So, a couple of days ago I laid out my argument as to why the idea that God demanded the blood sacrifice of his son for the forgiveness of sins is an error. (If you missed it, you should go read that post before continuing with this one: Did God Really Demand the Death of His Son for the Forgiveness of Sin?) Today I further elaborate my explanation/argument for a better understanding of what happened and why.
The writings of the New Testament draw a very clear line from the animal sacrifices used to atone for sins practiced by the Jews and the death of Jesus on the cross. For example, Ephesians 1:7 says that we have “redemption by his blood”. Revelation 7:11 says of the saints “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” However, in a rather complicated passage from Hebrews explaining why the death of Jesus was more perfect and more complete than the sacrifices which were offered by the priests in the temple for the forgiveness of sins, Paul refers back to Psalm 40 which makes the reality of sacrifice clear: “Sacrifice and offering you do not want; but ears open to obedience you gave me. Holocausts and sin-offerings you do not require; so I said, ‘Here I am . . . To do your will is my delight.’” And at the risk of offending my Catholic friends who hold the doctrine of transubstantiation*, Jesus further distances the will of God from the desire for blood by declaring that the wine and bread of the Passover and communion meals were metaphorically his blood and body. Since none of the disciples commented on the strange, metallic taste of the drink he gave them or the sweet, porky taste of the bread, I think we can assume that the wine and bread remained wine and bread and the need for actual blood is done. Again, the need for the human ritual portion of the relationship between God and man was complete and the God-given portion now emerges cleaner and clearer than before.
However, if God didn’t require the sacrifice of Jesus as a sort of ultimate blood-sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, this raises the question of why the line gets drawn between the death of Jesus and the animal sacrifices used for the atonement of sin by the Jews. If the death of Jesus was an entirely human conceived, motivated and executed event, does it make sense that God would respond as if it were the ultimate act of sacrifice which secured forgiveness of sins?
I am going to argue that it is, in fact, very much in line with the picture which Jesus painted in the story of the prodigal son. Here in the west, particularly the modern west, we tend to read the prodigal son story as a touching, although not necessarily remarkable story. We are familiar with the rebellious son with little regard for his parents who destroys his life. We are even familiar with parents who are just happy to have their children back once they have come to the end of their rope. Heck, we watch similar stories play out every week on Intervention. However, the story would have sounded and be received much differently by those Jesus told it to.
Kenneth Bailey is a New Testament scholar who has spent his life from childhood living in small, middle eastern villages where life remains the same from generation to generation. He has found that these putatively modern middle eastern villagers are often able to throw light on the context of gospels because they are working from family and community structures and standards which have changed little over the millennia. In his book The Poet and The Peasant, Kenneth Bailey explains that as westerners we miss the full force of the Prodigal Son story:
For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has almost always been emphatically the same. . . the conversation runs as follows: “Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?” “Never!” “Could anyone ever make such a request?” “Impossible!” “If anyone ever did, what would happen?” “The father would beat him, of course!” “Why?” “This request means – he wants his father to die!” . . .
Bailey goes on to point out that not only was the request outrageous and cruel, but that the son further pressures his father into signing over all rights – including the father’s own right to live off the proceeds of the property for the remainder of his life – to the son. And then the son sells that property. Bailey quotes another scholar who puts it thus: “he demands his own portion of his goods, and treats the father as if her were already dead.” Elsewhere Bailey notes that when he tells this story to Middle Eastern villagers who have never heard it before they inevitably gasp out loud at the son’s request and shake their heads in disbelief at his subsequent actions. So before his own death, Jesus told a story in which a man’s behavior would have been seen as even more outrageous, cruel and unthinkable to the listeners than his own death would be. People were turned over to be crucified all the time. But no person ever behaved in the way the son in this story does.
In the story, left to his own devices, the son further deginerates. He wastes his inheritance, indulges in all his worst impulses and does things which are unclean, disgusting and vile. The same can be said of what humanity does to Jesus in his crucifixion. Jesus was the inheritance of the Jews – the Messiah. When they received it, they destroyed him much as the son destroys his inheritance.
When the son is completely spent, he realizes that he will not survive on his own and in an act of unmitigated gall returns to his father to ask for work. We are often told that he’s repentant and humbled by his experience, but in reality his plan is the work of a person of very poor character. If he had truly repented and sought to do right, he would have set about finding his own way in the world. He would perhaps even have worked to replace what he had squandered and not have even attempted to return back to his father without being able to offer him restoration for what he had taken. Frankly, if he had possessed any ambition or work ethic, he would never have wound up feeding pigs in the first place. He would have found a real way to make a living. Going back home to ask for work isn’t an act of humility; it’s an act of presumption and an easy way out of his suffering.
