The End of Systems That Sacrifice Innocents

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be healed through him.—John 3.17 (emphasis added.)

The word placed in Jesus’ mouth by John here is “sozo.” It can be and is often translated not as “saved” but rather as “healed” (see Matthew 9.21-22; Mark 5.23, 28, 34; 6.56). What we have here is not just a text in which the meaning of a word can be argued over by scholars. What we have here is the emphasis of an entire story. The story we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the story of a Jesus who went about “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10.38, emphasis added.)

This week, with the Easter season upon us, I want to share with you some thoughts regarding the Jesus story (the story of the Resurrected One) that truly are revolutionary. Also, I want to begin this week by giving a shout out to my new friend, Jarrod McKenna from Australia. Jarrod and I spent a little time dialoguing a couple weeks ago. Honestly, Jarrod challenged me on something I had said, and that challenge, along with some resources Jarrod recommended to me, got me thinking. So I went back to Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John to see what I had missed, and sure enough, it was all right there. I want to thank Jarrod for pushing me. This has opened up yet another incredibly beautiful dimension to the events of the Jesus story that was there all along, but being culturally conditioned to a more domesticated and conventional reading of the Jesus story, I had missed it. I think, if I’m honest, we are all on a journey: we’re in the process of allowing the Jesus story to truly challenge the housebroken, Constantinian version of Jesus that has been given to us, the church, and the world at large.

If you want to squeeze the most out of this week’s eSight, I would encourage you to go back and look at Jesus’ Temple Termination in each of the gospels. (I’ll be calling it Termination rather than Cleansing. I’m coming to believe that “Cleansing,” is a misnomer. What Jesus was doing there was not “cleansing” the Temple so that the system could continue in a purer state. Instead, Jesus was bringing the entire system and the way of life that it represented to an end.) You don’t have to go back and read each Gospel’s telling, but I think you will get so much more out of this week if you do. (That’s how it happened for me.) You can find it in Mark 11, Matthew 21, and Luke 19. You can leave out John’s version because it happens at the beginning of his gospel and focuses strictly on the “temple of his body” (as John’s gospel was written primarily to confront the beginnings of Gnosticism in the early church).

Also, because this story repeatedly has been brought to my attention in an attempt to object to (or ignore) the nonviolent, peaceful teachings of Jesus, I would like to say that Jesus’ actions in the Temple were not because of a violent fit of rage or an example of Jesus losing his temper. (That’s Rembrandt’s version not Mark’s.) Mark has Jesus actually arriving at the Temple the night before, looking around, and seeing that it was already too late in the evening for what He hoped his actions would produce. So he retired to the home of his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany for the night and came back the next day. (“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”—Mark 11.11) Jesus’ actions in the Temple were premeditated, intentional, and purposeful, following a good night of “sleeping on it.”

What you’ll notice, if you do go back and read each version, is that (and these are oversimplified for the sake of space) Matthew and Mark orchestrate the events of their retelling in the order of 1) Jesus’ Humble, Nonviolent Entry into Jerusalem (mimicking Caesar’s custom of entering a conquered province on a war steed. See Zechariah 9.10 cf. 9.9.), 2) The Cursing of the Fig Tree, and 3) The Termination of the Temple and Its Rituals. Luke’s retelling presents 1) Jesus’ Humble, Nonviolent Entry into Jerusalem, 2) (Luke omits the Fig Tree and replaces it instead with) Jesus’ Words Over Jerusalem, and 3) Jesus’ Termination of the Temple and Its Rituals. If you take both versions, you begin to see that there is a dual purpose to what Jesus was doing in the Temple.

Very briefly, the first purpose is that Jesus, in his overturning tables and making it impossible for the Temple services to continue that day, was standing in His prophetic lineage from Jeremiah. He was prophesying what would be done to them just forty years later at the hands of Rome (see Josephus, War of the Jews) if they continued to fail to recognize this nonviolent coming of God to them, rejecting Jesus as an enemy-embracing Messiah, and holding out for a more militaristic Messiah to lead them against the Romans like Judah Maccabees led the Hebrew people against the Seleucids. Jeremiah had warned of the shattering of Jerusalem by Babylon in a similar illustrative fashion with the shattering of the clay pot at the garbage dump in the valley of Ben-Hinnom. (See Jeremiah 19.1-15). But this is not ALL Jesus was doing.

The second of the two purposes (and I’m indebted to Jarrod for opening my eyes to this) is also a part of the lineage of the prophet Jeremiah, and is the purpose emphasized by Matthew and Mark. One the passages Jesus quotes during the story is found in Jeremiah 7:

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan,, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, THEN I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jeremiah 7.9-11, emphasis added.)

The Temple, in both Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ day, stood for systems of oppression where those who were innocent were sacrificed for the benefit of those in power. The Presence had long departed this system that demanded the sacrifice of innocents, although they still pretended it was there.

The cursing of the fig tree connected to the termination of the Temple by Jesus (in Matthew and Mark) is more than the end of Jerusalem as God’s elect, more than the end of animal sacrifice in religious worship. Matthew and Mark are whispering to us about the end of a way of life here on earth where aliens, orphans, widows, and innocent victims are sacrificed—which the Temple in Jesus’ day (as well as Jeremiah’s) not only promoted, but more than that, it stood at the very heart of Jerusalem’s religion and worship. (When we add the Divine to any system of oppression, the abuse becomes decisively compounded.) Jesus had come to bring an end to that way of life here on earth and to initiate the commencement of an entirely new and radically different way of life.

