THE PERFECT SACRIFICE

 

(In Defense of His Memory)

 

Could it be the greatest irony in history?

 

That Jesus of Nazareth, the one who opposed sacrifice, ended up being worshipped as the perfect “Unblemished Sacrifice”?

 

Did Jesus’ preaching rule out the need for sacrifices – did he preach a providential and forgiving deity who does not need to be bribed or placated with sacrifices, who does not have a need for sacrifices or offerings of any kind, a deity who forgives freely and automatically?

 

To be consistent with his new idea of God, did Jesus go so far as to actively oppose ritual offerings and sacrifices, specifically, the animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple on which the livelihood of the priests depended?

 

Did Jesus preach a close relationship with the divine that eliminated the need for priestly intermediaries between people and the divine?  What, no need for sacrifices?  No need for priests? 

 

I believe the answer is yes, that Jesus’ new idea of God ruled out the need for sacrifice.  And yes, there is a strong indication that Jesus actually opposed ritual sacrifices – we find out about that in chapter 10 of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews (more below).

 

What was Jesus’ new idea of God?  Can we scrape away the layers of embellishment and misinterpretation that have been pasted over his original idea of God?  Can we find that “pearl of great value” that is buried in the dust of centuries?

 

>>>Jesus’ God knows our needs and provides for us

 

Jesus taught that God knows what we need and provides for us.  With such a generous divinity, there is no need for long prayers of petition, no need for bribes or offerings, and there is no need for priests to plead for us.  Jesus taught that God is always caring for us in a gentle providential way.  With such a divinity, there is no need to fear that we will lack anything.  (Matthew 6:7-8, 6:25-33, 7:7-11 and 10:29-31; Luke 11:9-10, 12:6-7 and 12:22-32 (TNIV))

 

>>>Jesus’ God welcomes us with instant forgiveness

 

In Jesus’ story of the “Prodigal Son,” the father welcomes home his wayward son and instantly forgives the son’s wasteful lifestyle.  The father in the story represents Jesus’ idea of God, one who instantly forgives without condemnation (Luke 15:11-32).  Jesus taught that God forgives us automatically, as long as we do our part and forgive others (Matthew 6:12, 6:14-15 and 18:35; Mark 11:25[26]; Luke 11:4 (TNIV)).  There is no need for sacrificial offerings to appease God so that God will be merciful, no need to fear anger or retribution from God, no need to fearfully imagine that it is God’s will that people succumb to the Plagues of Egypt or any other harm.  Jesus’ God is benevolent, not malicious. With such a God who forgives so freely, there is no need for reparation for sin.

 

>>>Jesus’ God is closer than close

 

Jesus called his deity “Father” or “Abba” (something like Papa) and taught that he and his “Father” were one.  Closer than a father-son relationship (Matthew 11:27 (TNIV)).  When you are that close, no need for priests to communicate for you – God always hears us (John 11:41-42).  No need to fear the relationship is lost or ever could be lost for any reason.

 

This new view of God is likely to be the original thought of Jesus, because it is so different from the Old Testament god Yahweh who was vengeful, punishing, and angry and who needed to be appeased by animal sacrifices – the bringer of the Great Flood, the Plagues of Egypt, and bitter exiles for the Jewish nation.  Not that there aren’t many passages in the Old Testament that give him a better image.  And not that there aren’t many passages in the New Testament that reflect the old idea of God.

 

Jesus’ teachings about God may have had the effect of diminishing the sacrifice business at the Temple, or threatened to do so, but perhaps that was not his intention?  Did Jesus ever speak out directly against the sacrifices?  There are a few passages indicating he was less than enthusiastic about the practice of ritual sacrifices:

 

learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13 (KJV))

 

And then in Mark 12:28 – 34 (KJV), Jesus commends someone who says that love of God and neighbor “is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  

 

Also, Jesus says “Leave your gift at altar and first be reconciled with your brother.” (paraphrase Matthew 5:23-24 (TNIV)).

