An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Love and Sacrifice

A sermon on Mark 12: 28-34 & Hebrews 9: 11-14 by Nathan Nettleton

Some Christians are very uncomfortable with any suggestion that some parts of the Bible are more important than others, and so they would likely object when I say that the passage we heard from the Gospel according to Mark tonight is one of the most important in all the scriptures. And while I understand their anxiety over the implication that some other parts are therefore less important, this passage itself assures me that we can, and must, make such judgements. You see, Jesus himself is clearly making just such a judgement in this passage, and if it is something he does, then surely it is something that we are to do too. When the religious lawyer asked Jesus the question, “Which is the most important of the biblical commandments?”, Jesus could easily have said, “They are all equally important. Every word of the Bible is essential and to be treated with equal seriousness.” He could have, but he didn’t. He said, “Number one is love God with everything you’ve got. Number two is love everyone you come into contact with.” And although he didn’t continue to rank the rest from 3 to 613, which is the number of commandments the Jewish biblical scholars say there are in the Torah, the principle that each one is more or less important is already established.

Now clearly, this really matters to those of us who wish to live our lives in ways that are acceptable to God. Even the people who say that every line of the Bible is equally important seem to blithely ignore many of the 613, like not wearing clothes made of two different materials, not charging interest on loans, and not running your combine harvester all the way to the edges of your field, but how are we to know what really matters to God and what we can pay less attention to? What does God really want of us, and what happens when we fall short of whatever it is that God wants?

I want to approach those questions back to front, starting with what happens when we fall short. It may not be the most obvious way of proceeding, but I’m going to try it because of something else that comes up in today’s readings, and that is the idea of sacrifice. It comes up twice, and in potentially contradictory ways, and very often when Christians start talking about what happens when we sin and fall short of God’s requirements, they start talking about a sacrifice that is offered to God to take away our sin. A common explanation has been that God is so angry and offended by our sin that there can only be forgiveness once a suitable sacrifice has been offered to appease God’s wrath. Before the time of Jesus, it was the high priest’s job to slaughter on the altar the sacrificial animals that were the prescribed sacrifices, but these sacrifices were apparently not good enough, and so the suffering death of Jesus becomes the better sacrifice that God demands. Now this is pretty important, not only for our question of what happens when we fall short, but also for our question of what God wants of us in the first place, because to answer that question we have to get some idea of what God is like, and a god who demands the spilling of innocent blood in order to appease his anger is a pretty scary kind of god. So is this a fair picture of God?

Well, if you were going to challenge this picture of God, you may well choose to start with today’s gospel reading because when Jesus answers the question about the most important commandments, the religious expert applauds his answer and says, “Yes, to love God and love your neighbour is more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And Jesus affirms him for this response, saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And elsewhere Jesus quotes the prophets to say, “God wants mercy, not sacrifice.” So Jesus seems to be saying that once you realise that it is not sacrifices that please God, but love and mercy, you are drawing close to the kingdom of God.

But we may have a problem when we put this alongside the reading we heard tonight from the letter to the Hebrews. It also talked about sacrifice, but it seems to be taking quite a different tack. The letter to the Hebrews is more intent on portraying Jesus as our High Priest than as the sacrificial offering, but in our extract tonight we did hear that, as high priest, he “offered himself without blemish to God” and that “he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” So here in the letter to the Hebrews, the idea of God being pleased by a sacrifice appears to be alive and well. What are we to do?

To be honest, it would probably take a book or two to do justice to this, so all we can do in a few minutes is try to point ourselves in some helpful directions. One of the things that contributes to potential confusion in this matter is that the word “sacrifice” can be used with a number of varying meanings. I’ve become very conscious of this kind of thing in the last few years because I’ve been trying to learn to speak a bit of some other languages, and words that have multiple meanings are one of the toughest things about getting by in a language you don’t know well. If I hear a Spanish speaker say “Mire el tiempo,” without context, I can’t tell whether they are saying “watch the time” or “watch the weather”, because the words are the same, and of course, because I’m struggling, I might still be struggling to work out the context. In spoken Chinese, it is even worse, because there are a lot more words that sound the same. Rita tells me that even as a native speaker, whole phrases or sentences can be quite ambiguous unless she knows the context. Of course, this can happen in English too. If I say, “Keep a watch on it”, without context you don’t know whether I’m telling you to keep a timepiece on your wrist or to pay close attention to something, but mostly we don’t notice such things because when we are operating in our own language, we are nearly always up to speed with the context and all is clear. But sometimes, context can contribute to the confusion because it can prejudice us. If you are used to hearing a word used in a particular way in a particular context, then you might not immediately notice if it is being used differently in the same context. I think this can happen very easily with the word “sacrifice”.

