“I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Okay, Jesus. I’ll take you up on that. I’ll go to the prophet Hosea to learn this—after all, that’s where this quote comes from.

There’s ancient Israel awash in idolatry and injustice, yet trusting in her religious rituals—prescribed by God in the Law, no less!—to maintain her standing before God. But God would rather have his people living in simple chesed—“steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “mercy”: devotion to God and compassion for others—than have them do all the prescribed rituals of the Law put together.

Okay, Jesus, I’m good with that. In fact, I’d love to be free from feeling obligated to do religion in just the right way. I’d love to be free to do religion in a way that’s free, you know? I’d love to be free to do religion in a way that focuses on the stuff that really matters, like “doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God.”

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

But, I just… Oh, okay. I’ll go deeper. Let me check out the context of your teaching, why you said what you said when you said it.

Isaac Cigoli, The Sacrifice of Isaac

There you are, eating with sinners, and the Really Religious don’t like it. Their concern is about holiness, about maintaining purity—the prescribed “sacrifice” according to the Law. But your concern is about “mercy,” about showing compassion—this is the greater pursuit, God’s greater desire.

Of course, you don’t neglect the reality of sin—you call all sinners to repentance—but you turn “sin” on its head: excluding the marginalized, and especially justifying this by appeals to “holiness” before God, is the greater sin. Purity plus power so easily turns to bigotry and exclusion.

Okay, Jesus, that’s hard, but I think I can do that. I can try to be attentive to those on the fringes, especially those my community labels “sinners.”

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

But, didn’t I just…? Okay, okay, Jesus. I’ll go still further. After all, there is that other time you said these words.

Your disciples pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath. You heal on the Sabbath. The Really Religious get on your case once again. This time, though, they’re putting the letter of the Law—strict Sabbath observance, that is, “sacrifice”—ahead of its spirit—“mercy.” As the Son of Man, The Human, you are Lord over the Sabbath Law. The Sabbath, you say, was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. And so you prioritize the Law’s spirit of mercy over its rigid observance.

Okay, Jesus, I’m pretty sure I can do this. It can be hard to discern the spirit of biblical teaching, harder still to discern the Spirit behind the biblical teaching. But when in doubt, choose mercy—that’s a good guideline right there.

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

There’s still more to this? I don’t doubt that anymore—you do seem to have a way of saying simple things that aren’t so simple once you start really thinking about them!

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What other “sacrifice” might you mean? More than just the Law-prescribed offerings, or the right religious rituals? More than just living by the letter of the Law?

Oh, yes. There’s you. You gave your own life as a sacrifice. But if you did this, what does it mean to say you—or God, for whom you speak—does not desire sacrifice?

Oh, I see. You mean, no sacrifice of anyone, anytime, in any way.

Your self-giving sacrifice was an end to all sacrifice—not just animal sacrifice, not just religious offerings, but all the ways in which we sacrifice a life to gain the favour of the gods or to create favourable circumstances for ourselves.

No sacrifice, then. No daughters and sons sacrificed in war for The Nation or The Wealthy Few. No condemned prisoners sacrificed eye-for-eye and life-for-life. No brown people sacrificed over there, or right here, to maintain “peace” or satisfy “justice” or fill our White Man’s craving for land and cotton and oil.

No sacrifice. No women suffering abuse while the church keeps silent, all to maintain the church’s (and men’s) reputation and power. No children murdered in school on the altar to the twin gods Gun and Mammon. No LGBTQ folks scapegoated so straight folks don’t have to deal with their own sin. No unborn children pulled from the womb so close to seeing the light of life, and no pregnant women cast out into the wilderness bearing the burden of responsibility for their child.

No sacrifice. No sacrifice, ever.

Only mercy. Only, and forever, mercy.


“Jesus Died for Our Sins”: Sketching Out Atonement

Diego Velázquez, Cristo crucificado

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ death lately. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the journey we’ve just been on through Lent, following Jesus to the cross.

As I’ve thought about Jesus’ death, both recently and over the years, I keep coming back to the “gospel tradition” the Apostle Paul received from others before him and passed on to others after him, a tradition that was probably formulated within two or three years of Jesus’ death:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas and the twelve. (1 Cor 15:3-5)

This tradition shows that very early on Jesus’ death was being interpreted as “for our sins.” But what exactly does this mean?