The rest of the story flows from cause to effect. Jesus’ Termination of the Temple leads ultimately to the arrest of Jesus by the Temple Police. Jesus was subjected to multiple trials from each of the Powers that were positioned to benefit by that way of life, which Jesus’ coming threatened to take away. The three sacrificial systems, which we will cover in a moment, united to crucify Jesus in the supreme act of deicidal injustice. God then overturned and conquered each of these sacrificial systems by Resurrecting Jesus, glorifying Him as the Christ.

The Resurrection (as pointed out by those such as N.T. Wright) marks the end of all Sacrificial Systems that demand the death of innocent victims for the benefit of the masses, of which the Temple in Jesus’ day was simply a type. It matters not whether the Sacrificial System is Political, represented by Pilate, dependent on violence against political enemies as well as dependent on (what those such as Hauerwas, Yoder, and others call) a “religion of war” in which the present generation is sacrificed, like lambs to the slaughter, to sustain the belief that citizens are worthy of the sacrifices of past wars. It matters not whether the Sacrificial System is Religious, represented by Caiaphas, based on and rooted in fear where (as pointed out by those like Wink, Gerard, and others) Divine repercussions against its adherents are threatened if those deemed as “sinners” are not shunned, marginalized, scapegoated, and ultimately sacrificed (think World Vision) in an effort to maintain the favor of God or the gods. Nor does it matter if the Sacrificial System is Economic, represented by Herod, driven by greed, which (according to Brueggemann, and others) sacrifices the poor (see Luke 6.20, 24) at the bottom of society’s pyramid structures to maintain the lifestyle of the few positioned at top. (think Fair Trade). The story of the Resurrected One shows that the Presence of God is not found within the most exclusive “holy places” belonging to those “dirty rotten systems” as Dorothy Day call them (see Matthew 27.51; Mark 15.38; Luke 23.45). The true dwelling place of the Presence, according to the Jesus story, is found in the One shamefully suspended on a cursed tree at the orders of those united threatened Powers-that-be, whether political, religious, or economic. The story of the Resurrected One proclaims the beginning of a whole new world in which we need not fear the consequences of our nonviolent engagement—rooted in love and enemy-forgiveness—against those Systems and Powers. We stand in the Victory of Christ over each of these Sacrificial Systems—a Victory that has already been won. We are people standing in the light streaming from the empty tomb, following the Resurrected One.

The stories of the termination of the Temple, execution by crucifixion, and victory through resurrection, when seen in context, are where the synergy of multiple new ways of seeing God, themselves, and others in this world converged to produce an overall worldview paradigm-shift among Jesus’ followers. This was too significant, too exposing for the political (dependent on violence), religious (rooted in and based on fear), and economical (driven by greed) systems of the first century to tolerate (see John 3.20).

They story of the Resurrected One offers the same for us today. The Resurrection invites each of us to align our own stories with the story of Jesus and to embrace our crosses to put on display the reign of Jesus where His Kingdom is established once again, on earth as it is in Heaven (see Matthew 6.10).

We are not (as I have been accused of) arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Jesus wasn’t arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, offering Jerusalem the chance to be the center of a whole new way of life even though the events of A.D.70 loomed in the distance if they did not cooperate. And when we follow Jesus in our world today, we are not doing that either. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be healed.

If we would simply be open to learning how to recognize and then say “no” to the systemic evils of violence, fear, and greed, that alone would change everything.

HeartGroup Application

Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more represent a long history of those who have extracted from the Jesus story ways in which the Sacrificial Systems of our own day can be and should be engaged. It is my personal belief that each of us, including those I’ve just mentioned, have played and continue to play a role, a part, in the process of enlarging Christ’s reign on earth. This is what each of us, as a follower of Jesus, is called to. Whether by driving out livestock and overturning money-changers’ tables in a Temple, tearing up a passport in South Africa, going on a salt march in India, or participating in sit-ins and freedom rides in the white, evangelical, “Christian” South, the Jesus story calls out to us today to align our stories with the victory of Jesus—to embrace, yes, a cross, but also a resurrection. The Jesus story is calling us to love and forgive even those who are benefiting by the current structure (whether political, religious, or economic) when they mock, threaten, insult, accuse, hate, and if need be, “crucify” us for engaging them, as we put on display the radical reign of Christ. It is a story that whispers to us that a new world is here, if only we have eyes to see it (John 3.3). This week I want you to spend some time with Jesus, sitting and contemplating these three passages:

Saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9.22-24)

But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup . . . ”(Matthew 20.22-23)

The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. (Romans 16.20 cf. Genesis 3.15)

1. Write down what new ways of seeing things Jesus shares with you during your time meditating on these words, with Him, this week.

2. Share any new paradigm shifts Jesus gives you with your HeartGroup when you meet together this upcoming week.

These are the thoughts, the hope, and the calling that this year the contemplating of the Resurrection brings home to me.
New Creation has come.
Now let’s go enlarge the Kingdom.

I love you guys. I’ll see you next week.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! — 2 Corinthians 5.17