God, Sacrifice & Human Need

What is sacrificial and sacrificed was the subtext of a recent sermon I heard. An NRSV bible uses sacrifice and sacrificed 256 times and preachers urge Christians to live sacrificial lives by taking up their crosses as Jesus called them to do. The subject raises all kinds of questions because I think we throw sacrifice around in so many ways it’s hard to know what it means. At a basic level I wonder if God actually requires sacrifice or is it something in human nature that needs to make them?  For that matter, what is a sacrifice?

Every word originated somewhere to mean something in particular but with passage of time original meaning changed as it got used by different people under different conditions.  The root meaning of sacrifice comes from ancient Greek as something done to make something sacred.  A profane thing presumably of some value, perhaps an animal, was ritually offered as worthy of presentation to the gods. It’s sort of a purpose driven worm hole humans use to create a connection with the divine.  It might be to assuage a god’s anger or solicit a favor, or maybe just to demonstrate  a shaman’s power that commoners could never have.

I’m inclined to think the Lord our God does not require sacrifices to curry favor or assuage anger and there are enough scriptural passages to suggest I’m right. Yes there were and are commandments demanding sacrifices but I think they were for our benefit, not God’s. There are other passages where God declared no desire for sacrifices, especially elaborate ones.  Yet, humans have a need to make sacrifices and have justified that need by placing the onus on God’s demands.   In everyday life we get a sense of it in when we’ve done something to hurt or betray another, feel sorry, and want to to make up for it (atone). For most of us that means doing or giving something that has a cost we would rather not bear.  I’m reminded of a story told by a former parishioner many years ago.  As a little girl she had used scissors to cut a piece out of her grandmother’s favorite dress. The result was an angry, distressed and deeply hurt grandmother.  My parishioner said she presented her own favorite doll as a gift to her grandmother.  It was, she said, the necessary sacrifice of something costly to make up for her naughty act.  I imagine that sums up almost everything humans do to make sacrifices and the reason they do it.   Humble pie, eating crow and tearful apologies are the way adults often make sacrifices for the hurt they’ve caused to another.  It’s not unheard of that flowers and an expensive dinner out have been the sacrificial salve that’s healed many an otherwise loving couple’s harmonious relationship. 

The sacrifices God is said to have required from ‘his’ people were something like that.  To give thanks or atone for sins they had to offer something of real cost.  What could have been more costly to farmers and shepherds than a perfect lamb or sheaf of the best grain?  A sacrifice that comes from the heart, and not out of mere obedience to a rule, is a tangible way to bridge the gap between humanity and the divine.  Humans have a hard time believing that the only sacrifice God truly desires is to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with God (Micah 6). That’s both too hard and too easy for us.

Were ancient sacrifices always offered from the heart?  Probably not.  Many sacrifices were offered simply because they were required to remain in good standing as a community member.  It’s the same today. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart “ (Ps. 51).  It’s also a heart filled with gratitude or maybe just a wondering heart. Whatever is acceptable to God is that which is offered from the heart. 

What on earth could be offered to God for the atonement of the sins of all humanity?  Did God require Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to somehow pay for our sins?  I don’t think so, at least not in the usual ways it’s been thought of..  I think it is we humans who needed it and would not have been satisfied with less. We could not trust that our self imposed exile from God’s presence could be bridged by anything less than the physical demonstration of God reaching through the “worm hole” in both directions to obliterate it.  It’s why Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection are one thing, one event.  God so loved the world that God breached the chasm that we created out of our own imagination to show that it didn’t exist.

Is that believable?  To many it is not and never will be. The old fear that gods need to be bribed, assuaged and catered to runs deep.  If not divine gods then secular ones.  For those who can accept it, it turns the way of the cross into the way of life and peace. Taking up one’s cross is to follow Christ not only in the way of divine love, but to be active agents of divine love, even if it’s costly to do. 

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