those families received nothing, as Feinburg’s government mandate restricted the fund to 9/11 victims. Feinburg ultimately concluded that the whole process was unfair. He wrote: “Don’t ask one person to act like Solomon and try to calculate the value of lives. To be judge, jury, accountant, lawyer, rabbi, et cetera, is very, very difficult.”
Just what is one life worth? That’s a good question for us to ponder today. Perhaps a person’s value is his or her net worth of assets. Yet this would mean that Donald Trump is far more valuable than Mother Teresa of Calcutta. As Catholics, would we agree with that assessment? Our faith tradition holds in high esteem those men and women who have taken voluntary vows of poverty. But if the value of their lives were based soley upon what they possessed in this world, they would be worth very little indeed.
The truth is that at our most basic, physical level, we are worth very little. The combined value of all of the chemicals and minerals found in a typical human body, 96% of which is Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen, is less than one, single U.S. Dollar. One dollar is pocket change to most of us; it won’t even buy a small cup of coffee at McDonald’s. Contrast that with the price of an ounce of gold, which recently topped $1000. An ounce of gold is about the size of a matchbook, and can fit comfortably in the palm of our hand. But is it worth more than we are? Maybe on the commodities market. But not in the eyes of God. If you and I want to know what we are worth to God, all we need to do is listen carefully to today’s Passion gospel, and reflect on what is recalled in this solemn liturgy.
We are reminded today that God considers us to be so valuable, that his only Son surrendered his own life, so that we might live forever. If God thought that we were cheap, expendable, or dime-a-dozen, would he have bothered? How much effort do we make to save or protect that which we think has no value? Not much. We’re generally happy to throw it away, or write it off as a loss. But God, through the suffering and death of Jesus, has shown us clearly how much our lives are worth to him. As Pope Benedict has written: “Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man…as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’ Passion.”
Can we put a dollar amount on how much we’re worth to God? If we were to try, we’d have to put a price on Jesus’ life, since he gave his life for ours. Judas Iscariot, when he betrayed our Lord, received 30 silver pieces for Jesus’ life. But this amount was an intentional insult, as it represented the fine to be paid a slave owner by anyone who injured his slave. Nicodemus, I think, was closer to the mark. We heard how he anointed Jesus’ dead body with over a hundred pounds of costly spices, an extravagant amount fit only for a king. Yet even this, of course, comes nowhere near to representing the true value of Jesus’ life. It would be absurd, and even obscene, to try to place a monetary value on Jesus’ life. It’s much better, and far more accurate, to say simply that Jesus’ life was priceless. And if Jesus’ life is priceless, then, in a sense, the same is true of ours.
In God’s eyes, we are indeed priceless. Nevertheless, God did pay a very specific price for us. More specifically, he paid the price of our sins. Like our lives, we can’t really attach a dollar value to our sins. But that doesn’t mean that our sins aren’t costly, because they are. Sin hurts our neighbors, our families, our enemies. Sin hurts us, as it keeps us from being the people God wants us to be. And sin harms our relationship with God. We might say that our sins have bankrupted us. Bankruptcy, of course, means that we owe more than we are able to pay. In terms of our sins, bankruptcy means that there’s nothing we can do to truly make up for all the harm our sin has done. Jesus had to do it for us. He is the one who satisfied our debt; he is the one who paid the price. And the price he paid was the cross.
In just a matter of minutes, we will venerate the cross of Jesus. We will bow before it, praise Christ for it, adore it as it’s lifted on high, and many of us, after the liturgy, will remain behind to reverence it with a kiss. We will do this because the cross shows us how precious we are in God’s sight; it shows us, more than anything else could, how much we are valued, and loved, by God. We may not be able to place a dollar value on our lives. But because of the cross, because of this “Good Friday,” you and I know exactly what our lives are worth.