If God knows all, including when we are truly sorry, why did we need a sacrifice to approach God — all that livestock in the Old Testament, and Jesus himself in the New?
Why didn’t God just say “Let all sins be forgiven!” and they would be?
Let me be like Jesus here and answer that question with a story. This is a story from the first book of Kings in the Old Testament and it’s about a very exciting face-off. The scene so far is that King Ahab and his Sidonian wife, Jezebel, have been encouraging the worship of the Sidonian god, Baal. So obviously, the Lord doesn’t like this, and he sends out the prophet Elijah to predict an indefinite drought to show the Israelites, including King Ahab, that Baal, the storm god, no less, is actually entirely powerless.
Now it’s been three years of this drought — enough time has passed for the Israelites to come to their senses, but they haven’t. And this is where our story is set. The Lord instructs Elijah to extend a challenge. It’s Yahweh versus Baal, with Elijah as the lone prophet of Yahweh, versus the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. And these are the terms of the challenge — two bulls are to be prepared, one by the prophets of Baal for their god and one by Elijah for Yahweh. They would each lay the bull on the altar they’d constructed, but would not set fire to it. Then they would each call on their own god to answer and the god that “answered by fire” would be considered the true god.
So the prophets of Baal “took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.” (1 Kings 18:26–30)
Now, it’s time for Elijah to offer up the sacrifice to the Lord. But what he does is drastically different. He calls the people close to him so that they can be part of the proceedings. Then he repairs the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. He cuts and lays the bull on the altar and digs a trench around it. Then he does something even stranger. He orders the people to pour water on the bull to be sacrificed — four jars of water are poured and this is done three times (that’s twelve jars of water!) until the offering and the altar are both drenched through and the water fills the trench around the altar. Now, not only would this make it very difficult for anyone to set fire to the offering, but all this precious water has been used at a time of drought! Elijah is so certain, that a) the soaked sacrifice will be consumed by fire and b) God will put an end to the drought.
In contrast to the theatrics of the prophets of Baal, Elijah quietly makes his request to the Lord — “Oh Lord, answer me so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 18:37)
And then, in a glorious display of power, the sacrifice offered to Yahweh is consumed totally by the fire of the Lord, including the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, the dust and even the water in the trench. The Israelites’ eyes are opened and they fall on their faces, accepting that Yahweh is the one true God. Now, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is full of amazing signs like this — but they were signs that everyone mistook for God’s display of his magnificence and glory.
This episode wasn’t about the awesomeness of God, though, was it?
While with Baal there was “no voice, no answer, no response”, the Lord’s fire totally consumed the sacrifice. But this shouldn’t have surprised or awed the Israelites, really — their ancestors had witnessed greater miracles!
So what was amazing then wasn’t the fact that a great divine fire had burnt up the sacrifice –it was that Yahweh had ‘responded’.
In other words, the sacrifice that was offered was clearly accepted by Yahweh. And it is this divine acceptance that causes the Israelites to recognise not only that Yahweh was the true God, but also that, like the father of the prodigal sons, he had personally come out to meet them on the altar.
God also knows that the longer we stay away from him, the harder it gets to come back. So he gave us the way to come back to him — the sacrificial offering. Now we could very well just go back to him one day, empty handed except for our remorse, like the prodigal son did, by turning to him. But God made sure that even those of us who are like the older son (who believe that we are doing everything perfectly well) could come back into the house of the Lord. (Check out Part I of this article to know more on this!)
And if we’d understood what really happened at the time of a sacrificial offering, we’d understand God (and the way he loves) a whole lot better.
The offering was to be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting — this is quite literally going into the presence of the Lord! The priest, on behalf of the people, would lay his hands on the offering, transferring their sins (and by extension, their feelings of guilt) onto it. This goat, bearing all the sins of the people, would be set free into the wilderness, to be…forgotten. The other sacrificial animal, a lamb without any imperfections, would be selected to be taken into the tent and sacrificed on the altar, taking upon it the penalty of the people’s sins. And then — this is the best part — the offering would be turned into smoke on the altar, going up to heaven, visible to all those outside the tent. It was a visible guarantee that the people were forgiven and had won back God’s favour! But if they didn’t believe that their forgiveness was guaranteed — that the scapegoat would assuredly take on all their sins, and that the lamb would take on the death meant for them — they would be terrified to go to meet the Lord! The whole thing was a cleverly devised method to get us to come back to God and to leave our feelings of sin and shame there at the altar so that we could be reconciled to God and go back determined to lead a better life! Does this remind you of something that we do till today?
