from Easter Horror Stories- Rescuing Jesus’ Good News
The web version of a book draft exploring the dark side of the salvation stories in the lectionary. Print book slated for 2024 based on comments from readers.
Salvation outside the Temple
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
To recap the last days of Jesus’ story, in Mark’s gospel:
Jesus came to Jerusalem and was infuriated when he saw the Temple and its system for the first time. During his outback retreat he realised that Jeremiah was at least partly right: God was at hand, and everyone could just reach out and grasp the Kingdom. He’d lived that experience for a year as he travelled and proclaimed this Kingdom. Calling people to believe it and do something about it. To repent-and change their ways.
Here in the centre of Judaism, here at the Temple, he saw barrier after barrier standing between people and God. Gentiles were banished to the outer court of the Temple. Jewish women had to stay in the outer room. Even men weren’t allowed into the inner holy of holies where God’s presence was said to reside.
In the Temple, the Kingdom was not within reach.
And whichever room they were allowed into, people first had to purchase animals for sacrifices to hope to access this Kingdom. Poor widows were giving everything they had to be made right with God, according to the system of sacrifices and Temple tithes (Mark 12:38-44).
The priestly system was getting in the way of people and God. Jesus drew on the traditions of prophets like Micah, Amos and Jeremiah, declaring that God desired mercy, not sacrifice, and that God was with people – directly, at hand- with no more need for priests or sacrifices to mediate God to them.
The Kingdom is at hand! You need no mediator! Hot on the heels of his protest against the selling of sacrificial animals in the Temple court, Jesus tells the disciples how to be right with God, and it has nothing to do with the Temple or the sacrifice either of animals or himself,
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)
This is the outworking of his summary of the Law into two commandments,
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28ff)
When a scribe accepted that these two commandments were more important than animal sacrifices, Jesus assured him that he is not far from the Kingdom.
In Mark, the events of Easter are the consequence of Jesus declaring that having a right relationship with God is something we can do ourselves, for free, with no mediator or sacrifice, right now!
Or if there is a sacrifice, the sacrifice is to forgive others. That’s it. Sound too easy? Try doing it!
Perhaps it is not surprising that Jews preferred to buy a sacrifice to pay for forgiveness. Or that the church did such a roaring trade selling pardons and indulgences before the Reformation. Our world would crumble if the two billion Christians around the world took Jesus seriously on this. Maybe that was the idea.
According to Jesus, God’s forgiveness of us is intertwined with our forgiveness of others. In Mark 11:25, Matt 6:11 and Luke 6:37 it depends on us forgiving others. Here Jesus is confronting those who presume they are forgiven and part of the in crowd, not heaping another burden on the backs of those who are abused or oppressed.
Given these explicit statements and stories, why is the most common Easter story about Jesus that he brings about our forgiveness for us! Placating God by dying in our place. The atoning sacrifice for our sins. The very opposite of what he is on about in the synoptics.
Why? Because Jesus’ version is too bloody hard!
It is easier to follow Paul and the author of Hebrews. In their story, Jesus does the forgiveness stuff for us. He pays the price, and the divine scales are balanced. The sacrifice is made for us by Jesus, the perfectly obedient human (and in much later church tradition, the God-human), who has become the sacrificial lamb of God.
This is great. God is still in control. God planned the whole thing, violence is still the basis for maintaining a Covenant (this time violence against Jesus, not those Aboriginals in Canaan or whinging Jews or everyone except Noah), and NOTHING HAS REALLY CHANGED.
The church has simply replaced Israel as the people of the New Covenant. Which is the Old Covenant, with Jesus reprising the role of both sacrificial animal and sacrificing priest.
This was a really clever way for Jesus’ Jewish disciples to make sense of the murder of Jesus, and the destruction of the Temple, given that they continued to experience God’s ongoing presence amongst them.
Really try to imagine being a devout Jew, maybe a zealous ex-Pharisee like Paul or perhaps an ex-priest writing the letter to the Hebrews. Someone for whom the Temple and animal sacrifice were a centuries old, unquestioned pillars of your faith. Someone for whom the Jews were obviously the centre of the story of God and the world. Imagine when they meet someone who seems to them to be anointed- the Messiah – the hero who was promised to purify Israel and drive out the oppressors. Someone they see God at work in.
Imagine what happens when, instead of taking over the Temple and driving out the Romans, Jesus is condemned by the priests and butchered by the Romans. Butchered. Yet they discover, as we will soon see, that this isn’t the end of his story! God has somehow prevailed. Butchered? No, maybe sacrificed! How else to explain Jesus’ death except as part of the divine plan of the all-powerful God, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. That must be why God used the Romans to destroy the temple in 70AD, you might conclude. God didn’t lose, God won!
It is a miracle that any Jewish writing doesn’t interpret Jesus as a sacrifice or the new high priest. Yet the synoptic gospels don’t.
It is left to Paul, the zealous Pharisee, who never met Jesus in the flesh or heard his teaching, and who includes so little of Jesus’ life in his writings, to start the “sacrificial lamb” theory. John, writing much later, does have John the Baptist proclaim the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! But this happens not so much through Jesus’ sacrifice in our place, but mystically through eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and believing in him.
In none of the gospels does Jesus say anything like, “I will die so that God may forgive you.”
He says, “You forgive others, so that God may forgive you.” (Mark 11:25; Matt 6:11ff; Luke 6:37)
In Matthew, Jesus emphasises that God wants mercy, not sacrifice (Matt 9:13; 12:17).
If you want a healthy relationship with God, if you want to be forgiven, then forgive others. Be merciful, as God is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged.
Jesus does not win our forgiveness in the synoptic gospels. He does not die to appease an angry or offended or “righteous” God.
Jesus declares the path to forgiveness and challenges people to follow it. The Kingdom of God is within reach- do something about it! (Mark 1:14; Matt 4:17)
Through his baptism, his outback retreat, his year of seeing the Kingdom manifest through him, Jesus is willing to die rather than keep silent about this truth: God desires mercy, and offers it apart from the Temple and its trappings. God always has.
This is Jesus’ sacrifice. To get through the torment of Gethsemane, determined to proclaim and live the Kingdom to the end, trusting that it will not be the end after all.
A Christian is someone who believes what Jesus said and demonstrated about God and does something about it (repenting and forgiving), not someone who “believes in Jesus” as a way to avoid God’s metaphorical poisonous snakes of destruction.
I would so prefer it to be about believing.
To go with Paul and Hebrews at Easter.
I really would.
But it is biblical to see Jesus as declaring a path to salvation for us, rather than somehow being that path. It is gospel to realise that he sacrificed himself on behalf of his vision of God, not that he was sacrificed to God. At least that’s what he reckoned.
Let’s try to follow the Way of Christ this Easter: Forgiving others, maybe forgiving ourselves, and opening ourselves up to divine forgiveness.
Let’s be merciful, as God is merciful.
I pray that we will discover that despite the darkness in ourselves and others which we will soon acknowledge on Maundy Thursday; forgiveness, love and light cannot be killed off forever.
This book uses the ‘New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.’ In all cases where there are italics, they have been added by myself