The Real Jesus
Sermon Delivered on 4/13/2014
at San Antonio Mennonite Church
by Tyler M. Tully
Many years ago, when Charla and I were dating, my best friend and I were invited to eat dinner over at her room mate’s house. It was a memorable night, least of which included the fact that my best friend ate all of the dessert when no one was looking. But a little less memorable was the fact that we all sat down to watch Charlton Heston in the 10 Commandments–which of course was playing on ABC since it was Passover season. Not that there’s anything wrong with renting the 10 Commandments or watching it every Easter–in fact, I think that’s a great idea. But there we sat there, a few of us angry that we didn’t get dessert, one of us having a stomach ache because he ate too much sugar… and all of us having a good time.
Many of us don’t associate Easter with Passover, but we should. The first Easter took place during the Passover season: the triumphal entry, the Last Supper, and in John’s gospel, the crucifixion happens on the same day that the Passover lamb was to be sacrificed.
Today and throughout the centuries, Passover remains a wonderful time–an important time–and everything we have heard from the Old Testament and the New Testament readings today has everything to do with Passover.
The first passage we heard was from Psalms 118, which is the last of five consecutive Psalms that were sung during the Jewish holy days of The Feast of Tabernacles (which is called Sukkot) and Passover. I know what you’re doing now and I’ll save you the time– its Psalms 113 through 118. So now that that’s settled, let’s get back to Passover. These five Psalms were sung as hymns during the Passover meal and were known as “Hallel” which means “songs of praise”– the root word of which we derive “hallelujah.” During the Passover meal, every guest partakes of four cups of wine; Psalms 113 and 114 were sung with the second cup and 115-118 were sung during the cup at end of the meal. After the meal, and with the last cup of wine, everyone makes a toast to conclude the night, “next year in Jerusalem” they say.
In our Old Testament reading today, the Psalmist exclaims, “Open the gates of victory/ or Open the gates of righteousness.” And they’re referring to three possible gates: 1) Jerusalem itself is known as the city of righteousness (Is. 1:26); 2) They could also mean the outer gates of the Temple (Ez. 44:11) and still 3) They could also mean the gate to the Holy of Holies, which is of course in the very heart of the Temple structure. Any three of these, maybe all three of these– are referenced here by the Psalmist. During Passover in the time of Jesus, tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world would return to Jerusalem, enter its gates and worship at the Temple– but if you remember the 10 Commandments movie, you’ll find that Passover was originally celebrated in the home of each Jewish family during their slavery in Egypt. And this is especially important for the community in Egypt because there are specific instructions about how the Passover is to take place. If anyone is poor, hungry, or unable to provide a Passover lamb–the Bible says it is up to the wealthy to invite the poor amongst them so that they can all share this familial meal together. Salvation came to the community, but death came upon the individuals. There wasn’t an individual transaction, no. The Passover meant real-life, in this world salvation from Death, and in celebration, the Jewish community as a whole would eat the lamb and unleavened bread remembering that it was God who delivered them.
After the Exodus from Egypt, as the kingdom of Judah grew in power and as the Temple and the priesthood became more and more institutionalized and hierarchical, Passover moved out from the home and into the Temple complex. Before Jesus was born it had already become one of the three pilgrimage festivals for the Jews, who came to Jerusalem from all over the world in order to celebrate. And so we have this image in Psalms 118 of all the people coming together into Jerusalem, and into the gates of the Temple, and even into the Holy of Holies through these gates of victory/ or righteousness.
And that brings us to an important point. Why does the Psalmist use the term “tseh’-deka” which can mean either righteousness, or justice, or victory? Well earlier in Psalm 118, the Psalmist declares that “the right hand of God” has delivered the victorious/righteous/just from their enemies. Vss. 10-15 has that “all nations have beset me”– that is to say that the Gentiles have surrounded us, and we’re to assume this is a kingly figure who is speaking on behalf of the entire victorious/righteous/ just nation. It is YHWH who has delivered the righteous/just/victorious from their enemies and it is the right hand of YHWH that is “exalted” and “triumphant.” And then right after this victory, the Psalmist describes the scene this way: ”Open the gates of victory/righteousness for me that I may enter them and praise the Lord. This is the gateway to the Lord, the righteous/victorious shall enter through it. I praise you for you have answered me and have become my deliverance. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone.”
