Mercy, not sacrifice

Jesus was a man of action and of ‘rare’ appreciation of the things of the Spirit of truth.  I imagine that, even as a child, He rarely found anyone with whom He could share ‘theology’ with.  In the account of Him at 12 years in Jerusalem (Luke 2:46), I imagine Him keen to see if the teachers in Jerusalem had any better rationales than the local rabbis for various ways ‘traditions of men’ had usurped the truth of God; and perhaps His decision to return with His parents to Nazareth had something to do with Him finding three days long enough to verify that they did not.

Given Jesus’ passionate concern with lived truth and real love rather than theological discourse, it is something very important to theological types if we have a record of any theological tip from Him.  When I say “theological tip” I don’t just mean His controversial teaching – e.g. concerning the Sabbath, divorce or resurrection.   I mean a theological tip that crystalised the great theological divide between Himself and everyone else and which would guide truth-seekers to understand His unique worldview.  Did He give any such tips?  I think He did – and it was a beauty!

In my reading of the gospel accounts, Jesus’ only theological tip was important enough for Him to give it twice:  in Matt 9:13 and in Matt 12:7.  The former occasion, He told the Pharisees to “go and learn what (the tip – a known quote from the Old Testament) means”.   This phrase “go and learn” indicates, I think, that He knew the Pharisees would not find the tip straight-forward.  And still, I believe, it takes people raised to be “civilised” quite some grappling with to understand it, perhaps including a long process of “going”, living, thinking – e.g. earnest praxis.  In my own experience, I think understanding The Tip has been a long journey requiring me to come out of the heresy that is “Evangelicalism” in which I “actively” wondered for 30 years.

The core of Jesus’ tip consisted of a direct quote from the prophet Hosea speaking as the Lord’s mouth piece:  “I (the Lord) desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I suggest this tip is as unintelligible to today’s Evangelicals as it was to the Jews of His own day.  To Jewish ears The Tip sounds ridiculous because God Himself had commanded Israel, through Moses, to make sacrifices to God – making “I desire… not sacrifice” sound ridiculous.

It’s meant to sound ridiculous and seem like nonsense.  That is a sign of how wrong the legalists are!  For the Jewish legalists, Jesus’ tip was just one more thing to ignore.  For evangelical legalists, Jesus’ tip is either ignored or twisted.  No less than those who persecuted Jesus in the flesh, Constantinian legalists fundamentally believe God desires sacrifice.  They believe God required and orchestrated the sacrifice of Jesus to purchase forgiveness of sins.  They believe God might not like sacrifice – but surely He desired the sacrifice of Jesus (out of love for us)?   Did He not needed one ‘perfect sacrifice’ to bring to an end the temporary Jewish sacrificial system, that had long since descended into a vehicle of self-righteousness?? (they ask).

Rene Girard’s anthropology of sacrifice in human societies has given an amazing window on the ubiquity of sacrifice in virtually all tribes and civilizations.  Whoever reads Girard will come to see, I hope, that “sacrifice” is neither a distinctly “Christian” nor a “Godly” concept – but just the reverse.  And that the really wonderfully unique and world-changing thing about Calvary was not the “sacrifice of God” (by humanity) but God’s submission to Humanity’s sacrifice of Him!  Likewise, when God’s people are “living sacrifices” in their submission to other people’s sacrifice of them, such submission manifests the love and power of God to His ‘enemies’.  We are called not only to oppose the sacrificing/scapegoating the vulnerable in the world (social justice) but to also to overcome the world’s scapegoating/sacrificing of us by great mercy!

I think some of the greats in the history of Christian theology may have come up with this understanding of the Cross (despite the obfuscation of Constantinian) if only they had had the advantage of Girard’s perspective on sacrifice!   Whilst I will offer a condensed explanation of Girard’s work at this site, such a major paradigm-shifting work deserves to be read in full because, when we understand the true meaning of “sacrifice” and of “mercy, not sacrifice” ,  it will challenge our “civilized” mindsets and lifestyles to their foundations!  Such was the decisive pointedness of Jesus’ sole theological tip!