Monday, April 2, 2012

Why Did Jesus Die? Part 3

Understanding The Language of Sacrifice

The death of the Maccabean martyrs was seen by some Jews, before and during the life of Jesus, as having the same power as the Temple sacrifices. I have suggested in previous blogs that this is a primary background for the disciples' seeing Jesus’ death as a once-for-all martyr’s sacrifice "for our sins." The emphasis in such a belief is not on blood, or even death itself, but on the self-offering of a life in obedience to God, even if it sometimes leads to death.

As St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the great 4th century theological tells us:

“It is inconceivable that God should have
found pleasure in the blood of his only son.”

The sacrificial language of the New Testament is neither about propitiating the wrath of God, nor about currying favor, but rather stands in a long line of development stretching back into prophetic Israelite religion which holds that “to obey is better than sacrifice." Already in the prophets there is a vitriolic attack on the use of sacrifice to propitiate God’s wrath or buy God’s pleasure. The prophets believe do not believe that sacrificial rituals do any good to deliver one from sin’s consequences. The only remedy is turning from destructive behavior:

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”
(see Amos 5:21-25).

The Alexandrian Jew Jesus ben Sirach (author of “Ecclesiasties” so called because it was a favority “Church Book”) carries this theme forward by declaring “As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin” (Sirach 3:30). The unknown writer of Tobit says, “Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High” (Tobit 4:11). It is living a moral, God-like life in the community that is “the sacrifice,” especially when we reach out in charity to those in need. There are similar developments among Greek and Roman philosophers explaining the “spiritual” meaning of their temple sacrifices.

It is not surprising, then, to hear St. Paul describing his own self-giving and the generosity of others in sacrificial-language terms when he commends the Philippians for some gifts they have sent him: “I have been paid in full through the gifts you sent me, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). Likewise, he speaks of his own imprisonment in the extravagant language of his Mediterranean culture: “I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and offering of your faith” (Philippians 2:7).

Christ’s gift of his whole life, not just his death, as an outreach of God’s love for us. When Jesus says he has come to “give my life as a ransom for many” he does so in this context—to give his whole life as a whole act of obedience to God’s reconciling love.

Next blog: Jesus as an Agent of Ransom

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