Reflections on the Lectionary: Hebrews 10:1-10
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Reflections on the Lectionary: Hebrews 10:1-10

I will offer some thoughts about Jesus’ self-sacrifice that might differ from what some people are taught in church. Though many churches present a single explanation for Jesus’ death as true and unequivocal, scholars have shown that for 2000 years Christians have offered a wide range of theories in an effort to understand how God could allow Jesus to be murdered. Initially, Jesus’ followers were ridiculed: If Jesus were the Son of God, why was he humiliated, tortured, and killed? If Jesus had divine powers, why did he not simply come down from the cross? Over the ensuing two millennia, there have been a range of “atonement theories” that have aimed to understand the theological implications of Jesus’ death.
Many people see Jesus’ death as a demand from God for a perfect sacrifice needed to atone for humanity’s sinfulness. This theory raises several difficulties. Among them, first, it suggests that the torture and murder of an innocent person was the will of God. It is hard to reconcile this theory with the notion of God as good and just. Second, while it understandable that people would want to make sacrifices to God – animal, human, and other sacrifices have been nearly universal throughout human history, evidently motivated in part by a feeling of inadequacy in the face of God or the gods – it is not clear why the all-powerful, all-knowing God of the Judeo-Christian tradition would need any sacrifices. Third, the crucifixion story describes people and authorities calling for the execution of an innocent person. Normally, we would deplore such actions, but this atonement theory suggests that the participants in Jesus’ execution were actually doing the will of God. Fourth, if Jesus’ death constituted God-directed violence for “justice,” this could readily serve as a model for people to claim, falsely, that their scapegoating and victimization was “justice” “in the name of God.”
I think we gain some insight from the passage in which Christ said, “Thou [God] hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (Hebrews 10:8). Christ has said that God has never desired sacrifices. Yet this week’s reading concludes, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). I think Jesus offered his own body as a self-sacrifice, choosing to be a victim of the scapegoating mob and thereby showing that scapegoating is both unjust and universal. As long as people sacrificed innocent individuals to atone for their own sins, there would never be peace and justice. The only way people could recognize that they have participated and continue to participate in scapegoating violence was for a clearly innocent individual to be a willing victim – a resistant victim would be condemned as “guilty,” because the victim’s struggle to avoid harm would be seen as “provoking” and “violent.” Indeed, the mob at Jesus’ execution started to recognize that they had participated in a murder, “beating their breasts” as they left the scene (Luke 23:48).
A crucial lesson is that we all participate in Jesus’ crucifixion when we harm other individuals, and indeed Jesus said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Once we recognize that desires such as self-indulgence, self-justification, and vengeance can blind us to truth and justice, we can start to recognize the temptations that pull us toward scapegoating violence, and we can resist those temptations. And, we can avoid the tragic mistake made by generations of Christians to scapegoat Jews for Jesus’ death. When we identify scapegoating as a perennial curse that has caused massive pain and misery to humans and nonhumans alike, we start to make it possible for Jesus’ self-sacrifice to be the final sacrifice.

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