 

Does all this mean he opposed sacrifice or rather, that it was OK, just lower priority than mercy, love of God and neighbor, and reconciliation?  Was he opposed to sacrifice, or just had no use for it?

 

And if you knew what this meaneth: I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: you would never have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7 (DRA)). 

 

It’s not clear what “innocent” Jesus is talking about here, but maybe the author wants us to be reminded that Jesus was an “innocent.”  Is the author saying that if Jesus’ opponents had accepted what he taught about sacrifice, they would not have killed him?

 

I can find no record of Jesus participating in any way in the ritual animal sacrifices which were then a central feature of religious practice at the Jerusalem Temple.  This is odd and an obvious departure from what would be expected of a Jewish man of that time.  Nowhere is it recorded that Jesus supported this culture of sacrifice, even when he was in Jerusalem, even when he visited the Temple on a daily basis (Matthew 21:14, Matthew 21:23 (TNIV)).  His parents offered a sacrifice right after he was born (Luke 2:22-24), and so it’s not as if the Gospel fails to make mention of this sort of activity, but apparently, Jesus abstained.  Sacrifice played no role in Jesus’ spirituality.

 

There are several passages where Jesus gives instructions on how to pray, but I find no instruction on how to sacrifice or make offerings, with one exception.  That exception is his instruction to a leper he had just cured, telling him to “shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them [the priests].” (Mark 1:44 (KJV))  (see also Mark 1:44, Matthew 8:4, Luke 5:14 (TNIV)))  This is not a general endorsement of sacrifice; rather, Jesus tells the man to follow the established procedures for being reintegrated into society, from which he had been banned because of his disease.  Jesus may have been making an exception to his general position on sacrifice, so the man could complete his “testimony” and get on with his life. 

 

Jesus does go so far as to imply that sacrifices and other offerings will someday no longer be practiced:  “There will come a time when neither the Samaritans [worshipping Ashtoreth on mountaintops] nor the Jews [worshipping Yahweh in the Jerusalem Temple] will worship as they do now [by offering sacrifices] but will instead worship Abba within their own spirits.” (paraphrase John 4:19-24 (NIV)).

 

Jesus taught, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others . . . .  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray in secret.” (paraphrase Matthew 6:5-6 (TNIV)).  These words would seem to rule out public offerings of sacrifices at the Temple which were anything but private and secret.

 

Did Jesus maintain this low key approach – barely mentioning sacrifice, or is this just the way the Gospel writer(s) recorded it?  Is it that they made little mention of what “everybody already knew,” or they were fairly silent on the topic, fearing that what got Jesus killed could get them killed, too?

 

Are we supposed to take subtle clues to gain understanding?  For instance in Mark 12:41-44 (TNIV), the author has Jesus sit opposite the place where money offerings are being put into the Temple treasury – to distance him symbolically from it and yet show he was focused on it?  Jesus comments on one very poor widow who gives two very small coins (“all she had to live on”) as an offering to the Temple.  Is Jesus commending her generosity or rather is he using her as an example of how people should not be pitifully and gullibly sucked into this practice of supporting the priests?  Notice that just a few lines earlier he says that the teachers of the law (frequently paired with “chief priests” in the text) “devour widows’ houses.”  The widows are victims of these men.  (See also Luke 20:47 – 21:4)  Elsewhere Jesus tells someone to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor (Matthew 19:21, see also Mark 10:21, Luke 12:33 (TNIV)).  I can’t recall any instance of him telling people to support the priests or the Temple.

 

In the preparations for the Passover and its celebration, the traditional main course – the cooked lamb – seems to be missing.  Does the dinner table hold only the wine and unleavened bread?  Mark does explain that a sacrificial lamb was customary (Mark 14:12), but where is it?  Sort of like Thanksgiving without the turkey.  Did Jesus skip the sacrifice part of the Passover sacrifice?

