'To redeem' means 'to buy back'. If you have pawned your coat you may be able to redeem it. In older times, slaves could be redeemed or ransomed. It is a surprise to find this image from the financial world at the heart of our Faith - and even used as a description of the Lord: 'The Redeemer' we sometimes call him.
Some ancient theologians applied this image in a very literal way to the work that Christ accomplished.
One said that we had become the devil's property because of original sin, so God paid him his price: the suffering and death of Christ. Another said that the 'ransom' was paid to an angry God: he was angered by human waywardness and needed to strike out at us, but Jesus (who is truly one of us) took the rap instead.
These are obviously very crude uses of this word 'redeem', and not intended by the Scriptures, where this word has almost always a rather loose meaning. Indeed, it is a word that is surprisingly scarce in several books of the New Testament. When we meet this word in the New Testament we should try to see what it means in the context. In different contexts it carries different shades of meaning or emphasis:
a) it often means, quite simply, 'to release', 'to save';
b) it emphasises that this work of saving has been done by Christ. Our faith is not an old-fashioned way of talking about self-help, self-reliance, self-sufficiency;
c) it serves to remind us of the desperate plight we are in; we may not be enslaved to the Moors, but we are more despairingly enslaved to ourselves and to destructive ways of living.
Thousands claim to be our redeemers and saviours: insurance companies, banks, advertisers of every imaginable product. All of them use the most sophisticated means (photography, video-production, psychology, music, art) to persuade us, against our better judgment, that we need their services. This false and cluttered atmosphere can blind us to our deepest need: the need to stand in true relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. There is an urgent necessity to distinguish every false redeemer from the Redeemer, and while being sceptical of the one, to know our ;need of the other.
There is another Scriptural word, 'reconciliation' (meaning more or less the same thing as 'redemption'), which may come closer to home for us. If I want to know what I am redeemed from ('saved' from, 'freed' from), and what I am redeemed for, let me remember a time when I had the deepest experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: when I could see that it was not about being carpeted or accused or embarrassed, but about returning (like the Prodigal Son) to a loving father. That is a perfect moment when I know what 'redemption' means, and what 'salvation' means. That is also the moment when I know most clearly that it is a gift: it is received and it is most personal. It is a totally different experience from rationalising my faults. To rationalise is to deny: it is a lonely and untruthful way, and it leads me nowhere. But to be redeemed is to be filled with a free and freeing joy.
The Prodigal Son had a speech prepared: "I no longer deserve to be called your son, etc." (Luke 15). But the father did not allow him to finish. "Quick!" he said, "bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet…." There are beautiful telling details in this story: the ring signified rank - he was to be no second-class citizen - and the sandals signified that he was other a servant but a son of the family. Redemption is not an arrogant self-assertion against the truth, but a joyful return to a the Father. Jesus, our Redeemer, shows us the way.