Law-Breaking and Mercy

This series, which has attempted to normalize sin (without minimizing it) by exploring all the wide ranging metaphors the Scriptures use for both sin and salvation, stalled out a couple weeks ago when trying to figure out what the solution envisioned for sin as law-breaking might be. For the past thousand years, Western Christianity has been dominated by the notion that God works like the legal system: the answer to law-breaking is either punishment or a restitution to avoid punishment; and the logic of the Gospel is that Jesus died to do just this in our place. When justifying these ideas, theologians have looked to the sacrificial system of ancient Israel as a parallel. But, closer inspection of how sacrifice was understood in the Hebrew Bible has demonstrated that this logic is faulty on a number of counts:

  • What made an offering a sacrifice was the burning, not bloodshed;
  • Substitution was at most a minor theme in sacrifice;
  • The one ritual where substitution was a major theme did not involve killing;
  • Sacrifice was primarily understood in terms of ritual purification or through a variety of financial metaphors;
  • The Hebrew Bible contains an extensive internal critique of sacrifice, which Jesus took up for himself and expanded by undoing the idea of ritual impurity completely;
  • Hebrews 10, the most extensive New Testament text drawing parallels between Jesus’ death and sacrifice, refers to the blood ritual of the Day of Atonement, which was explicitly understood in terms of ritual purity;
  • Romans 3 is an ambiguous text that either compares Jesus’ death to an atoning sacrifice — without reference to how this is the case, so we need to be careful to bring in the breadth of ways this was understood in the ancient world — or to the Mercy Seat, the place in the Temple where God was said to dwell.

In light of all this, how should we understand the resolution to the image of sin as law-breaking?

I am increasingly convinced that, just as the answer envisioned to the image of debt is forgiveness, the solution to law-breaking is mercy. As Jesus says twice in Matthew: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9.13 and 12.7). It’s a quote from the Greek translation of Hosea 6.6; from the Hebrew we get “I desire lovingkindness, not sacrifice.” Again, the prophetic critique of sacrifice, which Jesus takes up as his own, is not that sacrifice is bad, but that it is effective only inasmuch as it is emblematic of a disposition of the heart that is open to God and those on society’s margins.

Jesus embodies this critique in his tearing down of the ritual purity system. When he sees law-breakers — Roman collaborators, greedy bankers, sex workers, and foreigners — his response is to love them, to eat and drink with them. What does God’s Kingdom look like? It looks like mercy for law-breakers. Again, this is in keeping with the texts we looked at under the metaphor of debt and forgiveness: God’s disposition towards us is connected with our disposition towards others.

And so, this long discussion about law-breaking and sacrifice turns out to have a simple resolution. The answer, it turns out, is love, compassion, and mercy. In Paul’s language, it is grace. The funny thing is, this is precisely the message of the unambiguous part of Romans 3.21-26: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift…” 

After one final tangent about the idea of substitution in Paul, this series will wrap up next week with a post summarizing what we’ve seen the past few weeks.

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