Have you ever heard someone say: “Jesus died for my sin?” Have you ever asked what those words meant or how they operated? Have you ever wondered about the origins of such a strange concept? Does it make sense to say that someone had to die for my sins? Why cannot God simply forgive? What kind of God is it that requires a human sacrifice or a blood offering before this God is willing to offer forgiveness? Would any of us ever be drawn in worship to such a deity? If it took the cruel death of Jesus on the cross before our sins could be forgiven, would any of us ever escape the guilt of realizing that our sinfulness was responsible for Jesus’ death? Why would anyone ever call such an understanding of God “good news”? Is it possible that this bizarre, but oft-repeated cliché represents a total misunderstanding of the Christian message? This week in my second exploration into the concept of the role of a lamb in Jewish worship, these are the questions that need to be explored.
The idea that “Jesus died for my sins” first entered the Christian tradition in the same epistle in which Jesus was called the “new Passover lamb.” It was Paul, writing to the Corinthians about the year 54 CE, who first used these words: “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Paul was speaking in both of these instances out of his Jewish synagogue experience. From about 150 CE on, however, the church became almost exclusively Gentile and these references drawn from the synagogue worship experience had no meaning for them. So let me begin by placing these words into their Jewish context. On the tenth day of the month of Tishri, which would be in early to mid-October in our calendars, the Jewish people observed a day of deep penitence in which an animal that represented the human yearning for perfection was sacrificed for the forgiveness of their sins. Such an idea would be totally foreign to us, so let me this week take you into the meaning of this Yom Kippur liturgy.
Yom Kippur is first described in the Bible in Leviticus 23. It was to be conducted in a solemn, penitential convocation. Unlike the Christian season of Lent, which lasted forty days, this Jewish observance was to last but a single day. It might thus be called “instant Lent,” but that single day, please note, lasted from sundown to sundown.
Yom Kippur was the day when the Jews were to make themselves symbolically worthy to enter into God’s presence. The way this was accomplished was that they would come into the presence of God through a symbol that represented the human wholeness for which they believed they had been created.
At the beginning of Yom Kippur the animals proscribed by Leviticus were a bull and two goats. The kind of animal used at Yom Kippur, however, shifted over the centuries, in response to the destruction of the Temple first by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE and second by the Romans in 70 CE. So over the years the bull disappeared and the two goats evolved into a lamb and a goat. This liturgical event began with these animals being chosen from their flocks. The lamb would come to be called “the Lamb of God,” while the goat would come to be known as “the scapegoat.” Both of these creatures, once selected, would be brought to the high priest for a close inspection. If they were to represent the human yearning for perfection, they must themselves be physically perfect. They could have no scratches, no bruises and no broken bones.
Once they were certified as physically perfect, then it was not long before the tradition began to suggest that they were also morally perfect. All animals, it was reasoned, lived beneath the level of human freedom so an animal cannot choose to do evil and thus cannot be morally culpable. So the symbolic perfection of these two animals to be used in the Yom Kippur liturgy was affirmed. The lamb was then sacrificed and its blood drained from its body. The High Priest, after he himself had gone through elaborate cleansing rituals, would take the blood of the “Lamb of God” and enter into the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple, the place where God was thought to dwell literally.
In the Holy of Holies was God’s throne, called the “Mercy Seat.” No one save the High Priest ever entered the Holy of Holies and he only on this day of the year called “the Day of Atonement.” Once inside the Holy of Holies the High Priest would smear the blood of the sacrificed animal on the Mercy Seat of God. When the blood of this perfect creature had covered the throne of God, the people believed that they could now enter God’s presence because their sinfulness had been covered by the blood of this sinless creature.
This liturgical act thus allowed God to see them as those who shared in the sinlessness of the Lamb of God. They had thus been cleansed, “washed” as they might have said, “in the blood of the lamb.” That language should sound familiar to Christians. We still use it, but we attribute it to it a substitutionary quality that the Jews would never have understood. For the Jews on Yom Kippur this act meant simply that God now saw them, not as they were, but as they yearned to be – perfected and covered, if you will, by the blood of the perfect Lamb of God.