Now notice that the Psalmist is using imagery that evokes the architecture of the Temple. I will enter through the gates… this stone is the chief cornerstone. I’m going to come back to this theme later, but I want to make sure you understand that the Psalmist is speaking clearly here about the Temple even though they are using rhetorical imagery. And even though the Psalmist is personifying a single voice here, even though we read “I” and “me,” the person speaking is a part of a community–the entire Psalm is a praise hymn from the community. This becomes clearer as we progress through the text as you can see that the Psalmist moves from “I” and “me” to “us” and “we.” ”This is the day that the Lord has made” it continues “let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Then the people shout “O Lord, deliver us! Oh Lord, let us prosper! Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the House of the Lord.”
Does that sound familiar? It might not depending upon which translation we use. But what the crowd is actually saying in Hebrew is “O Lord, Yasha’ (that is “do save”)”– “O Lord, Yasha’ anna’”–we beseech you, we beg you… do save!” And in Aramaic, in the language of Jesus and the crowds at the Passover in Jerusalem they shout the Aramaic form of this phrase when they say, “”Hosanna to the Son of David ; BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD ; Hosanna in the highest !” Not only are they quoting from Psalm 118, but they are participating in the public Passover hymn. Not only are they simply praising God, but they are asking God, they are begging God– “Save us! Now! We beg you, do save!”
But I’m wondering why? Psalms 118 has already indicated that YHWH has delivered, YHWH has already won victory over the nations surrounding them! This is why they are celebrating, right? Following along Psalm 118, so far YHWH has defeated our enemies, YHWH has delivered the righteous/victorious/just ones and now we are entering a procession into the city of Jerusalem and into the gates of the Temple and eventually into the Holy of Holies–I mean this is exciting stuff! But then they say “O Lord, deliver us! O Lord, let us prosper!” As if YHWH hasn’t already delivered them? I don’t know, but the question looms over us as we read from the Psalm.
The context of the Psalm is one of celebration, right? This deliverance is a good thing. We’re celebrating the victory and deliverance from our enemies. We’re rejoicing in the celebration of this worshipful act… and of course, we’re here at the Temple. And what happens at the Temple? There are sacrifices made at the Temple, so its just logical that we’re going to have a sacrifice. So the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is God, God has given us light; bind the festival offering to the horns of the altar with cords. You are my God and I will praise You, You are my God and I will extol you. Praise the Lord for God is good, God’s steadfast love is forever!”
Almost everything about this sounds awesome. Enemies surround us but are destroyed. God is good. Gods’ mercy is steadfast forever! And notice, God’s mercy and faithfulness is steadfast forever even before we make a sacrifice. In other words, God’s mercy and steadfast faithfulness does not require a pre-requisite sacrifice. God has already proved God’s faithfulness and mercy. THATS the reason why we’re here at the Temple in the first place!
But God is not interested in sacrifices. By the time of the Prophets, the hierarchical system of the Temple has become unjust, the king and the princes oppress the poor, yet still these festivals continues. Still piety and righteousness are valued, but everything is ceremonial and everyone is just missing the point. TheProphets cry out “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) Let me read this again because it is so important. Now let’s fast forward from Psalm 118 to the Passover in Jesus time. This morning, we read the New Testament passage from the gospel of Matthew. And for these people, for the crowds yelling “hosanna” to Jesus, things look very different than they did for the crowds saying “hosanna” in Psalms 118. The Romans–the nations–the Gentiles– still surround us. Judea is an occupied territory–their presence is felt everywhere. Even here in the Temple, the Roman garrison of Jerusalem is literally attached to the Temple structure. It overlooks the entire courtyard of the Temple. But since this is Passover season, its still a time of celebration.
