A Sacrifice of Words
Sometimes we human beings just get it all backwards. Even we moderns, who think of ourselves as being more sophisticated than our ancient ancestors, continue to make the same mistakes. Our prehistoric ancestors interpreted things like thunder and lightning, earthquakes, and other major natural events as the anger of the gods. The people of the Hebrew Testament, translated their military losses, or their multiple periods of captivity, as the result of having angered the One God, the Lord of hosts. In both cases they had one thing right, their consciences were bothering them. God tried to teach the Chosen People many times in the Scriptures that he did not seek to be appeased by their animal and cereal sacrifices, but that he wanted something more, something very different. He wanted them to be pure of heart and to be just in their actions. Here are just three examples from the Hebrew Testament:
ʺWhat do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole burnt rams and fat of fatlings; in blood of calves, lambs, and goats I find no pleasure. When you come to appear before me, who asks these things of you? Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphans plea, defend the widow.ʺ (Isaiah 1: 11-12, 16-17)
Can that be more clear? Those who think that God can be appeased with some temporary, or one-time sacrifice and yet continue to defy God’s law of love in their everyday lives, need to listen carefully here. God is not interested in meaningless, or showy sacrifices. He can not be appeased by such things. What does he desire of us? That we clean up our own act, that we stop saying that we love God and yet do nothing to bring about justice for those who suffer from the injustices of natural disasters, or of political, or social arrogance, or indifference. He wants us to treat all others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. This is the sacrifice, the ʺburnt offering,ʺ that he wants of us.
The prophet Amos, guided by the Spirit, puts it this way: ʺSeek good and not evil, that you may live. Then truly will the Lord, the God of hosts, be with you as you claim! Hate evil and love good, and let justice prevail at the gate. Then it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will have pity on the remnant of Joseph. I take no pleasure in your solemnities, your cereal offerings, your songs…But if you would offer me burnt offerings then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream.ʺ (Amos 5: 14-15)
ʺHate evil and love good.ʺ This is the ‘burnt offering’ that God wants. If our ‘sacrifices’ are only gestures to somehow appease God, they will not be accepted. The smoke of such ‘offerings’ will crawl along the ground like Cain’s. If, on the other hand, we suffer for the good of others, if we offer the sacrifice of our time, our treasure, even our bodies, to end the many injustices that occur around us, then this ʺsmokeʺ will rise to heaven as sweet incense, like Abel’s.
The psalmist offers us a perspective on this matter as well when he writes, again, under the influence of the Spirit:
If I were hungry, I should not tell you,
For mine are the world and its fullness.
Do I eat the flesh of strong bulls,
Or is the blood of goats my drink?
Why do you recite my statutes,
And profess my covenant with our mouth,
Though you hate discipline
And cast my words behind you?
If we have memorized the commandments and can speak sweetly about the covenant we claim to adhere to with God, but hate the difficult discipline that living in accord with them requires of us, and instead, find ways to rationalize ʺcasting those words behind us,ʺ then our ‘sacrifice’ of words is mere foolishness. We become mere ʺwind-bags,ʺ which is a loose translation of the Latin word, ʺfolis,ʺ from which we get the modern word, ʺfool.ʺ
We Christians have the grace of having seen the true kind of sacrifice that God wants from us. Jesus is the model of how we are to offer ourselves up for the good of others. He showed us the right perspective, that is, that it is our repentance, our turning away from the selfishness of sin, that is the ʺburnt offeringʺ that God wants of us. He taught us that it is our humble, self-sacrifices of love, given freely in compassionate recognition of the suffering of our brothers and sisters, that is pleasing to the Father. We no longer fear an arbitrary god, like our prehistoric ancestors, or a god of wrath, like the Hebrews of old. Rather, we have come to know that God is unconditional Love. (1John 4:8) We saw that love in Jesus and in his total self-sacrifice on the cross. We know, still, that walking in his ways is difficult and that we cannot do it without his grace. So our burnt offerings are not only our prayers in private, or in church, but also in the prayers of our daily lives of service to both those close to us and to those whom we do not know, except in witnessing and addressing their unjust sufferings.
Lord, help us to know you, to love you and to serve you more in this life. Teach us the wisdom of self-discipline, strengthen us in compassion for our brothers and sisters, so that we might become living burnt offerings of love on your behalf, and humble servants of justice in this world. Lord, hear our prayers. Amen.