I’d guess that when most people hear that phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” they immediately plug in a whole cluster of ideas: we sin by disobeying God’s moral law; God’s holiness therefore bars us from being in God’s presence and God’s justice demands a penalty be paid, the penalty of death; God is justly angry with us. To say, then, that “Jesus died for our sins” means that “Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for our sins demanded by God’s justice, and thus turned away God’s righteous wrath, bringing us divine forgiveness and allowing us to be in God’s holy presence.” This idea is called “penal substitutionary atonement.”

However, the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” doesn’t necessarily mean all those things. For it to mean all those things requires many assumptions to be true about who God is, how God operates, what sin is, what forgiveness involves, how justice works, and so on. These assumptions are never actually stated in any one passage in Scripture, but must be inferred from various passages and then all brought together before being read into this phrase.

In fact, I’d suggest that the phrase from this early tradition, “Christ died for our sins,” simply means that “Christ died with respect to our sins”—Jesus’ death concerns our sins, even “deals with” our sins, somehow, in some way. Exactly how this works, however, is not spelled out in this phrase.

The New Testament uses many different metaphors to try to explain how this works, what it means to say that Jesus’ death “deals with” our sins. Images of animal sacrifice, scapegoating, redemption from slavery, covenant ratification, military victory, martyrdom, friendship, gift-giving and more are used by the New Testament authors to interpret Jesus’ death “for our sins.” Some of these can lend themselves toward the popular “penal substitutionary atonement” idea described above, but many of them don’t at all. This is what keeps atonement theologians in business, looking for the best model for making sense of “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

I’m not at all fond of “penal substitutionary atonement.” I have a whole laundry list of reasons for this, and maybe at some point I’ll pull together a fuller post on the problems I see with this popular view. In a nutshell, though, I’d simply say that at its best penal substitution is a minor theme in the New Testament, and in its worst manifestations it’s a terrible distortion of the gospel. Some of these worst manifestations pit God against Jesus, for example, or they make God out to be a violent abuser who can’t control his own anger, or they turn the gospel into a private transaction that has little impact on personal ethics or social justice.

But is there a better way of making sense of the confession that “Jesus died for our sins”? How do I think about this?

This would require a whole series of blog posts. Actually, it would require a whole book or more. It’s also something that is still very much evolving for me. However, let me sketch out a few thoughts that specifically relate to some of the ideas found in the popular notion of “penal substitutionary atonement.” Even this brief sketch makes for a long post, so buckle your seatbelts.

One of the common themes of many human religions through history is the idea that our circumstances are a reflection of divine favour or disfavour. If things are going well, our god is happy with us. If things are not going well, our god is not happy with us. In extreme circumstances—facing a severe drought, experiencing a horrible plague, being conquered in war, suffering exile or enslavement—our god is very angry with us for some terrible wrong that we have done.

What’s needed is “atonement.” Usually this is some sort of sacrificial act, in many ancient religions even the violent, bloody death of some living thing. This blood sacrifice appeases our god’s wrath against us for the great wrong we have committed and returns us to our god’s favour. (Exactly how or why this works is rarely or variously explained. Does it satisfy some “life-for-life” sense of justice? Does it expend the god’s anger? Does it cover or remove the transgression that has been ritually transferred to the victim? Is there something special about “blood”? Does the god simply like the smell?)

Another common theme of many human religions through history is the idea that the divine presence is sacred, special in some way, and so cannot be entered lightly. Proper rituals must be followed, performed by the right people and/or in a state of religious “purity.” If we do something that makes us “impure” or “unclean,” then we cannot experience or enter our god’s presence.

What’s needed is “purification.” This can involve anything from ceremonial washings to special prayers, but often it includes some sort of sacrificial act, in many ancient religions even the violent, bloody death of some living thing. This blood sacrifice purifies us, cleansing us from our religious impurities, and allows us to enter our god’s presence. (Again, exactly how or why this works is not often or uniformly explained.)

These perspectives were shared by the ancient Israelites, including their leaders and the writers of their Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). People did things, even everyday, ordinary things, that made them religiously impure and thus unfit for experiencing or entering Yahweh’s presence. And when terrible things threatened individuals or Yahweh’s people as a whole, it was understood to be because Yahweh’s wrath had come upon them for their sin. What was needed to atone for their sin and turn aside Yahweh’s wrath, or to purify them from their uncleanness and allow them into Yahweh’s presence, was a violent, bloody death, a sacrifice of something or someone else, offered out of devotion to Yahweh.