 

Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus eat any type of sacrificial meat; for example, lamb or beef.  Instead he eats fish.  Presumably he ate of the bread and fish he reportedly fed to crowds of thousands (Matthew 14:15-21 and 15:32-38, Mark 6:35-44 and 8:1-9 (TNIV)), and a post-resurrection scene shows him eating broiled fish (Luke 24:42-43).  Evidently Jesus did not practice fasting like his cousin John the Baptizer (Matthew 9:14, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33 (TNIV)), an exception being the desert fast (Luke 4:2).  Jesus did not practice John’s dietary restrictions on “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:18-19, Mark 1:6, Luke 7:33 (TNIV)).  Nevertheless, Jesus could have been identified with a group that included his cousin John and others who practiced dietary restrictions (Nazarenes?).  If these people did not eat beef or lamb, then of course, they would not be sacrificers.  (They wouldn’t sacrifice the animal and then not eat any of it – that would be wasteful.)

 

Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer, with whom Jesus is associated early in his career, is shown “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  John the Baptizer’s way did not include cleansing by blood sacrifices, only cleansing by water baptism – presumably immersing a person in water such as river water (Mark 1:4-5).  Whether or not Jesus himself actually baptized with water (asserted and then disputed/edited in John 3 and 4), it is clear that since Jesus allowed himself to be baptized with water by John the Baptizer, Jesus shared his point of view that water was sufficient for forgiveness, without blood. 

 

In the Book of Acts, self-styled “apostle” Paul does a purification ritual and gives notice of an “offering” to be made as a ruse to confuse the authorities in Jerusalem (Acts 21:20-26) the implication being that the first Christians did not do these things.

 

But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:7 (KJV)).  I’ll guess that “sparrows” are the doves sold for inexpensive sacrificial offerings.  Your value in God’s mind is so immeasurably greater than these offerings that there is no point to making them.

 

We are finally told that Christ opposed sacrifice in Hebrews 10 in the New Testament (the author is Paul or someone from his school of thought).  The Christ is reported saying, “Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou [God] wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein” (Hebrews 10:8 (KJV)).  I’ll assume for now that “Christ” means “Jesus” in this instance as it usually does, even though Jesus is clearly not the only manifestation of the Christ.  How does the author reconcile this fact of Jesus’ opposition to sacrifice with the idea of Jesus-As-Sacrifice?  The author cleverly says that Jesus opposed sacrifice only because Jesus knew he was to become the new sacrifice replacing the old ways.  What an ingenious (but unconvincing) explanation!  Evidently someone had previously challenged the author on this – or he did not dare to leave the issue unaddressed when writing to the “Hebrews” who would be likely to have some insight into this matter, as it involved their recent history.

 

Author “John” (originally “beloved disciple” Mary of Magdala?) says Jesus did not go to the Temple to do ceremonial “cleansing” before one particular Passover (John 11:55-57 (TNIV)) but gives the excuse that Jesus stayed away to avoid arrest.  Author John (or later editors) favor the idea of Jesus-As-Sacrifice and call him the “Lamb of God” in both John and Revelation.  John has Jesus going to Jerusalem at the times of the Jewish Festivals, but evidently, this is to take advantage of the crowds, as Jesus doesn’t make sacrifice, he only teaches. 

 

Why would Paul and like-authors promote this idea of Jesus-As-Sacrifice, a replacement sacrifice, when such an idea was incompatible with Jesus’ concept of a providential, forgiving “Abba-Father,” and ironically, contrary to Jesus’ own struggle to end the sacrifices?  It’s a puzzle.

 

The four versions of the Gospel tell of Jesus making some sort of attack on the Jerusalem Temple, in which he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables and tipped the benches of the dove sellers; he took a rope whip and drove off the sheep and cattle waiting to be sacrificed (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17 (TNIV) – note that the TNIV has Jesus whip only the sheep and cattle, not any people).  It would seem Jesus drew the line carefully – he did not kill or harm anyone, did not molest any priest, did not steal Temple gold, did not damage sacred altars, did not eat the Temple’s consecrated bread (as his ancestor David ate of it), did not enter the inner sanctum or holy-of-holies – no taboos broken here. Jesus just caused a lot of turmoil in the outer court, with people running here and there trying to catch up with their livestock, people trying to pick up the tables and benches he’d knocked over, the money changers (and bystanders, too) searching for scattered coins.  I wish I could have seen it.