Have you ever noticed that when things are really bad thats when we often throw the best parties? Maybe its because the bad makes the good feel so much better, maybe because when our agency and our bodies are taken from us we seek to express and assert our own personhood our own identities by partying in the midst of oppression. That certainly seems to be the case for Matthew’s crowds. During Jesus’ time, Passover meant that work was stopped, families and extended families were reunited, and all the trappings of a celebration were enjoyed. There was food and drink and stories–because let’s not forget, at its root, at the very beginning Passover is a celebration of freedom! Its about how the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt but were delivered from oppression. How God worked miracles through Moses and how they went from being enslaved for hundreds of years to carrying out the gold of their slave masters! This is a big deal and its worth celebrating.
But its not all fun and games during the time of Jesus. The Romans knew the significance of collective memory. Josephus writes in his histories that during Passover, riots were most likely to erupt from the people– and the Romans knew it. Its not hard to imagine why. So this all sort of serves as a gloss for Jesus, who rides into the city with cheering crowds waving palm branches as any king would, except he does so during Passover and the crowds around him are shouting and quoting from Psalms 118 “save us now! deliver us!” they cry. This looks like trouble, from the Roman perspective, from the Temple’s perspective, because here comes this prophetic figure–and prophets almost always stand in opposition to the Temple power structures and to governments–here comes Jesus entering the city in the style of a conqueror surrounded by cheering crowds.
And I know what you are thinking. Jesus is on a donkey. The crowds around Jesus aren’t armed with swords they are armed with palm branches. I mean come on Tully this doesn’t really seem like a threat to me. And you’re right, except I’d just like to point out that this is but one episode in a long line of subversive acts by Jesus. Don’t forget that Jesus rides the donkey into the Temple structure from the Mount of Olives, and the Scriptures say that the Messiah will arrive from the Mount of Olives. And don’t forget that when Jesus shows up in the Temple complex– he flips over the tables and drives the money changers out! And don’t forget that Jesus stays in the Temple and continues preaching things like the parable of the vineyard, where the son of the vineyard owner is tortured and killed so that the vineyard workers can steal his inheritance. Don’t forget that after telling this parable, right there in the Temple, don’t forget that Jesus declares, “the stone which the builders have rejected has become the chief corner stone!” Don’t forget the Herodians, and Pharisees, and Scribes and Sadducees keep trying to trap Jesus after he arrives in the Temple. There in the Temple courtyard, right in view of the Roman garrison attached to the Temple they ask Jesus whether its lawful to pay taxes or not, and what does Jesus say? “Whose image is on the tax? Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” as if to say, “whose image are you created in?” undermining the entire argument. Sure, give Caesar taxes, but guess what give God everything. As if to say, guess what? I AM the image of God, not Caesar! Give me the credit I deserve. And when politics can’t trap Jesus, don’t forget that they turn to religion and ask him there in the Temple, “what is the greatest commandment.” After that, Jesus publicly praises a widow for donating one cent– where he says that she is greater than all the rich and powerful people who donate out of their surplus. And don’t forget the most offensive thing he said there in the Temple, after he arrived on the back of the donkey. Jesus predicts that the Temple itself will be destroyed but that Jesus himself will rebuild it in only three days!
Jesus, the real Jesus– the Jesus that rides into the Temple on a donkey surrounded by crowds armed with palm branches is a very real threat to the system. You don’t have to be violent to to be a threat, you just have to be honest. Jesus is a threat to the violent occupiers and the economic oppressors and he is a threat to the religious establishment. The same is true now as it was back then. But what about the palm branches? Why are they even mentioned in the story? Aren’t they just some manner of adoration in the Jewish culture of the period? Its true that during Passover, every pilgrim was to carry a palm branch. It was indeed a culturally significant gesture connected to the Passover and to the Feast of Tabernacles, and also during the time of the Maccabees who overthrew the Seleucid armies that occupied Israel a few decades before the birth of Jesus. I’ve done some research on this, because until this week, I didn’t know. These palm branches are called “lulab” in Hebrew, and they have a lot to do with the Festival of Tabernacles or. (Sukkot) According to Jewish scholars, the palm branches weren’t just any old palm branches. In fact, the rules concerning what they looked like were very specific: they had to be young palm branches that were still in their folded state before the leaves had a chance to unfold, and these lulab had to be at least 3 hand breadths long so that one might wave them. But they also had to be bound with a twig or tendril of its own kind. And these lulab were actually tied together in a particular fashion. They were usually connected to willow branches and myrtle branches in woven into groups of three, so that the willow branches and myrtle branches were tied together on the lower end of the palm branch together. So these were used when singing the Psalms I mentioned earlier during Passover and Sukkot. They would be waved when the crowds recited the passages of thanksgiving and praise to God who had delivered them from their oppressors.
