Archives For Prophets

lightstock_2350_small_user_2741517-2Preaching on Psalm 51 this Ash Wednesday, I noticed something as I followed along with the lector from the pew bible open on my lap. David’s indulgent confession of sin in Psalm 51 ends with this startling moment of recognition:

‘…for you [God] have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is [only] a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

Surely this is a stunning epiphany to anyone who knows the Old Testament wherein sacrifices are frequent, systematized, and not only a delight to the Lord but prescribed by the Lord himself from Mt. Sinai. Consider even the remarkable dissonance- what I discovered Ash Wednesday only because my pew bible was open flat on my lap- of Psalm 51 with the psalm that immediately precedes it:

‘Those who bring their thanksgiving sacrifice [as commanded in Leviticus] honor me…’

Declares God, in Psalm 50.

Israel’s prophets, who come after David and voice God’s judgment upon the greed and false piety of David’s heirs, introduce an even more virulent strain into the bible’s thinking about the necessity and merit of sacrifice. The Christian Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi heaping scorn upon sacrifices offered in vain, and the angry prophet of the rural poor, Amos, most famously announced God’s wrath thusly:

‘…you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

…the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

 

For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!

Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;  as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.

Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’

Those last lines abut justice are familiar to us from Dr. King’s sermon on the National Mall, but excised from their original context they lose their punch and, I suspect for white Christians, turn Amos from a prophet of judgment into a dispenser of vague liberal hope.

For anyone with ears to hear, there is this unresolved tension running throughout the Old Testament as to whether sacrifice is something that God in any way desires or requires.

What do Christians make of this ambivalence regarding sacrifice when we consider what we consider the ultimate sacrifice, Christ’s expiatory offering of suffering and death upon the cross? 

Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’

9780374298470Marilynne Robinson, in her essay Metaphysics, writes:

‘I know the Bible interprets Christ’s passion as expiatory, the world’s suffering as the consequence of sin, for which Christ is a guilt offering. I note as well that when God speaks through the prophets about sacrifice he treats it as the expression of a human need he tolerates rather than as anything he desires.

Certainly the death of Christ has been understood as expiation for human sin through the whole length of church history, and I defer with all possible sincerity to the central tenets of the Christian tradition, but as for myself, I confess that I struggle to understand the phenomenon of ritual sacrifice, and the Crucifixion when explicated in its terms. The concept is so central to the tradition that I have no desire to take issue with it, and so difficult for me that I leave it for others to interpret. If it answered to a deep human need at other times, and it answers now to other spirits than mine, then it is a great kindness of God toward them, and a great proof of God’s attentive grace toward his creatures.

I do not by any means doubt the gravity of human sin or question our radical indebtedness to God. I suppose it is my high Christology, my Trinitarianism, that makes me falter at the idea God could be in any sense repaid or satisfied by the death of his incarnate self.’

Is our thinking, I wonder in Lent, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?

IMG_0516As you might know, I just returned from the Highlands of Guatemala, a place whose staggering beauty is rivaled only by its systemic poverty.

Making the transition back to home from a place where clean water and a flushing toilet are literally a PIPE DREAM always leaves me feeling……?

Indicted?

And why would that be?

Probably because, despite what Glenn Beck would have us think, the biblical witness is clear—from the exodus, through the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus himself—that God acts for and calls us to liberation of the oppressed.

Theologians call it God’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’ Meaning, God attends particularly to the plight of the poor, the most vulnerable, and exploited and expects his people to do the same. To this we might add now that effectively responding to the needs of the poor and oppressed is a moral priority for those who seek to live in faithful relation to God.

Further elaborating this point, is a piece written by Dr. Barry Penn Hollar, with whom I collaborated on a Christian Ethics book a few years ago:

The story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt is central to this claim.  The exodus was and remains the fundamental, identity-shaping experience of the Jewish people.  It is the focus the Passover festival, which to this day roots Jewish identity in the experience of liberation by the almighty hand of God.  We who are Christians remember that it was in the context of the Passover festival that Jesus began the festival that is our fundamental, identity-shaping experience: the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.

At the center of the Exodus memory is an insight about the very character of God: God’s compassionate sharing of the experience of oppression.  “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters,” God says [Exodus 3:7].   This is not a detached and disengaged awareness. Rather, God says, “I know their suffering.”  The Hebrew word “to know” is used with reference to sexual intercourse or intimacy.  It implies a sharing of the experience to which it refers. God knows and shares their suffering. Moreover, it is an awareness that leads to action.

The verse continues: “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.”

This portrayal of God as one who shares the suffering of the poor and oppressed and acts to deliver them is consistent throughout the Old Testament.

Amos, Isaiah, and Micah were noteworthy for their insistence that injustice and oppression was a religious issue or a matter rendering the peoples’ relationship to God faithless and their worship inauthentic.

Consider these words from Isaiah:

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow [Isaiah 1: 15-17].

And listen to Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream [Amos 5:21-24].

Finally, consider Micah:

 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God [Micah 6:6-8]?

Let’s be honest:

Can we consider the statistics of the world’s poverty, the global reach of our national influence, the degree to which the international economy is organized for our benefit, and doubt that these words apply to us?

Is all our worship, then, no matter how sincere and doctrinally proper, a sham?

When we stand to praise God—lifting our hands and our voices in air-conditioned sanctuaries with cushioned pews, dressed in finery that has been produced by women’s hands in factories whose conditions are unknown to us—does God, in fact, despise it all?

Despise us?

However you answer, you have to at least admit: there’s sufficient cause to wonder.