Week of Proper 10: Friday, Year 1   18 comments

Above: A Flock of Sheep

Image in the Public Domain

A Perfect Sacrifice

JULY 21, 2017

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Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.

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Exodus 11:10-12:14 (An American Translation):

So Moses and Aaron performed all these portents before Pharaoh; but the LORD made Pharaoh stubborn, so that he would not let the Israelites leave his land.

Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,

This month shall be the first of the months for you; it shall be the first month of the year for you,’ announce to the whole community of Israel; ‘on the tenth day of this month they must provide for themselves one sheep each for their several families, a sheep for each household; if any household is too small for a sheep, it shall provide one along with its neighbor who is nearest to its own household in the number of persons, charging each for the proportionate amount of the sheep that it ate.  Your sheep must be a perfect male, a year old; you may take one of the lambs or goats.  You must keep it until the fourteenth day of this same month, and then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter it at twilight, and taking some of the blood, they must apply it to the two door-posts and the lintels for the sake of the houses in which they eat it.  That same night they must eat the flesh, eating it roasted, along with unleavened cakes and bitter herbs; do not eat any of it raw, nor cooked in any way with water, but roasted, its head along with its legs and entrails; and you must not leave any of it over until morning; any that might be left over until morning you must burn up.  This is how you are to eat it:  with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; you must eat it in trepidation, since it is a passover to the LORD.  This very night I will pass through the land of Egypt, striking down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt, I, the LORD.  The blood will serve as a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood, I will pass by you, so that no deadly plague will fall on you when I smite the land of Egypt.  This day shall be a memorial for you; so you must keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you must keep it as a perpetual ordinance….

Psalm 116:10-17 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

10 How shall I repay the LORD

for all the good things he has done for me?

11 I will lift up the cup of salvation

and call upon the Name of the LORD.

12 I will fulfill my vows to the LORD

in the presence of all his people.

13 Precious in the sight of the LORD

is the death of his servants.

14 O LORD, I am your servant;

I am your servant and the child of your handmaid;

you have freed me from my bonds.

15 I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving

and call upon the Name of the LORD.

16 I will fulfill my vows to the LORD

in the presence of all his people,

17 In the courts of the LORD’s house,

in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.

Hallelujah!

Matthew 12:1-8 (An American Translation):

At that same time Jesus walked through the wheat fields, and his disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of wheat and eat them.  But the Pharisees saw it and said to him,

Look!  Your disciples are doing something which it is against the Law to do on the Sabbath!

But he said to them,

Did you ever read what David did, when he and his companions were hungry?  How is it that he went into the House of God and that they ate the Presentation Loaves which it is against the Law for him and his companions to eat, or for anyone except the priests?  Or did you ever read in the Law how the priests in the Temple are not guilty when they break the Sabbath?  But I tell you, there is something greater than  the Temple here!  But if you knew what the saying means,”‘It is mercy, not sacrifice, that I care for,” you would not have condemned  men who are not guilty.  For the Son of Man is master of the Sabbath.

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The Collect:

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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What is a perfect sacrifice?  This question hinges on the word “perfect.”  In the Biblical context it means “suitable for its purpose.”  This is how Matthew 5:48 can quote Jesus as saying,

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect  (New Revised Standard Version).

Our story in Exodus jumps a few chapters from the burning bush incident to the latter stage of the plagues in Egypt.  The blood of a perfect sacrificial lamb smeared on one ‘s doorpost will be the sign of being spared from the death of the first-born.  The blood of the lamb will spare one from the sins of others-namely the Egyptian leadership, not oneself.  This is a vital point to understand, for to make the analogy of Jesus as Passover Lamb cannot support Penal Substitutionary Atonement, the idea that the blood of Jesus saves us from our sins.  No, the Atonement works differently, and blood is involved in it in a way I do not pretend to comprehend.  At St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church, Athens, Georgia, when I hold a chalice of wine and say

The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,

I mean it.  Whenever I say this to one particular gentleman, he says, “Thank God.”  That is an appropriate response.

I write these words on December 29, 2010.  Due to the fact that December 26 was the First Sunday after Christmas, the major feasts (St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents) have transferred by one day, falling like dominoes.  So December 29 (not the 28th) is the date for the Feast of the Holy Innocents in 2010.  This commemoration causes me to wonder why there was not passover blood for those little boys.  I have no easy answers.

So the Israelites are spared, but what about the Egyptians?  Are not their lives just as valuable?  I am not shy about arguing with the Biblical texts, for I engage them, not worship them.  The Bible is the most ubiquitous idol within Christianity.  This is not its purpose, but that is what well-intentioned people have made it.

Speaking of accidental idolaters, let us turn to the Pharisees.

Consider this verse:

When you enter another man’s field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand; but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.

–Deuteronomy 23:26 (TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures)

And, of course, there is Hosea 6:6, also from TANAKH:

For I desire goodness, not sacrifice;

Obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.

The reference to David comes from 1 Samuel 21:1-6, set during a time when David was on the run from King Saul.  David and his men were hungry, so, with the aid of a priest, Ahimelech, eat the only bread available–consecrated loaves reserved for priests.

Consider the context in Matthew.  Jesus has just completed his “Come to me, all who are heavy-laden” invitation. The day is the Sabbath, and his disciples are hungry.  They obey Deuteronomy 23:26 by reaping with with their hands.  Religious legal codes subsequent to Deuteronomy 23:26 forbade reaping on the Sabbath, and the disciples had violated this law.  Jesus replies by referring to David, whom the Pharisees revered, and to the fact that professional religious people worked at the Temple on the Sabbath legally.  So why is satisfying the basic human need to eat considered improper?

The verses following incident immediately tell of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.  He has to defend himself from criticism then, too.

William Barclay offers the most succinct analysis of the moral of these stories:

The claims of human need took precedence over any ritual custom.  (The Gospel of Matthew, Volume, 2, Philadelphia, PA:  Westminster Press, page 23)

A previous owner of my copy wrote the following comment in the margin:

People more imp. than things!

Indeed, people are more important than things and ritual customs, and goodness and mercy are more valuable than sacrifices and legalistic proscriptions.  To quote Barclay again, this time from page 25:

Jesus insisted that the greatest ritual service is the service of human need.

This statement is so obvious to me that I stand in dismay at someone having to argue for it.  This should be a given, something people assume and to which they stipulate and then act upon.

So the service of human needs is the perfect sacrifice to God.  May we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this concept and act accordingly, as our circumstances dictate the particulars.

But lest we pat ourselves on the back and cast historical stones at the Pharisees, we need to examine ourselves spiritually.  The late Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., a U.S. Presbyterian theologian, offered the following in the first edition of Christian Doctrine:  Teachings of the Christian Church (Richmond, VA:  CLC Press, 1968, pages 247-248):

One danger of the sacrificial imagery is that the significance of Christ’s work can easily be corrupted in the same way the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was corrupted.  It easily becomes a kind of bargaining with God.  A sacrifice has been offered to satisfy his demands and appease him–so now we are free go go on being and doing anything we like without interference from him.  How did the prophets protest against such a perversion of the sacrificial system?  See Isaiah 1:10-31; Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8.  Is the prophetic protest against the misuse of sacrifices relevant also to our understanding of the sacrifice of Christ?  Would the prophets allow the split we sometimes make between preaching concerned with social action and preaching concerned with salvation from sin?

Think about it.  Pray about it.  Learn what God teaches, and act accordingly.

KRT

http://blogatheologica.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/a-perfect-sacrifice/

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18 responses to “Week of Proper 10: Friday, Year 1

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