But what I want to bring your attention to is found in Psalm 118, vs. 27, where the Psalmist describes the festival sacrifice. They write, “The Lord is God, God has given us light; bind the festival offering to the horns of the altar with cords.” And this word for cords is very interesting. In the Hebrew Bible, the term is ‘ab-oth, which the KJV translates to “wreathen cords” (Ex. 28:14), other translations use “cords” like a rope, and sometimes as fashioned cords or intertwined foliage (Ez. 19:11) And the Greek translation is equally interesting since it translates “cord” or “rope” here to mean “pyeeg-zoo-sin” πυκάζουσιν which means to hang garlands upon the altar–literally to tie or bind the sacrifice to the altar with the garlands. So in effect here, we see that as the crowds surround Jesus with these garlands–with these lulab palm branches, that they are actually tying him to his own death. They are, whether they know it or not, tying him, binding him, connecting him to the altar of sacrifice through their praises of him as Messiah, deliverer, violent overthrower of their enemies–their oppressors. They don’t know it, because all they can see is a deliverer in the way of the world. All they can see is what the world expect them to see of a hero or a deliverer. They can’t see Jesus for who he truly is.
Today’s passage is a difficult one. As Anabaptists, we’ve committed ourselves to the ongoing and ever present example set by Jesus, our King–who isn’t a violent overthrower of enemies and who isn’t a warrior. So to read these violent narratives that are so central to the Christian faith, the experience can be, well violent. And for non-violent followers of Jesus, we seem to have our work cut out for us here–especially as we grapple with this long-standing tradition in Christendom that asserts that God did violence against Jesus and that somehow, the violence done against Jesus is redemptive.
Make no mistake, we hear this type of rhetoric everywhere–not just around Easter time. Walter Wink once wrote, “If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god.” We see it on television and in our favorite movies–the myth of redemptive violence. The hero, against all odds, is continually berated by the enemy, but nothing can kill the hero. He endures. Then, when the enemy has him in his grasps–when death seems almost like a certainty–our hero overcomes. Right has won out, his beloved has been rescued and order has been restored, the good-guys have won… until the next episode, or movie, or whatever. We even have this sort of motif influencing some of our most popular interpretations of the crucifixion. Anyone familiar with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia will recognize them in the killing of the character Aslan who is presented as a Christ figure. Aslan’s beloved sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are in grave danger. All of Narnia, his most precious creation, stands ready to be destroyed by the White Witch and her dangerous minions. So he reaches a deal with the devil, so to speak, and voluntarily offers his life for the life of Edmund–arguably the most misunderstood and snotty-nosed Turkish Delight loving anti-hero if ever there was one. But like so many heroes, Aslan knows that if he voluntarily lays down his own life for another, well he’ll overcome and conquer the one who kills him. Aslan says this is an “old magic,”– one the White Witch, who plays the bad-guy in this scenario– does not know about. True to form, Aslan dies, all seems lost, but then he comes back to life! The White Witch is defeated in a great and bloody battle, but Narnia is saved. Edmund has been released from captivity, all of Narnia is saved, and order is restored…. until Prince Caspian comes along in the next book.