This discussion may seem like a diversion from our discussion of the crucifixion, but what I want to establish is a parallel between the behavior of the son in this story and the behavior of humanity towards Jesus. Both are cruel, arrogant betrayals. Both are examples of people indulging their worst impulses and displaying little or no insight into their own faults and failing. The crucifixion of Jesus was a lurid display of unthinkable cruelty, betrayal, uninhibited base impulses much like the behavior of the prodigal son. To understand God’s reaction to the crucifixion, it helps to look at the reaction of the father to his son’s return.
In the story that Jesus tells, the son is returning home and is still a long way off when his father spots him. At this point, the father seizes the chance to completely turn the nature of events. He runs out to meet him. Probably in part to save the boy. His outrageous behavior would have been the talk of the community for some time and the odds of him making it to his father’s house without being accosted by someone weren’t good. So before his son can suffer any further harm from his foolishness, the father rushes out to meet him. He doesn’t even wait for an explanation or apology. There is no groveling or admission of guilt. Instead the father takes the chance to declare that all is well between them. He puts a cloak and a ring on him, demonstrating that this good-for-nothing who has done nothing but evil is accepted back as a full member of the household and thus, the community. He declares a celebration and will hear nothing of the sins of the son or the fact that he is obviously unworthy of such celebration. The father, just like God, meets his son where he is and turns his own flawed, human intentions and actions towards his own purposes – drawing him back into relationship with him.
To say that this is not how it would have happened in real life is to grossly understand the matter. God is often spoken of using father language in scripture because in Ancient Near East cultures the role of the father in a family was so strong, so clear-cut and so well understood that people would immediately comprehend the implications. The father was in charge. The father was the source of all the good things the family had. The father declared right and wrong. The father was revered, served and honored. The father had all rights to make demands and expect that they be met. The obligation of children to the father was complete. A real father in that context would have met a request by a son for his inheritance with violence. He would never have granted it and then further given full control of the property to the insolent child. Not doubt the listeners to Jesus’ story fully expected the son’s return to be met with the violence that should have occurred at the beginning of the story. Instead, the father first humiliates himself by running out to meet him. (Patriarchs do NOT run.) Then he restores him to the place of honored son.
The real message of the story is that the father’s behavior is co mpletely wound up in his own motivations and character and has nothing to do with the worthiness of the son or any sort of deference to rules and norms. The son’s prepared speech isn’t made because the father isn’t really interested in whatever nonsense is going to come out of the boy’s mouth. His only concern is with re-establishing the relationship he desperately desires with his child. And he will use any excuse that presents itself to move events in that direction.
Is it any less of a leap then to say that God likewise used the death of Jesus at the hands of his children as an opportunity to declare peace with us? By creating a connection between this outrageous event – so full of cruelty, arrogance and betrayal – and the forgiveness of sins, God behaves just as the father in the story of the Prodigal Son does. His only concern is for re-establishing the relationship he desperately desires with his children. Sin had been a continual barrier between mankind and God. The clumsy rituals of sacrifice and the direction provided by the law had kept it from being a fatal breaking of the relationship between God and man. But that simply wasn’t good enough. Like the father in the story, God has no real use for another servant – he has all the angels and heavenly hosts at his disposal. What he really desires is his son. And eventually friends. And even a church which is able to be a partner to Christ – a bride. A real love relationship.
Like the father in the prodigal son story, he uses what is made available to him to move that relationship in just that direction. No longer will sin be a barrier between God and man. It is not the fear of a son towards his father which will motivate the relationship, much less the dependent, servile relationship between master and slave which will finally close the chasm. It is love. Pure and simple. God wants to have a love relationship with us. He wants us to turn from sin out of love, not fear or obligation. He wants us to seek him out of love, not duty or dependency. Yes, he will use fear and obligation and duty and dependency to overcome the problems between us. But in the end, it is his love and nothing else that puts us in right relationship with us. It is his love that declared the death and resurrection of Jesus to be a great victory over sin and death. And it is his love that he uses to draw us ever closer to him. It is his character, and by the death and resurrection of Jesus, he invites us to make it our character as well.
*Regarding transubstantiation, I know it’s a cherished doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, but I hold to the protestant criticism that if we understand the wine and bread to somehow have become the actual body and blood of Christ, then the communion meal becomes a daily sacrifice of Jesus. Hebrews 10 and 11 very clearly lay out that the death of Jesus was a one-time event which unlike the sacrifices of the priests in the temple, would never need to be repeated. That and the obvious reality that the wine remains wine and the bread remains bread. I would accept the idea that they are imbued with the presence of the spirit of Christ, but the doctrine of transubstantiation goes beyond that point and as I said, is in conflict with scriptures, imo.
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