The story of Phinehas son of Eleazar gives a vivid example of this. The story is told in Numbers 25.

In the story a plague has come upon the people of Israel during their wilderness wanderings. This is viewed as Yahweh’s wrath against Israel because of their sin—Israelite men have been cozying up to Moabite women, one thing has led to another, and they have ended up bowing down to their gods. A terrible thing has happened, which means God must be very angry because of a great wrong that has been committed. And so Yahweh calls on the Israelites to kill those men who have married Moabite women, in order to “turn away” his “wrath,” his “fierce anger.”

But before this can happen, Phinehas hears of an Israelite man who has taken a Midianite wife, he tracks them down to their family tent, he impales them with a spear—and the plague stops. Phinehas is hailed by Yahweh as a hero, with these words:

Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites. (Num 25:11-13)

All this sounds like “penal substitutionary atonement”: our sin puts us under God’s wrath, and what’s needed is a violent, bloody death offered in devotion to God in order to turn away God’s righteous anger, to make “atonement.” This same language, the same basic ideas, are found in other biblical stories and lie behind the animal sacrifices described in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

But there are some problems with this whole way of thinking, problems which the Old Testament itself acknowledges. Not all bad circumstances are because God is angry with us because of our sin, just as not all good circumstances are because God is pleased with us. A blood sacrifice doesn’t actually change the heart, our inner disposition that prompts our outward actions. Even more, a blood sacrifice doesn’t actually change the world; it doesn’t bring true justice within society, or a real and lasting peace, or a full and flourishing life.

There is a “minority report” of voices through the Old Testament that highlight these problems. Here are a few samples:

Sacrifice and offering you [Yahweh] do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required. (Psalm 40:6)

For I [Yahweh] desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

“With what shall I come before the Lord [Yahweh],
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

When we turn to Jesus in the Gospels, now, we see a few interesting things.

First, Jesus agrees with the “minority report” of the Old Testament. He severs the necessary link between sin and circumstances: while it is true that we generally reap what we sow, with harmful actions leading to harmful consequences, it is not true that all our experiences of harm are the direct result of our sin. Jesus also affirms that outward cleansing rituals don’t change the heart, and he even re-configures “holiness” in terms of acts of mercy and justice. Jesus also quotes some of those Old Testament texts that de-center or devalue blood sacrifice as a means of atonement or purification: what’s most important, Jesus says, is devoted love of God and self-giving love of neighbour; that is, “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Second, Jesus forgives sins apart from blood sacrificeThis is startling to the religious leaders in power primarily because, as they say, “only God can forgive sins.” However, Jesus’ action—like John’s “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” before him—would surely have raised concerns because there is no reference to Temple sacrifices. This was a live issue in Jesus’ day—the Essenes, for example, seem to have denied the efficacy of the Temple sacrifices and did not look to them for atonement. After another generation, with the destruction of the Temple and the inability to offer blood sacrifices, Judaism as a whole re-imagined atonement in the terms of the “minority report” of their Scriptures: repentant prayer, bearing fruit in acts of justice and mercy, atones for sin.

Jesus’ forgiveness of sins anticipates this later Jewish development. Jesus’ forgiveness shows that God does not need blood sacrifice in order to forgive sins. Instead, what Jesus calls for, and thus what God requires, is “repentance”—an inner change of disposition involving a recognition of one’s sin and a commitment to live differently—and “faith”—a devoted trust or allegiance to God expressed in following the way of God in self-giving love.

This leads to the third thing that distinguishes Jesus’ approach to sin, atonement, purity, and especially “sacrifice”: Jesus does not sacrifice something or someone else for his own good; rather, he gives himself for the good of others, even his enemies. Phinehas, a model of the majority view in the Old Testament on these things, you’ll recall, atoned for the sin of Israel by committing violence against another, spilling the blood of another, sacrificing another for the good of many. Jesus, by contrast, atones for or “deals with” sin by bearing the violence of others in himself without retaliation, allowing his own blood to be spilled with forgiveness on his lips, giving up his own life for the good of all.