I’m beginning to wonder just how much the myth of redemptive violence has to do with the crucifixion of Jesus. Many Christians read it that way. We’re the bad guys, God is the good guy, and Jesus is the necessary collateral damage needed to make things right. We deserve to be tortured and put to death by God, and Jesus doesn’t, and because Jesus does so then we are saved. And though its not really Jesus doing the violence, it is, ironically, God who is doing the violence to Jesus on our behalf, because you see according to the myth of redemptive violence, someone has to pay the penalty and its the good-guys who determine who is bad. And somehow we are told that this type of behavior is love–that is to say, because God loves us God won’t give us the violent, torturous death we deserve. But God will do it to Jesus instead, because somebody has to be tortured. Someone has to be killed.
Theologians call this theory, the “penal substitution” or “satisfaction theory” of atonement. You are probably familiar with it even though you may have never heard it labeled as such. Its that “good news” Gospel that says that our Abba Father in Heaven demands a blood payment for the sins we’ve committed. Ironically, its supported by those religious persuasions who insist that God predestines people to heaven and to hell. Its the type of Christianity who says that God holds us each responsible for what God determined to make us do in the first place! It says that God is perfect, holy, and righteous; meaning that God can have nothing to do with sin and hates sinners. Its the theology that lays all things violent at the feet of the Holy. After all, if God is all powerful, unchangeable, and “sovereign” over everything–well, then everything that happens happens because of God’s will. Who are we to question God?
So what is one to do when disaster strikes? When tornadoes and hurricanes, earthquakes and illness occur, how are we to make sense of it all? The myth of redemptive violence tells us that God is the author behind this destruction. God’s trying to get our attention. God hates our sin and wants to destroy us, if only to save us.
Here’s the problem: when the layers and grains of truth that encapsulate the lie that is the myth of redemptive violence, we find a false image of God that demands a violent blood sacrifice in the Temple. But Jesus says, “I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:6-7)
Scripture says that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the good news of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” I think the crowds during the triumphal entry thought they could see the real Jesus, but they didn’t. All they could see was a violent deliverer, even though he wasn’t. Even Jesus’ disciples thought they saw the real Jesus, but they didn’t. They still continued to argue with each other about who was going to be the greatest in his coming earthly kingdom! Even though they ate and drank and learned from Jesus day in and day out, they still thought Jesus would be coming to conquer the Romans and fulfill their hopes and dreams of a militarized Messiah. Even the Romans saw Jesus as this kind of threat. Through the lens of this world, all they could see is another “messiah” coming to overthrow their system.
Its too easy to blame them now for not seeing Jesus for who he is. But what about today and in our time? If the myth of redemptive violence is based on a false image of God– since it demands a sacrifice in order to appease a blood thirsty idol–Maybe we need a refresher course in who God is, because too often, Christians are guilty of looking anywhere but in the person of the real Jesus. And I stress the “real” Jesus because too many times we present Jesus as something he was not.
The real Jesus is God. This oppressed, poor, day-laborer; this unmarried, non-violent, friend of sinners, this mixed-race, Galilean Jew is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of the Godhead. He is the very nature of God, the exact image of the invisible God and the firstborn over of all creation. Scripture says that all the fullness of the Godhead dwelled in Jesus in bodily form. This adopted son of an illicit pregnancy, this illegal immigrant who fled with his family into Egypt to avoid death and oppression, is God. Scripture says that Jesus and God are One, that if we have seen Jesus then we have seen God, that Jesus is the glory of the One and Only God, and that when we look at Jesus we should see the One who sent Jesus. He is the Prince of Peace and the Everlasting Father. Church, let us never fail to confess with our hearts and our mouths and our lives that only the real Jesus is God.
So that is who the real Jesus is. Now let’s discuss who the real Jesus is not. Since Jesus is God, and this is crucial, God is utterly incapable of looking anything like that all-powerful, sovereign, tyrant whose wrath is only satiated through the blood of his victims. What kind of a god is that!? That’s not Jesus. That’s the god of this age.
Since Jesus is God, he is utterly incapable of any resemblance to the god that rewards the dominant culture with their status as dominators over and against the oppressed and poor. Jesus is nothing like the god of our age that points to power and wealth and says, “see the rich deserve their blessings of wealth, and the poor deserve their curses of poverty.” What kind of a god is that? That’s not Jesus. That’s the god of Mammon.
