Myth of Redemptive Sacrifice

ash bowl for ash wednesday

Herb Montgomery | March 4, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.

In the wilderness story, Jesus rejects the temptation to sacrifice himself and tempt God to save him in the end. This calls into question how we interpret Christian narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection as we walk through Lent toward Easter. I can think of no better way to begin the season of Lent than by calling into question the myth of redemptive suffering.”

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, It is written: humans shall not live on bread alone.’” The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, It is written: Worship the Sovereign God and serve God only.’” The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. If you are the Son of God,” he said, throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “ ‘God will command the angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered, It is said: Do not put the Sovereign God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)

For many Christians, this weekend marks the first weekend of Lent, which commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spends in the wilderness before embarking on his ministry of healing, liberation, inclusion, and establishing justice.

Luke’s version of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness has much to teach us today. There are so many good, life-giving, holistic, political, liberation, and justice-rooted interpretations of these three temptations, and this week I want to mention some highlights relevant for us.

Forty days and nights held special meaning in Hebrew tradition. This was the amount of time Moses spent on Mt. Sinai before receiving the tablets of stone with the law and commandments (Deuteronomy 9:9-11). It was also the amount of time Moses spent interceding for Israel (Deuteronomy 9:18, 10:10). Israel explored the land of Canaan for forty days and nights, and spent a comparable amount of time journeying in the wilderness—a year for each day (Numbers 14:34). Also remember how the flood rains in the time of Noah lasted forty days and nights (Genesis 7:12), and Jonah warned Nineveh for forty days that it would be destroyed (Jonah 3:4). Each of the synoptic gospels builds on this tradition, preparing Jesus for his ministry of liberation by sending him into the wilderness for forty days (cf. Mark 1:13, Matthew 4:2, and Luke 4:2).

Profit, People, and the Environment

Matthew and Luke add significantly more detail to Mark’s story, and both gospels list Jesus’ first temptation as turning bread to stone after forty days of fasting. In our passage this week we read:

The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: humans shall not live on bread alone.’

Jesus’ response resonates deeply with me. How many times have you had to choose between “bread” and doing what you feel is right? In this world, profit is sovereign. People’s needs and what is right for their wellbeing are continually less prioritized than or even sacrificed to the almighty profit margin. Greed or desire for more and more bread while so many around the globe are starving fuels the international economy, and control or power over that bread drives decisions at the highest levels of our world.

In Rome’s day, those who controlled the supply of bread ruled the world. Today, the same is true. Whoever controls the supply of resources that humanity needs for its survival rules the world. This has environmental implications as well as economic ones.

From the beginning, capitalism’s ruling principle has been “bread.” Profit has caused us to devalue and therefore destroy our most precious resources, especially those natural resources used to produce profit that are not infinite. Today, many are realizing as never before that if we, the grand human family living on earth, will survive, we must first embrace our connectedness to both each other and every living thing on earth. We must say, as Jesus said in the wilderness, humans shall not live by bread alone. The means by which we obtain our bread—whether those means are just, life-giving, and sustainable—matters as much as the bread does. Bread alone is not life-giving enough.

Ends That Don’t Justify the Means

In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus’ next temptation offers him all the kingdoms of our world if he would worship the tempter. To understand this story, enlarge your definition of worship beyond religiosity. Our society worships profit. Our society worships war and sacrifices generations of people for war. Many in our society subscribe to and worship various expressions of White, European, patriarchal, straight, and cisgender supremacy. Worship is about what we choose to reverence, honor, or value.

In this temptation, Jesus is called to subscribe to a value system, a way of doing life. The promise is that if he will subscribe to the tempter’s value system, all the world will be within his grasp. Jesus rejects the offer, and his model prompts us to consider not just what goals we seek to accomplish through the lives we live, but also how we try to accomplish those goals.

Justice, safety, compassion are our goals. They must also be the means we use. Dr. King held in tension his goal for peace and his rejection of the means many offered him during his sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church entitled When Peace Becomes Obnoxious:

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I dont want peace. If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I dont want peace. If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I dont want it. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict, but the existence of justice for all people.

In my sacred imagination, I picture Jesus considering his own burden for justice. Perhaps he meditated on the passage from Isaiah, He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (Isaiah 42:4). Considering what that goal could mean for him, and responding to the tempter’s offer, he whispered, “But not like this.”

Myth of Redemptive Sacrifice

Next in Luke’s version, Jesus goes from the mountaintop where he saw all the empires of the world to the capital of his society’s temple state. There he is tempted to throw himself from the highest point of the temple, to sacrifice himself with the promise that it will all work out in the end.

I see in this the temptation that many who work for justice face: to sacrifice themselves for the cause in the belief that their self-sacrifice will be redemptive. Within Christianity, Jesus himself is held up to sell this myth. As Rev. Drs. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Ann Parker wrote in their seminary-hall-shaking essay, For God So Loved the World?:

If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus. Our suffering for others will save the world. The message is complicated further by the theology that says Christ suffered in obedience to his Father’s will. Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers “without even raising a voice” is lauded as the hope of the world. Those whose lives have been deeply shaped by the Christian tradition feel that self-sacrifice and obedience are not only virtues but the definition of a faithful identity. The promise of resurrection persuades us to endure pain, humiliation, and violation of our sacred rights to self-determination, wholeness, and freedom. (p. 2)

I cannot encourage you enough to take the time to read their entire essay slowly and thoughtfully.

In the wilderness story, Jesus rejects the temptation to sacrifice himself and tempt God to save him in the end. This calls into question how we interpret Christian narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection as we walk through Lent toward Easter. I can think of no better way to begin the season of Lent than by calling into question the myth of redemptive suffering.

Are our rituals shaping us into life-giving people, not only for others but for ourselves as well? Over the next few weeks, we’ll address this more thoroughly.

For now, hold in tension the Jesus we encounter in the wilderness who firmly rejected self-sacrifice and the Jesus we usually view sacrificing himself to save the world and believing that in laying down his life, it would be given back to him.

Much to ponder! Behind every answer is another question. And in the end, our stories must be about life, and not glorify death.

More on this in the coming weeks.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share an example of how moving away from the myth of redemptive suffering has changed how you follow Jesus? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

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