We use the word “sacrifice” in a number of different ways. They are related, but not the same. If I say “a man makes a sacrifice”, I might mean that he burns a goat on an altar to appease his God, or I might mean that he gets himself killed or injured in trying to save someone else, or I might mean that he gives up something for the benefit of someone else, as in “those parents sacrificed a lot to give their kids that opportunity”. They are all quite different, but it is quite possible to speak of the actions of Jesus as being sacrificial in any of those three senses, and so we need to be careful to make sure that every time the word “sacrifice” occurs in the New Testament we don’t automatically assume the “blood sacrifice to appease and angry god” meaning, just because that is how we are used to hearing it in a religious context. To say that God is pleased by our sacrifices in the sense of God being pleased by someone doing something sacrificial in the course of loving their neighbour is a radically different thing from saying it the sense of God being pleased and satisfied by the death of an innocent victim on an altar or a cross.

So, to cut a long story short, although the letter to the Hebrews makes more use of images and metaphors drawn from the ancient Jewish sacrificial system than any other New Testament writing, it does in fact subvert the ideas of sacrifice that it uses. It does talk about the sacrificial blood of Jesus, but it does not say that blood is offered to God or desired or required by God. It does not end up depicting God as an angry vengeful god who needs to be offered blood in order to turn away his anger. Rather it depicts a God who comes among us and, at great personal cost, will do whatever it takes to open our eyes to the radical grace and mercy of God, even if it means sacrificing himself to our violence and hatred in the process.

So when we come back to the gospel account of the conversation between Jesus and the religious lawyer, we note that the reference to sacrifices there is quite specific: “burnt offerings and sacrifices”. Love is far more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. God desires love, love of God and love of neighbour, rather than burnt offerings and sacrifices or any other religious gestures that imply that God can be or needs to be bought off. But of course, love can and often must be sacrificial if it is anything more than superficial niceness or warm fuzzy feelings. Loving others is often costly. In a fallen, unloving and violent world, love is frequently not only not reciprocated, but often outright rejected and attacked. Which of course, is exactly what Jesus faced.

Jesus doesn’t say love you neighbour, but if they misunderstand you or don’t love you in return, then reject them and insult them and speak ill of them. He doesn’t say love you neighbour, but if they are hostile to you or reject your hospitality, call down fire from heaven and condemn them to hell. He doesn’t say love you neighbour, but if they crucify you, send in the airforce and bomb them back into the stone age. He just says love your neighbour as yourself. Full stop. No qualifications. No variations depending on the response or the consequences. Just says love your neighbour as yourself. Whatever it costs. However big a sacrifice of yourself it takes. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and love your neighbour as yourself, regardless of the outcomes.

Now none of that makes following Jesus and living the life God wants you to live any easier to do, but it does make it a lot simpler to understand. Just love — everyone, all of the time, no matter what it costs, no matter how big a sacrifice it is — the way that Jesus loves. In fact, elsewhere both Jesus and the Apostle Paul say that everything else in the biblical law and prophets are really just application of this law of love. And so it might not help us to put all 613 commandments into rank order, but doing so would be a waste of time anyway. If you really mastered these top two, the rest would take care of themselves.

And whenever you do need to try to evaluate the importance of some other passage of the Bible and what it commands or what it teaches about God and what God wants, again you can come back to this place. Does this sound like something Jesus would have said? Does it sound like an expression of the love and grace and mercy made known in Jesus? Or as Michael Hardin puts it, “Does it look and sound and smell like Jesus?” Because, as the letter to the Hebrews (1:2-3) puts it, amidst its sometimes confusing sacrificial imagery, God “has spoken to us by a Son, … (who) is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So if you want to know what God is like, or what God wants of you, or how God responds when you stuff up, the answer is Jesus, who far from being an angry, demanding, blood thirsty tyrant, reaches out to us in mercy, even from the cross where his self-sacrificial endeavours to open our eyes to the absolute love of the real God end up in the ultimate sacrifice of the ultimate love. And in response to such extravagant, undeserved, and unquenchable love, a couple of simple straightforward commandments don’t seem so much to ask. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and love your neighbour as yourself.


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