Because Jesus constantly challenged what it meant to “be a man,” since he constantly undermined the social fabric of his culture, since he went unmarried–a very strange thing indeed for men of 30 plus years since most of them were married by age 21. Since Jesus was a friend of prostitutes, certainly both male and female, he cannot be that god that hates queers, that makes single-parents feel like they’ve missed the boat, that god of self-righteous indignation that ignores the adultery of lust in their own lives while picking up stones to kill the sexual scapegoats around them. What kind of god is that? That’s not Jesus. That’s heteronormativity. That’s patriarchy. That’s churchianity, but it aint Jesus.
Shall I go on?
Sometimes I think we’re embarrassed to claim that Jesus is Lord. Sometimes I think that we’ve been so beat up by Mammon, by patriarchy, by heteronormativity, by the god of this age that we over-react. I understand, I do. I think maybe we’re so sick and tired of Christians using the Bible to justify violence, to justify oppression, to justify patriarchy. We can’t stomach the use of Jesus and the myth of redemptive violence that fuels mass incarcerations for “our own protection” and “for their own good.” We’re just so weary of being told that “God can’t give us more than we can handle,” and that “God works in mysterious ways,” and that “God is in control” because they might want make you feel better but it sure as hell doesn’t make me feel better when my dad is sick with cancer, or my niece is dying of illness, or when refugees are being held in refrigerators, or when God’s army is dropping Atomic Bombs on Japan, or when we’ve been sexually abused, or when life… sets… in. I get it, but still I reject that notion of God because it looks nothing like the real Jesus.
As followers of Jesus, and since the violence of the crucifixion story is so central to the themes of redemptive violence, we should be concerned. I know this is a lot to deal with, but this affects us and how we live in the world because we are Jesus-people.
If the real Jesus is God, then no one gets to reduce Jesus to a “get out of hell” card. The god of this age does not get to co-opt and appropriate our King. If Jesus is God, then God is poor, oppressed, and non-violent. If Jesus is God, then God comes charging in on a donkey instead of on a white war horse. If Jesus is God, then God pushes cultural boundaries of family and marriage and sex and power, and if Jesus is God, then God can be murdered because that’s exactly what happened to Jesus. God can be murdered, God can be hungry, God can suffer, God can be frightened, and God can carry scars on God’s body! The real Jesus was lynched, and this is the true scandal of the cross. God came to us, embodying the good news of wholeness, shalom, peace, and reconciliation–and we killed God!
That type of reality is just too hard to grasp sometimes. Surely its easier to say that God willed Jesus’ death. Surely its just easier to make sense of the world by saying that God sent the cancer, or the hurricane, or the tornado. After all, the god of this age promotes the myth of redemptive violence and causes us to place our hope in violence against another. We repeat that ritual of violence over, and over, and over again. There is no end to the cycle of violence on the altars we’ve created! But Jesus says, “I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
Jesus did not demonstrate his Divinity on the cross, if that means that God tortured his Son so that God’s righteous anger would be satisfied. To the contrary, Jesus demonstrated his Divinity every day of his life. He demonstrated it when he fed the multitudes and walked on water. He manifested the Divine when he healed the sick and cured the crowds of their diseases. Jesus showed us he was God as he ate and fellowshipped with sinners, and gluttons, tax-collectors and prostitutes. They didn’t have to go to God, God had come to them. “I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
Remember the Psalm 118– they had already been delivered even before the sacrifice took place! The enemy had already been defeated! God’s victory, God’s glory, our deliverance had already been revealed– it was revealed every day of Jesus life, every time he made the lame to walk and the blind to see, when he fed the hungry and set free the captured. His victories were won every time he loosened the chains of the oppressed and declared the year of his Jubilee! Jesus doesn’t look like the God we expect him to. God’s victory doesn’t look the way we expect it to. Since the god of this age blinds us from the glory and image of the real Jesus, we often make sacrifices upon the altar of redemptive violence. How many times throughout history have we rejected and killed our prophets? How many innocent lives have we written off as collateral damage during just wars against the bad guys? How many billions have died believing that victory comes if we only kill more of them than there are of us? And how many billions are violated by our benevolent impulse to be smart shoppers? I have no doubt in my mind that when Jesus was crucified, he was put to death by those who honestly believed they were doing the will of the god of this age.