A second ritual of Yom Kippur was the “liturgy of the goat.” The other animal, a goat, was next taken to the High Priest who stood at the front of the assembly of the people. The High Priest, taking the goat by the horns, would bow down and with a rhythmic, weaving motion of his entire body, he would begin to confess to God the sins of all the people. In this ritual, it was believed that as he prayed, all the sins of all the people came out of them and landed on the head and back of this goat. Thus the goat was called the “sinbearer” and, as the sins moved from the people to the goat, the people were left cleansed and sinless. With all the sins of all the people now symbolically dumped on the back of the goat, the people began to curse the goat and to call for its death. It was their sense that something that evil should not be allowed to live.
In this liturgy, however, the goat was not killed. It was set free and driven out into the wilderness symbolically carrying with it all the sins of the people. That is why the goat was called “the scapegoat.” Scapegoats are those who absorb the punishment that was meant for others. The people were thus left symbolically sinless, at least for a day. They were now capable of being all that they yearned to be, all that they believed God had created them to be. Paul, the Jew, saw the symbols of Yom Kippur as identical with what people had experienced in Jesus. In the love of Jesus hey had been cleansed of all their sins. Their sins had been borne away from them. The person of Jesus had called them into a new state of wholeness.
For the Jews these were liturgical, symbolic actions, they were not literal occurrences. So the Jewish followers of Jesus incorporated the Yom Kippur symbols into their understanding of Jesus. If we can understand Yom Kippur we can begin to see its presence in the background of the gospels. In the Fourth Gospel alone, for example, we are told that the authorities sought to hasten the deaths of the crucified ones by breaking their legs. They came to Jesus, but finding him already dead, they did not break his legs. The symbolic Lamb of God must be physically perfect. Broken bones would disqualify him from his role.
In the trial scene in each of the gospels Jesus is portrayed as the “sinbearer,” whom people cursed and called for his death. “Crucify him! Crucify him,” they shouted. He is portrayed as the sin bearing scapegoat. Another Yom Kippur symbol is being written into the story of the Jesus’ death. In each of the gospels, a character named Barabbas is introduced into the crucifixion narrative. Gentile readers of these Jewish Scriptures took no time to understand who Barabbas was or what Barabbas meant. They treated this character as if he were a literal person, who actually lived. “Bar,” however, is the Jewish word for son. “Abba” is the Jewish word for father or God. Bar Abba means literally the son of God. So the gospel writers present us in the passion story with two “sons of God,” just as there are two animals in the liturgy of Yom Kippur. In the passion story one of the two sons of God was sacrificed and the other was set free, just like the Yom Kippur animals.
The gospels are Jewish books written by Jewish authors for Jewish audiences, so they used symbols out of Jewish worship that all Jewish readers would have recognized and understood. Out of Gentile ignorance of all things Jewish, however, later Western Christians would literalize these Jewish symbols and in the process transform the story of the cross into a guilt-producing travesty. In that travesty God became a monster who demands that all sins be properly punished. The evil in human life was thought to be so gross that no human being could bear the punishment that he or she deserved. So the Christian story was told in such a way that when the wrath of God was to be brought on us sinners, Jesus stepped in and took our place so that God punished him instead of us. That is when we began to say, “Jesus died for my sins!”
What a distortion of the Christian story that was and is. In this theology, God becomes the ultimate child abuser. God kills the Son to collect the payment due God for our sins! Jesus became the ultimate victim. You and I become guilt-filled creatures for we are now responsible for the death of Jesus. That is what Christianity has devolved into being. It is no wonder that this religious system appeals less and less to more and more as we become sensitized to the horror of this message.
What the Jesus story meant originally was that God takes us just as we are and then loves us into being all that we are capable of becoming. The gospels develop this Jesus portrait as one who was denied, betrayed, abandoned, persecuted and killed, but who then loved the denier, the betrayer, as well as those who abandoned, persecuted and killed him. His message was that there is nothing you or I can ever do or be that will place us beyond the boundaries of God’s infinite love. That is how the Jews told the Jesus story. How far we Christians have wandered from our original message! Christianity is not about guilt; it is about grace. It is not about judgment and punishment; it is about love and forgiveness.