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How Jesus fits into Christianity’s sacrificial system

In response to last month’s column, one reader said, “I was surprised by your contrast between Jesus and sacrifice. I think the abiding sin of the sacrifice is the notion that we can manipulate God.”

You’re onto something, dear reader. So let’s look a bit closer at the sacrificial system and how we’ve fit Jesus into it.

A helpful commentary for all Christians on this comes from Marcus Borg in “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” He identifies three major biblical stories that have historically shaped how we tend to see religious life: 1) the Exodus from Egypt; 2) the Exile and Return from Babylon; and 3) how the Priestly institution of temple, priesthood and sacrifice came into being.

Together, Borg writes, “they shaped the religious imagination and understanding of both ancient Israel and the early Christian movement.”

Exodus focused on liberation and the wilderness journey through which the Hebrews experienced God even through their fears and anxieties.

The exile to and return from Babylon continues to emotionally inform people’s inner experiences of alienation and separation, and their yearnings to “return home.”

The priestly story is “not primarily a story of bondage, exile and journey, but a story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness,” Borg writes.

People are seen only as sinners who constantly break God’s laws and always stand guilty before God the lawmaker and judge. Religious life becomes a story of sin, guilt and forgiveness.

In recent centuries, the priestly story became the primary, if not the only, story emphasized within the Christian Church. When that happens, it tends to distort our vision of religious life.

If all we hear about is sin, guilt and our need for forgiveness, we begin to believe that this is all that life is. As the cliché goes, “if all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.”

Borg identifies six ways the Priestly story can distort our view of life. For brevity’s sake, I will summarize what I think is the most complicated one:

God is seen primarily as a lawgiver, judge and jury. Since we can never fulfill all the requirements we’re told we have been given by God, there is a way to atone for our sins. That way is to accept Jesus as our savior, since God has made him the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.

This view of God can, unintentionally, make a mockery of what we identify as God’s “unconditional grace.” It’s like grace is a beautiful picture, but its frame is little more than requirements and one man’s sacrifice.

What if those requirements and Jesus’ sacrifice were the picture, and the frame was God’s unconditional grace? How might that influence how we see God – and ourselves?

A great deal, as I reflect on the metaphor. It could mean that the priestly emphasis on God’s acceptance of us is for wherever we are on our journeys. It could mean our God is bigger than the fickle judge-and-jury image too many well-meaning people are burdened with.

Used by itself, the priestly story is too easily manipulated by those who want to exert undue control over others. Ironically, God is also seen as more easily manipulated; some people seem focused only on strategies whereby God can be “appeased” when we admit to false and puny sins with shallow gestures of repentance and short-lived forgiveness.

But viewed together, the three stories see our lives as a journey toward deeper and more transforming relationships with God. I see that as a good thing. Do you?

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via email at