But the true-nature of the real Jesus unmasks the powers that put Jesus to death, just like his very life reveals the true-nature of the Godhead.
If Jesus demonstrated the image of God upon the cross, he did so in utter contrast to the god of this age and in opposition to the myth of redemptive violence. But such a clear picture can only come into focus when we understand that it was our ugly, violent, self-righteous culture that demanded a sin offering, not God. “I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
And therein lies the complication, because according to the Old Testament, there are several types of offerings which we too easily confuse. There is the Grain offering, but that doesn’t give us much help here. Next is the sin offering, which was offered by the high-priest of Israel upon the altar on the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur). The sin offering was given through the sacrifice of a bull or ram meant to atone for the sins of the high priest and of all of the people for the previous year, but its not given on Passover, only on Yom Kippur. The next type of offering is called the scapegoat offering, which you have probably all heard about. According to this type of offering, two goats were chosen by lot. One goat was designated “the Lord’s goat,” and the other the “scapegoat.” The high priest would lay his hands upon the scapegoat symbolically transferring the guilt of the people onto it before it was let go into the wilderness where it eventually died. But the “Lord’s goat” was offered as a sin offering. The blood of the sacrificed goat was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. Isn’t that strange? The sins and guilt of the people were laid on the scapegoat that was set free, but it was the Lord’s goat that was sacrificed–whose blood was on the altar. Shouldn’t that challenge the way we think about what God desires? About the role the sacrifice makes?
Barabbas–the violent criminal who was let go instead of Jesus, he was the true scapegoat. And he looked so much like that “messiah” of this age–like that violent deliverer, the freedom fighter that was going to set us free from our Roman occupiers. Yet like the scapegoat of old, he was let go while Jesus was seized by the Romans and eventually crucified. And Paul, writing in his epistle of Romans, states that Jesus was the perfect sin offering, since appearing in the likeness/image of a sinful human but remaining sinless, Jesus condemned the sin in sinful man by fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Law. So notice that Jesus condemns sin, not man, and through Jesus God condemns sin, not Jesus. But there is one last type of sin offering called the “guilt offering,” which also needs to be addressed here.
Isaiah 53:3-5 reads, “He is despised, and rejected, A man of pains, and acquainted with sickness, And as one hiding the face from us, He is despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely our sicknesses he has borne, And our pains — he has carried them, And we — we have esteemed him plagued, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 And he is pierced for our transgressions, Bruised for our iniquities, The chastisement of our peace [is] on him, And by his bruise there is healing to us.”
And since we’ve already discussed the importance of the lenses we use and how those can affect the way we read Scripture, the context of Isaiah 53 needs to be taken into according. According to vs. 10 the suffering servant is described as a “guilt offering”–distinct from the grain, the sin, and the burnt offerings.
The Guilt offering is owed whenever someone sins against something Holy and profanes it. Put another way, it means to fail to recognize something as holy when it is holy. The “guilt” in “guilt” offering literally means to “incur liability” as the verb ” ‘asham” denotes the payment of damages, leading many to call it the “reparation offering.”–which is probably the best interpretations. One was in need of making reparations of this type of sin if they profaned the holy, specifically the Temple or Tabernacle–which is important here since Jesus is presented as the Tabernacle and the Temple many times in the Scriptures. Jesus says, “I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Heb 9:2, Matthew 12:6-7, John 2:19, 4:10-14)
According to Is. 53:4, although Jesus performed miracles, Jesus was the deliverer, but he was not accepted as the Messiah. We could not see him for what he truly was. We esteemed him not. That verb that is translated, “we esteemed him not… [and] but we esteemed him” means to judge or to think of. So the text can literally say, ‘we have judged him to be’ or ‘we have thought of him, planned for him, invented him, counted him, valued him as, regarded him as, considered him as stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.” In rejecting Jesus as God, those who crucified Jesus regarded him as worthy of death because they were looking at the Messiah through the lens of redemptive violence.