Well, there’s no gory animal sacrifice involved, (thank heavens!) but this is what happens at the confessional, isn’t it?
We know for a fact that God will forgive us, if we only go to the priest and confess. And we leave the confessional feeling free of the guilt of our sins, resolved not to commit them again. But God already knows our sins, and he knows when we are truly repentant — and he forgives us. So then why the need for confession? It’s the same reason for the sacrifice.
The sacrifice itself is not important to God, it’s his acceptance of the sacrifice that is important to US!
It’s only when we know that we will be forgiven that we have the courage to return to God. Both the sacrificial offering and the confession are about God telling us that we can still come back to him and everything will be as it was before.
But now that we understand that the sacrifice was actually for our benefit, not God’s — we’re back to our original question — What does God want from us?
And Jesus gave us the answer to that too, didn’t he? “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”, he’d said earlier — and he explains himself in his ever popular Sermon on the Mount.
“…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:21–25)
Now remember, we believe that when God accepts our offering (or our sacrifice), we can come back home to a relationship with him. This is why every time we go to Mass, we make an offering to the Lord. And even here, it is his acceptance of the offering that is of the most importance.
“Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”, says the priest celebrating the Mass, on behalf of all the people. They join with him and say, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy church.” And what are we offering? Besides the bread and wine that are gifts from the Lord himself, we are also invited to offer to him at this time our own selves — our worries, our insecurities, our weaknesses, our guilt, our talents, our children, our accomplishments, our bodies, our failures — anything that we wish for him to transform into something for his use. And here too, we are called to make peace with our brothers and sisters — “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, we say to God in the prayer that Jesus taught us.
And then we offer each other a sign of peace. But if that peace isn’t heartfelt — and God knows if it isn’t! — he’s not going to accept our sacrifice! Now isn’t this whole idea of the “sacrifice” beginning to sound like an elaborate and clever ploy to get us to make peace with each other in the first place?
But for a lot of us, forgiveness is something that we really struggle with. And here too, Jesus told us how to make this easy. Love your neighbour as yourself, he’d said. So all we really have to do, is imagine ourselves in the shoes of the person who’s hurting us. The minute you do this, it becomes easier to arrive at why they might’ve behaved the way they did and ended up hurting you. Maybe they had a bad day? Maybe they had a painful childhood? Or maybe they just didn’t know they were hurting you? When we arrive at this answer, forgiveness comes easier.
But what happens when we just cannot relate to those who hurt us? Murderers, rapists, terrorists…or even a gossip, if you’re not one yourself. In 1999, Graham Staines, an Australian missionary working in Orissa was burnt to death along with his two sons, Philip and Timothy, by a Hindu fundamentalist group. His wife, Gladys, publicly forgave the murderers of her family, instantly becoming exemplar of a forgiving Christian. She could have chosen to condemn them and insist on the harshest punishment in the name of justice… but she chose to do what Jesus did.
A sinless man, Jesus shouldn’t have been able to relate to our sins at all… even the little tiny lies. And yet, he forgave conspiracy and subterfuge, betrayal and deceit, lies, violence, blasphemy, and finally murder.
The question though, is why — why did Jesus forgive us? Wasn’t it enough that he was taking upon himself the sins of all the world, even those to come? Was it not enough that he suffered in physical and mental agony as a human sacrifice?
And in Jesus, then, we see embodied what our God wants from us. It wasn’t enough that Jesus had to become the ultimate sacrifice; the Way back to God — he had to forgive us too, because this is what God wants from us — “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.
If Jesus had died for the sins of the world, but not shown mercy in his last words, even HIS sacrifice would not have been acceptable to God.
And so, in situations where we just cannot relate to someone — a drunk husband, a nagging wife, insolent children, unreasonable employers, sloppy co-workers, gossipy neighbours, anyone at all unlike ourselves — we too are called to show mercy.
For if it is through his mercy towards us, that we know that God loves us, it is through our mercy towards others that God knows that we love him.
Need another reason to choose mercy? When we forgive, we introduce people to God. Find out how — click here to read/watch for 4 minutes only!