 

This Temple event is usually interpreted today as Jesus’ protest against commercial activity inside the Temple courtyard, a sort of zoning problem.  Could Jesus concern have been something more than such a minor issue?  Were the money changers and animal sellers the main targets?  Or was he adamantly opposed to the main business of the Temple – the ritual animal sacrifices and the meat industry there (presumably the priests sold whatever portion they did not consume).  The release of the sheep and cattle would seem to indicate – yes.

 

Someone has pointed out to me that maybe Jesus was protesting materialism at the Temple, not just the commercialism with money changers and sellers, and other sales – “[Jesus] would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.” (Mark 11:16 (KJV)), and not just the animal sacrifices, but rather the whole emphasis on the material, when the focus should have been more or entirely on “worship in spirit.”  

 

Jesus tells an invalid seeking healing, “Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.” (Luke 5:20 (KJV)).  See also (Luke 5:17-26, Mark 2:1-12, Matthew 9:1-8 (TNIV)).  In this passage, Jesus demonstrates his belief that Abba’s forgiveness is always available to us.  Jesus ignores what would have been conventional wisdom back then, that forgiveness is conditioned on blood-letting sacrifices, ritual cleansing, and the like.  He simply says a few words of forgiveness.  No wonder onlookers from the establishment in Jerusalem are appalled at this – no way priests or any temple functionary could make a penny on this type of forgiveness!  This passage is in stark contrast to the claims of salvation-theorists and in fact utterly refutes their argument that God would have been unable to forgive before the salvation-event of the crucifixion featuring Jesus-As-Human-Sacrifice, an event still in the future at that time.  Jesus does not say “your sins will be forgiven,” but rather, “your sins are forgiven.”  Clearly God (or as the text has it, Jesus who has “authority”) is not required to wait for the Cross in order to forgive.  God’s willingness and ability to forgive cannot be limited, confined to particular events, timing, processes, or conditioned upon acts of sacrifice, whether these are sacrifices of livestock or a sacrifice of a hypothetical Jesus-As-Lamb-of-God.  God is able to forgive at any time with just a thought, and does not need to commit an atrocity (torture and kill his own “Son”) in order to be able to forgive.

 

Jesus tells the Jerusalem folks they do not know the true God, rather theirs is the devil (John 8:38-47 and 8:54-55 (TNIV)).  These passages could mean a variety of things but would seem to be a discussion of the right kind of worship.  Jesus thought that God is good (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19 (TNIV)) and wanted all to worship “in spirit and truth.”  If one says “God is good,” but one worships with sacrifices as if one believes God is an adversary who is maliciously vengeful, as if God needs to be bribed, placated, appeased, etc., to keep it from harming people, then how is that different from demon or devil worship, that is, worshipping and placating a personification of evil? 

 

The very earliest Christians would not have publicly denounced the leadership at the Jerusalem Temple as Jesus did, or write openly about it, lest they meet the same fate.  This may be why we can have only the vaguest understanding of why Jesus opposed the Temple.  Paradoxically, this Jesus, whose dedication to sacrifice is conspicuous by its absence, later became thought of as the “Unblemished Sacrifice” or “Lamb of God.”  Perhaps Christians outside the original Jerusalem community did not fully understand his message of Divine Providence.  Perhaps Jewish converts who received the message melded it with themes of sacrifice borrowed from their Jewish tradition in order to make sense of his death.  Perhaps they were misled by Paul or other salvation-theorists.  Christians should re-evaluate these themes of sacrifice.  Such themes are incompatible with the gentle Abba preached by Jesus. 

 

In his lifetime, Jesus did not walk around thinking of himself as a “sacrifice” anymore than you or anyone else would. 

 

Another idea:  what if there is this odd mix of pro-sacrifice and anti-sacrifice themes in the New Testament as a way to get us thinking about what we really think about it all?  A puzzle created very deliberately by the writers for us to solve?  What if Paul and others have very deliberately put this mind-game, this awareness-expanding exercise in front of us – to make us choose?  Old ways or new?

 

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