And by those who still fail to see Jesus as God, we continue to judge, think, plan, regard, value, judge, and esteem Jesus to be “afflicted by God, stricken by God, and smitten by God.” If might makes right, then Jesus was a loser, so we vindicate an image of God which doesn’t actually jive with Jesus. But this is of course absurd when we understand that Jesus IS God. How can God smite Godself? How can God reject Godself? According to Leviticus 5, a Reparation Offering was needed anytime one profaned something holy–anytime one failed to see or respect or esteem the Divine, and it was most often associated with the Temple. Psalms 118 takes place in the Temple, after God has already won the victory, and yet the people cry out “Save us! Do save us now!” and then they offer a sacrifice! The triumphal entry takes place in the Temple, after God has already won the victory, after the Incarnation has already occurred, after the deliverer has already arrived, after the Kingdom of God has been made manifest, after demons have been cast out, and multitudes have been fed, and after the winds and storms and sky have been brought under his control, and after wounds have been healed, the dead have been made alive, and after the blind have been made to see, and the lame to walk, hallelujah! The victory is here, its present, its Jesus. Yet the crowds can’t see the real Jesus. They cry out, “save us! do save us now!” and tie Jesus to the altar with their garlands and palm wreaths.
The Guilt or Reparation Offering was required even if one did not know they were guilty of profaning the holy, so its something that not only the crucifiers of Jesus required but it was needed by any and everyone who did not recognize Jesus as the true Tabernacle and the true Temple. Is it any wonder that upon the cross, Jesus cries out “Abba, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!”
And the parallels between the Reparation Offering and the crucifixion are myriad. It was the sinner who provided the Reparation Offering sacrifice (Lev. 5), but in the SIN and scapegoat offerings the high-priest often provided the sacrifice for the people. Isaiah 53:10 states that Messiah was a “Guilt offering” meaning that it was the sinners who handed over Jesus as the offering, not God.
According to the Law, sinners had to provide a ram or bull that was without blemish for a sacrifice of restitution. And this is the irony, in that the crowds that are guilty hand over Jesus to be killed but he is their Reparation Offering without them even knowing it! What is more is that the priest could keep the hide of the bull after the sacrifice, which happened when Jesus’ robe was kept by the Romans who cast lots over it. Additionally, only the priests could eat of the bull, and since the Romans are the ones sacrificing Jesus, this is probably a foreshadowing of the Gentiles being accepted into the New Covenant. Notice that it is a Roman centurion and not the crowds who says, “truly this man was the Son of God.”
All of which to say is that when Isaiah 53 is read from a violent perspective, it seemingly makes sense. But when you read it in context of Lev. 5 and the “Guilt offering” of Isaiah 53:10, we see that it was the crowds that handed over the sacrifice, not Abba God. And it was the crowds who were satisfied to deliver Jesus over to violence in the Temple.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian killed by the Nazis in one of their many concentrations camps. Bonhoeffer once wrote that God was in the business of making good out of evil, even the greatest evil. And that’s the resurrection, my friends. We orchestrated the crucifixion, but God orchestrated the Resurrection–God is in the business of making good out of evil, even the greatest evil.
You see, God is not the author of the crucifixion. God is not the instigator of disasters and illnesses. God is not the one who crucifies, and demands a blood payment–we are. Jesus said, “Satan comes to kill, to steal, and to destroy but I have come to bring you life that you might have it more abundantly.” Satan kills, Jesus resurrects from the dead. Satan steals, Jesus gives freely. Satan destroys, Jesus rebuilds from the wreckage. That’s the real Jesus my friends. That’s God.
I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. One greater than the myth of redemptive violence. He is JESUS. And if you had known what these words mean, ‘God desires mercy, not sacrifice,’ We would no longer condemn the innocent.