Propitiation for our sins

In a characteristically provocative essay on why our Lord died, Stanley Hauerwas pours scorn on liberal reductions of the Gospel to the teaching that we should love each other. If, he asks, Jesus came only to teach us to be nice and love each other, why did anyone bother to put Him to death? Of course Hauerwas does not deny that Jesus did in fact teach us to love each other, but, he argues, this teaching is secondary. Following John Howard Yoder, Hauerwas claims that Jesus was put to death because he embodied a new form of politics: “Jesus was put to death because he embodied a politics that threatened all worldly regimes based on the fear of death.” This new politics is realized in the Church founded by in Jesus’s death and resurrection:

He gave them a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence – by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money – by sharing it. He gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership – by drawing on the gift of every member, even the most humble. He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society – by building a new order, not making the old. He gave them a new pattern of relationships between man and woman, between parent and child, between master and slave, in which was made concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person. He gave them a new attitude toward the state and toward the “enemy nation.”

That is the politics begun in Christ. That is the “good news” – that we have been freed from the presumed necessities that we inflict on ourselves in the name of “peace,” a peace that too often turns out to be an order established and continued through violence.

Is it any wonder that Jesus was despised and rejected? Is it any wonder when the church is faithful to Christ that she finds herself persecuted and condemned?

But surely Hauerwas does not go far enough. His account can be subjected to exactly the same sort of critique that he made of the liberal account.

Yes, Jesus did indeed bring a new kind of peace, and a new way of bringing peace about. But was this the Gospel, was this why He was killed? If we look at the reasons for the death of Jesus given in the Gospel’s than His being a threat to “all worldly regimes based on the fear of death” is not the first consideration. The leaders of the people want to put Jesus to death because He claims to replace the temple. Unlike Hauerwas, the leaders of the Jews saw politics as ordered not first to temporal peace—peace between man and man, guaranteed by the threat of punishment— but rather to peace between men and God.

Recent evidence suggests that this is the oldest idea of politics. Politics began for the sake of divine worship. People have always known that there is something amiss between them and the divine, and have tried to propitiate the gods through sacrifice. In Israel God Himself had a established a system by which the people could be reconciled to God: the temple sacrifices. Animals were offered in the temple to atone for sin, and as a substitute offering representing the giving over of persons to God. And Jesus challenges this system first by claiming to be able to forgive sins Himself, and then by claiming that He will replace the temple: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” This is in fact the accusation that is later brought against Jesus.

The leaders of the people are determined to kill Jesus not only because of His direct challenge to the temple, but also because they think He will indirectly lead to the Romans taking the temple from them:

So the high priests and the Pharisees called a council and said: What are we doing about this man who performs so many miracles? If we let him go on like this, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our place [i.e. the temple] and our nation. (John 11:47-48)

Of course there is an element of hypocrisy here: the leaders are worried that they will lose their political power. But they see their political power not as merely the guarantee of temporal peace, but as allowing the temple sacrifices that reconcile the people to God. They see their arrangement with the Romans as good both because it gives them power, and (more importantly) because it allows for the worship of God.

In killing Jesus the leaders of the Jews are acting in classically tragic fashion—bringing about what they hope to prevent. The death of Jesus abolishes the temple and all its sacrifices. Jesus is the victim, the temple, and the priest, who once and for all reconciles us to God. He is the ram caught in the brambles who is sacrificed instead of Isaac; He is the pascal lamb sacrificed instead of the first born of every house; He is the bull and the ram and the two goats sacrificed on the day of atonement; both the goat for Azazel, made sin to destroy sin, and the goat for the Lord, in whom our humanity is given over to the God as a perfect offering.

So, Hauerwas is right that Jesus founds a new city in His blood, one that will replace the violent city of man, but this is secondary. The first thing that Jesus does is make a new sacrifice that replaces the sacrifices of the temple. And note that the sacrifices in the temple cease only a few decades after the death of Jesus, whereas violence and coercion (while they have indeed begun to pass away in the saints) will not be fully abolished till He comes again in glory. The new city that is coming, is coming from the sacrifice that our Lord made to atone for our sins. So there is an order: first God loves us and sends His Son to atone for our sins, and then it follows from this that a new city is founded in which we love one another:

The love of God was revealed among us by this, that God sent his only-begotten son into the world so that we might live through him. Love is in this, not in that we have loved God, but in that he loved us and sent his son as propitiation for our sins. Dear friends, if God so loved us we also have a duty to love each other. (1 John 4:9-11)

One thought on “Propitiation for our sins

  1. Pingback: Gregorian Holy Week In Review – Fare Forward

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