I originally posted this piece back in 2011. I notice that it is still of interest to recent clickers and surfers on this blog and think it may be helpful to current students of my Westminster Theology Centre module on Peace, Reconciliation and the Politics of Jesus. http://wtctheology.org.uk/
Here are the key statements of Jesus on which I wish to comment: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mat 9:13) and “Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6).
In order to get to the heart of Jesus’ take on the whole idea of payment and appeasement as a means of relating to God, I think it will help to look at these two sayings of Jesus together. There is something so crucial to his deliberate subversion of the whole empire domination system here, that motivates him to tell the Pharisees in no uncertain terms to “go away and learn what this means.” I suggest that this is central to the mindset change that Jesus wished to accomplish in the incarnation. After all, the sacrifice system and its outworking takes up a significant part of the law and the prophets which he claimed to fulfil.
In a previous post on katargēsis and the temple (April 29th 2011) we have already considered the way that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brought the whole temple liturgy to an end. He did this by carrying through all that was good from it into his own life and subsequently that of his body of followers. So by insisting that the Pharisees, who were seeking to maintain the law and liturgy, learnt the deeper implications of his desire for mercy not sacrifice, it follows that he was implying that at a deep structural level the temple system itself was about mercy, and not about sacrifice. So what was sacrificed was not about payment and appeasement at all, but about mercy, or as alternatively rendered, compassion. It is very important to get hold of this.
Jesus is not saying that because God is sovereign, and we have offended him by not recognising his authority and keeping his law, we are under his angry condemnation, but then the sacrifice system provides a secondary way of mercy by paying off his intrinsic sovereign offence and anger. It is rather that his mercy is what defines him and not his offended power. God is not an angry God needing to be appeased. He is a merciful, compassionate God desiring mercy and compassion to be shown to all and lived out by all.
Looked at this way the sacrifice system is revealed by the teaching and attitude of Jesus, to be about the primacy of God’s mercy and in need of being re-understood in this way. This is where the sparrow comes in. Because if even “a sparrow that falls” moves God’s heart, how much more does a pigeon, a lamb, a goat or a bull, and even a sheaf of corn. The issue is clearly not monetary value but emotional, creational compassion. Sin is revealed as that which elicits God’s compassion, not his anger, condemnation and offence.
With every sacrifice throughout the whole tabernacle and temple period, God’s heart was shown to be overwhelmed by the effects of human sin, and to be bearing it together in his own heart with the bodies of living manifestations of his own deeply loved creation. The purpose of the sacrifice was not to appease God but to demonstrate and carry away the effects of sin. Sin viewed in this way is that which is unloving and unmerciful, and hurtful of God’s own compassionate heart and creation, not what offends God’s person, hierarchical position or sovereign rule.
This takes a long time to grasp, because God’s sovereignty and its offence is the teaching about God that lies at the foundation of Christendom with its marriage of church and empire. But it is not this kind of God that is revealed in the incarnation, and it is in the light of the incarnation that the Christian disciple is called on to understand and interpret life and the universe, particularly the Old Testament, and not the other way round.