by David Simon
from Signs of the Times No. 70 - Jul 2018
There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where John Cleese, leader of the People’s Front of Judea, asks ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’. The characters start being sceptical about the presence of the Romans, assuming it has been wholly exploitative, then they spot more and more things the Romans have contributed to their society.
Following a list of advances the Romans brought to the region, the leader says: ‘Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’ The joke was that although the presence of the Romans was dismissed as a mere exploitative nuisance, they had in fact contributed hugely to society.
So, what did Jesus ever do for us?
1 What is Sin
Use of the term in secular culture
There is a tendency, because of the way our secularised culture uses the word ‘sin’, to think of sin as being something greater, or even something less than, the real thing. Something as simple as eating a cream cake is described as sinful - ‘naughty but nice’ - which suggests that sin is really nothing to worry about, indeed it might be an enjoyable indulgence.
Much of the media revels in sexual misdemeanours and these are often thought of as the most important sinful aspects of human behaviour - as if everything to do with sex was wrong and sinful. In doing this the media is, of course, appealing to our own human curiosity and appetites - an appetite that is natural and instinctive because without it the human race would die out.
At the other extreme, many things which, were we to think carefully about them we would recognise as very harmful (for example, some ways of making money), are not considered as sin, whether legal or illegal. So, in today’s secular usage the term sin isn’t aligned with the civil or criminal law - which makes it rather confusing when trying to understand a gospel message that says there is some sort of link between Jesus’ death and our sins.
Religious origins of the term
Sin comes from a religious understanding of the world, as seen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, so is bound up with an idea of God. This is probably why, in today’s Western secular culture, the word has lost any precise meaning. But even within a religious framework, ideas have changed about what human actions are sinful. In Numbers 15:32-36 picking up sticks on the Sabbath is regarded as a sin, for which the penalty was death.
In the traditional Christian religious view, breaking the commandments - the ten in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5, or the two (both from the Old Testament - Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18) given by Jesus as the summary of the Law in Matthew 22:35-40 - is sinful.
Sin as undermining loving relationship
To break the commandments is to fail to love, either God or one’s neighbour, and since God created all that is, and has seen that it is good, to fail to love any part of God’s creation is to fail to love God. Thus, to fail to love a neighbour is to fail to love God.
Although we may find it difficult (or even impossible) to envisage God, we do know from our human experience what it is to love. If we have a partner we know that love for that partner is expressed through what we do and say to and about that partner. The same can be said about children, or parents.
Certain actions and words and thoughts will enable that love to be shown and that relationship to grow creatively while other actions and words will undermine and even destroy that relationship.
Here I have used the two words which I believe give us the way to understand sin: those words are ‘love’, and ‘relationship’. When we do something that undermines a relationship with another person we are not being loving either to that person or to those who love that person. It might be undermining that person’s own sense of security or worth or undermining them in the eyes of others or undermining their relationship with others. This is something we as human beings can understand. And since we know that God loves each and every human being we can understand that the relationship God wants with and between all of us is the sort of relationship we would want with and between all those people we love.
This also explains why the commandments refer to the historical consequences of breaking them - that God will punish the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate God but showing love to the thousandth generation of those who love God - not only does the undermining of the relationship affect those around us now, but it is also affects expectations and is passed on to the next and subsequent generations. If you need a current and proximate illustration consider the involvement of England with Ireland over the past five centuries.
Sin is anything that undermines relationship - it’s not about eating cream cakes, it’s not all about sex and it includes things that can be legal and surprisingly might not include some things that are illegal.
Sin in summary
Sin is the deliberate or avoidable breaking of the relationship with God - that’s what we have to recognise, confess, and as far as possible avoid.
2 What is sacrifice
The temple cult
In the desert, when the Israelites were escaping from Egypt, and at the Temple in Jerusalem (once it was built), the Jews had a complex system of offering sacrifices to God: in gratitude for what had been received (the offering of the first male offspring of domestic animals and the first fruits of the ground); for gratitude for delivery from slavery in Egypt (the feast of booths); and for repentance from sin (day of atonement, the scapegoat etc.)