In all this, in Jesus’ life and teachings culminating in his death, Jesus shows us a better way, God’s true way for atoning for sin: through nonviolent, self-giving love for others, even for one’s enemies. This alone is what will bring about true justice within society, a real and lasting peace, a full and flourishing life for all.

Jesus’ death, then, is really a kind of “anti-sacrifice”—in the full, dual meaning of the Greek prefix “anti.”

Jesus’ death is “anti-sacrifice” in that it is “against sacrifice”: it underscores the reality that blood sacrifice is not needed for God to forgive, it is not needed for us to experience or enter God’s presence, and it doesn’t bring about either the personal change of heart or the wider justice, peace, and life that we need.

And Jesus’ death is “anti-sacrifice” in that it is “instead of sacrifice”: instead of the violent, bloody death of something or someone other than ourselves in order to bring justice and peace and life, what’s needed is the nonviolent giving of ourselves for the good of others, the good of all, including friends, neighbours, and even enemies.

In other words, Jesus’ self-sacrificial death brings an end to blood sacrifice of any kind—animal sacrifice, capital punishment, war death, and more—once and for all.

There’s much more that can be said about the meaning of Jesus’ death than this. For example, Jesus’ death is a subversion of the evil powers of this age, the unjust powers-that-be in the world that oppress and enslave. Jesus’ death is also a revelation of who God is and the way God works in the world, showing God’s true power and wisdom, showing God’s love. For some thoughts on these things, you can check out my post on “The Foolishness of the Cross.”

There’s also much more that can be said about the themes I’ve mentioned and how they are used in the Bible, themes of “sin” and “justice” and “divine wrath” and “atonement” and “holiness” and “purity” and “sacrifice” and more. These themes certainly continue into the New Testament and many are important to Jesus, though the way they are used needs to be carefully parsed.

Nevertheless, this gives at least a sketch of where my thinking is at on these biblical concepts and how they all come together into some kind of coherent understanding of what it means to say that “Jesus died for our sins.” Constructive comments or honest questions, as always, are welcome.

“Remember Me”

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The words of a thief on a cross.

“Thief” isn’t really the right word, though—he was no pickpocket, no petty thief. He was a violent bandit who had, by his own admission, been “condemned justly.” He was a sinner, and he knew it. He was, as Luke puts it, a “criminal.”

He was right where he was supposed to be, hanging on a cross.

But he also knew that Jesus was not where he was supposed to be. Jesus was not a violent bandit, he was not a criminal, he was not a sinner. He had done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve a cross.

Titian - Christ and the Good TheifAnd so he came to Jesus’ defence when the other criminal on the cross began to mock Jesus, to scorn him. “This man has done nothing wrong,” he rebuked the other bandit. “We deserve what we’re getting, but Jesus doesn’t!”

He knew something was different about Jesus. Could it be true, what they said, that he was the King of the Jews? Could he really be the Messiah, bringing about God’s kingdom? But if so, what was he doing dying on a Roman cross? It made no sense—but still he believed.

And so he called out to Jesus, one crucified man to another: “Jesus! Jesus! When you come into your kingdom, remember me!”

“Jesus, remember me.”

Isn’t this the most basic cry of faith?

“Jesus, I don’t completely understand who you are, I don’t really understand what you are doing, but there is something about you, Jesus, something that points beyond the harsh realities of life and death. Please, remember me!”

Even more, isn’t this the most basic longing of human existence?

When we strip away all our pretence, all the collected debris of our lives, isn’t this what we long for, deep in our souls? To not be forgotten? To be remembered?

Don’t we all, when we breathe our final breaths, want to be assured that someone, somewhere, will remember us? Our names, our stories, our hopes and dreams—that these will not be forgotten, but will live on? Don’t we all, when it comes right down to it, want our lives to matter to someone?

At the deepest level, each one of us is that thief on the cross: we are broken sinners who have broken others, we are desperately in need of mercy, desperately wanting to matter.

And the crucified Jesus looks us right in the eye and says the same words to us that he said to that condemned criminal: “Not only will I remember you—you will be with me.”

We want to be forgiven. Jesus gives us paradise.

We want to be remembered. Jesus gives us his presence.

This post is excerpted from a sermon I preached on November 20, 2016, at Morden Mennonite Church, for Eternity Sunday. Image: Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.