When you figure out what it is you really want, let me know and I’ll do it.
Day 19: Matthew 5:17-18 – Part 3
Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true. Remember that as long as heaven and earth last, not the least point nor the smallest detail of the Law will be done away with—not until the end of all things.
[This is the third of 5 reflections on this scripture.]
A Case Study in the Law: The Prophets and Animal Sacrifice
Animal (and sometimes human) sacrifices were a common practice in most early religions (see yesterday’s blog), and laws regarding the performance of sacrifices were included in the Law of Moses. However, the prophets say repeatedly that God never really wanted these sacrifices. It’s almost as though they were included in the Law because God knew the people would drift away if they weren’t allowed to continue their tradition. God did the same thing with kings – the people wanted a king even though God told them that he wanted to be their only king. However, God relented and chose Saul and David to be kings, even though it wasn’t what he really wanted. In the same way, right from the beginning, the prophets warned the people that sacrifices were a poor substitute for having a relationship with God, listening to his voice, and doing things his way.
Samuel the prophet says, “Which does the Lord prefer: obedience or offerings and sacrifices? It is better to obey him than to sacrifice the best sheep to him.” (I Samuel 22:22).
The prophet Isaiah says “Jerusalem, your rulers and your people are like those of Sodom and Gomorrah. Listen to what the Lord is saying to you. Pay attention to what our God is teaching you. He says, “Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me? I have had more than enough of the sheep you burn as sacrifices and of the fat of your fine animals. I am tired of the blood of bulls and sheep and goats. Who asked you to bring me all this when you come to worship me? Who asked you to do all this tramping around in my Temple? It’s useless to bring your offerings. I am disgusted with the smell of the incense you burn. I cannot stand your New Moon Festivals, your Sabbaths, and your religious gatherings; they are all corrupted by your sins. I hate your New Moon Festivals and holy days; they are a burden that I am tired of bearing. When you lift your hands in prayer, I will not look at you. No matter how much you pray, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves clean. Stop all this evil that I see you doing. Yes, stop doing evil and learn to do right. See that justice is done—help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows.” (Isaiah 1:10-14)
Another prophet named Hosea speaks for God when he says, “That is why I have sent my prophets to you with my message of judgment and destruction. What I want from you is plain and clear: I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices. I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me.” (Hosea 6:5-6).
Even the Psalms discourage the practice of sacrificing animals: “You do not want sacrifices and offerings; you do not ask for animals burned whole on the altar or for sacrifices to take away sins. Instead, you have given me ears to hear you, and so I answered, “Here I am; your instructions for me are in the book of the Law.” (Psalm 40:6-7).
It seems pretty clear. The prophets say God doesn’t want sacrifices. And when you think about it, does it really make sense that killing makes things right? Is this a message that makes sense in terms of what else we know about God? I know he’s certainly never told me to kill anything. God wants love, humility, and a willing spirit – not senseless killing. He wants a repentant heart not a dead animal, but it’s a lot easier to give the priest a goat to kill than it is to search your heart, experience true remorse, learn the lessons of your misdeeds, and resolve to do better next time.
In my opinion, rules for sacrifices are included in the Law of Moses because God didn’t want to see rampant, indiscriminate slaughter going on in the Promised Land. I think people have a primitive fascination with bloodshed and so animal sacrifice was really kind of an entertainment. If you don’t think people are attracted to bloodshed, then how do explain all of the violence on TV and in the movies? How do you explain the popularity of all the “bloody Jesus” movies nowadays? And what about the self-destructive practice of “cutting?” All of these activities seem to give some people a sense of release, but that doesn’t make it healthy. I don’t think sacrifice was much of a deterrent when it came to sinning. Under the Law, there are strict rules for sacrifices, which could be performed only by the priests. It takes the killing out of the hands of the ordinary people. And only animals are sacrificed, not humans. They are regulations to mitigate the problems associated with the practice. But this is just my opinion. So much for the case study of animal sacrifice.
Back to the scripture – the fact remains, you can’t obey both the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets at the same time. You can’t do sacrifices and not do sacrifices at the same time. It seems like Jesus is telling us the Law can’t be changed, but it seems like the prophets changed it. What to do???? What to believe???? How can we deal with contradictions like this? (And, by the way, this is just one of many contradictions…..)
To be continued….My understanding about the unchangeable nature of the Law and teachings.
What does this scripture say to you?