One way of understanding this is to think of sacrifice in terms of human relations, then extend it to God. This would have made sense in an age where it was thought that there was a three-decker universe and that God (or the gods) lived out of sight but above the clouds and meddled in human affairs.
Sacrifices showing gratitude would be appropriate to keep the gifts coming from the donor. This might be a bountiful God or a bountiful earth. And returning part of the gift to the donor, like returning fertilizer to the earth to generate plentiful crops next season, would be a sign of appreciation and an expression of hope for continued beneficence. Clearly the sacrificial gift must be of good quality to indicate the thankfulness of the giver - second rate goods would undermine the message being communicated by the sacrifice.
Showing the value of partnership
If God were thought of as one’s ally or partner, then continually offering gifts would be a way of showing appreciation for the alliance, just as one might make gifts to one’s partner to assure them that they are important and loved. Clearly the sacrificial gift must be of good quality to indicate the importance of the relationship to the giver - second rate goods would undermine the message the sacrifice communicates.
Placating an angry person or god
If God were thought of as an angry god who needed placating there could be a whole range of ways of understanding the sacrifice. To help illustrate this I will use an example the story of Jacob - who had on two occasions deprived his twin (but elder) brother Esau of his rights as the elder - coming back to his homeland after having fled from the wrath of his brother (Genesis Chapters 25-32).
What Jacob is doing is trying to entreat the favour of Esau which can be thought in several ways:
a simple bribe;
an acknowledgement that Jacob had been in the wrong;
Jacob paying the penalty (however determined) for having done wrong to Esau;
an attempt to compensate Esau for the losses incurred because of Jacob’s wrongdoing;
a demonstration of Jacob’s good will and a lack of enmity (though that could also be a trap so recipients might need to be wary);
a demonstration of Jacob’s commitment of loyalty to Esau, first by giving up something that is valuable; and
a sign of Jacob’s renunciation of the sort of way of life that had led to the rift in relations between Jacob and Esau.
The consequences of broken relationships
Whether today we need to think of God in the same way as did the ancient Israelites is doubtful, but clearly there is still a great deal of instinctive thinking about God (especially as portrayed in the media) that mirrors those ancient historical concepts that are clear for us to read in the Bible - as we read in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 in the second of the commandments where the people are not to make graven images, God is portrayed as a jealous God visiting the sins of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generations. And that thinking can in some ways be helpful to us because the consequences of our actions and broken relationships do echo down the centuries.
In this the word relationship is important because, as suggested earlier, the essence of sin is the deliberate or avoidable breaking of the relationship with God. So, we can see sacrifice - as illustrated in the story of Jacob and Esau - as being an attempt to restore a broken relationship.
What is abundantly clear is that if it is about relationship, then it will be no good trying to do it on the cheap, because if the other party sees through that then the situation will be at least as bad, and possibly worse than it was before. Hence, sacrifice is necessarily personally costly, otherwise it is neither genuine nor can it be expected to be effective.
Sacrifice in summary
Sacrifice is the offering of something that is costly to us in order to create, maintain or restore relationship. It’s not just paying the penalty (like a conviction or fine for breaking the law, where one might consider the trade-off between the cost and benefit) it is much more nuanced and can include many or even all of the elements of:
expression of gratitude;
expression of the importance of the relationship;
attempt to ensure continued beneficence;
attempt to placate an angry person or god;
payment of a bribe;
paying a penalty;
acknowledgement of wrongdoing;
demonstrating good will;
making a commitment of loyalty;
signalling an intention to change.
3 Atonement (or ‘How Jesus deals with our sins’)
In the story of Joseph recounted in Genesis 37-45, Joseph has his brother Benjamin framed for theft of his drinking cup. This miscarriage of justice might seem horrific to us and could be seen as undermining the morality of the story. In order to help remove this anxiety so we can continue to use the story, I will rely on a helpful strand of thought in Judaism (Maimonides, reported by Jonathan Sachs in Not in God’s Name p.154). This argues that repentance is about being in the same decision situation again but choosing the good / generous / selfless / constructive course of action rather than the destructive course of action previously chosen. The older brothers had the opportunity to let Benjamin ‘take the rap’ and be killed, just as they had earlier been prepared to hate and abandon Joseph. But they didn’t - and Joseph, seeing this, understands that they do indeed repent of what they had done and do act differently when placed in the same (or a very similar) situation.
Redemption (or bringing good out of the bad)
In the Joseph narrative, despite the jealousies and miscarriages of justice leading to terrible things happening to Joseph (and his father and even his brothers), a good outcome is made possible. The family is saved from starvation, and relationships are restored when Joseph forgives his brothers.
That good outcome from the bad is what we can call ‘redemption’. While the word ‘redemption’ can be understood as the paying of a ransom to get back something that has been lost or stolen, it can also be the ‘coming good’ of something that was bad, however attained (even if without the paying of a ransom). While there is likely to be a personal cost involved to one or more of the parties, in retrospect that cost can be seen to have been worth it and might even have been willingly borne.
The cost of redemption
An example of this willingness to bear the cost is evident in the parable we know as the Prodigal Son, reported as spoken by Jesus (Luke 15:11-32). In this parable, effectively the younger son, in asking for his inheritance now, is wishing his father to be dead - and the normal communal response would be to treat the younger son as if he were dead. The relationship would have been at a dead end. That is the line that is taken by the elder brother, so it is clear that there is no love lost between the brothers.
The father, however, gladly bears the cost of being conned and humiliated in order to have back the relationship with his younger and errant son. Then he has to try to build (or rebuild) a relationship with the elder son because he wants them to be a family again.
The father will have to bear a further cost, as will the younger son, if the family is to be restored, and the situation redeemed. The cost may be financial (as was the initial breach) but until it is the personal cost of love, the healing will not take place.
Surprisingly, it is not the errant younger son (alone) who makes the sacrifice of admitting his error and attempting to sell himself back to his father as a slave, but the father makes the greater sacrifice. The father has provided all the financial resources for the sons, and risks being seen as a gullible fool in the eyes of his elder son and his community. There are at least two sacrifices here to redeem the wrongdoing.
God, Jesus and us
What has any of this to do with us, two thousand years after Jesus’ life and four thousand years after Joseph’s life?
Clearly each one of us has an inbuilt tendency to selfishness - it’s instinct, because without it we would not have survived as babies and grown to adulthood. That tendency, when indulged, undermines our relationships with other people and so with God, even if not with God directly. That can be described as sin - it is a deliberate or avoidable breaking of relationship.
When relationships are broken, the world is a worse place. However, a mechanism for restoring broken relationships, over the centuries, has been codified as sacrifice. Sacrifice is not just a simple bribe or ransom- it subtly enables trust to be re-established and relationships to be rebuilt.
To mend our broken relationship we need to repent, to turn so that if we were in the same situation again we would act differently. We need to show that, and so we might undertake something costly to us in order to do so. In other words, our sin requires a sacrifice. However, like the Prodigal Son, we have nothing that has not come from our God, so we have nothing of our own to offer - except perhaps ourselves (again like the Prodigal Son returning).
None of this is news to God, who already knows all that we have willed and done. God, like the father in the Prodigal Son parable, Isaac in Jacob and Esau’s story, and Jacob in the story of Joseph and his brothers, wants the family whole again. So God sets out to meet us.
Thus, I argue, it is God who comes to us in human form in Jesus, prepared to pay any price, to put up with anything, to restore the broken relationship. History shows that some people 2,000 years ago rejected that offer in ways that led to God’s suffering death on a cross. The resurrection shows that God has not been defeated in the quest to restore the family relationship. The giving of the Spirit at Pentecost shows that God is still here with us every day, offering at whatever cost to God’s self to restore the relationship with each one of us here and now.
Atonement in summary
It is in Jesus that God comes to us to restore and cement the relationship between humans and God;
Jesus is not our sacrifice to God, but God’s sacrifice of himself to us;
God comes to restore the covenant.