• Rev. Izzy Harbin

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

This week we are looking at my personal theory of Atonement, which aligns most closely with the Moral Influence Theory, one of the earliest theories posited by theologians, as early as the 4th century. There are several interpretations of this theory, but most importantly, this theory doesn’t look strictly at the death of Jesus as a means of salvation, but instead sees the cross as a ramification of the moral life of Jesus, thus holding Jesus up as a martyr due to the radical nature of his moral example.

The Moral Influence Theory looks at the life of Jesus, all of his words and actions that define who he was as a human walking among us, as well as his death and resurrection. His death is understood to be the catalyst that will transform societies, hopefully inspiring us to live as Jesus taught—to compassionately hold space for one other while acting justly and creating equity for a broken world. To live a moral life means that we take seriously the consequences of the choices we make. Free-will is a huge part of the Moral Influence Theory in that our choices have consequences, and we are called to align our lives with that of Christs on a daily basis.

Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he taught people to pay attention, to be aware of their behavior. Through his parables, he was providing illustrations that they could understand about how to behave; how to treat one another in community. Jesus never parted from this path.

On at least two occasions Jesus had the opportunity to outline what must be done to achieve eternal life, and both times he comes back with, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” In Luke 10 he continues with the story of the Good Samaritan and adds the concept of showing mercy. No where in Matthew or in Luke, when referring to loving God, or eternal life, does Jesus say anything about accepting Jesus as a personal savior, being baptized, or joining a church. Instead, he talks about our behavior. He repeatedly points back to our behavior and tells us how we should live; what justice looks like, and how God expects us to treat one another.

In Matthew 23:1-3, Jesus rails, once again, at the scribes and Pharisees while admonishing the crowd saying, ”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Jesus tried to reorient the people toward a purposeful life filled with action, a life designed to promote justice and create equity for all. He also understood justice and equity as part of the inheritance of the Hebrew people as a collective. Atonement, in the Hebrew world, was a collective act of reconciliation. Jesus called people together as a community, not as isolated individuals. The idea of individual salvation would have been strange to Jesus, who called together his own community to then serve in community.

Christ, in Jesus, becomes the best example of moral living and is the foundation of our Christian faith, which promotes moral ways of being in the world.

What we see too often in the present day is the watering down of Jesus’ call to live a moral life, replaced by forgiveness offered by the cross, regardless of how I live. Those who are proponents of the Moral Influence Theory argue that Jesus’ life is designed to affect change in us individually and at the community level. We are forgiven when we learn to forgive ourselves and others. We are saved when we offer salvation through practical application like feeding, clothing, and rescuing people at their darkest hour. When we love others, when we offer hope to the most marginalized in our society, when we live just and equitable lives, we are meeting our moral obligation.

Free-will is not for the faint of heart. For every action, there is a consequence. To be the change we want to see in the world is not easy. It takes commitment. We hold ourselves to a higher moral standard because we understand what is at stake. All of the social ills of our day are affected by our actions; how we personally respond to racism, violence, and the rights of the marginalized. We must be willing to “take up our own cross and follow Jesus,” to see that the world needs us to show up and be accountable for our words and actions.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

"This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

I had this huge epiphany this week; so monumental that I am rethinking parts of my own theology to ensure that I am in alignment with what I now see as part of the saving work of Christ. Let me explain."

We are studying atonement theories and the necessity of the cross and looking this week at the atonement theory of Christus Victor. The primary premise of this theory is that through the cross, Jesus overcame, or was victorious over, sin, death, and evil. There are a number of reasons why this theory does not resonate with me. For starters, when I look at the world, I immediately have to do some crazy mind manipulation to believe that Jesus defeated sin, death, and evil through his death on the cross. It doesn’t take much to realize that sin, death, and evil still exists, all we have to do is look around at the overwhelming evidence: mass shootings, police killings, rape, robbery, domestic violence, hate crimes, and the list goes on.

A key concept of this theory is that God takes the initiative to decisively change the relationship between God and the world through the death of Christ on the cross. It places the focus of the conflict not between God and humanity, but God and the powers of sin, death, and evil. The part of the theory that pits God against sin, death, and evil only brings up more questions for me? Where did sin, death, and evil come from? Can we build a theory of atonement on the story of creation and the fall of man if we understand that story to be a myth?

These questions lead me to another reason I don’t like this theory. Christus Victor still puts God in an awkward position of needing to reconcile God’s own creation to himself. I cannot escape the idea that if God is the creator of all things, then God created the circumstances upon which creation became, entered into, or found sin, death, and evil. This concept will always seem strange to me.

What hit me squarely between the eyes, though, is that Christus Victor reveals to us what it is we most want and need from the one we worship—we need a victory.

So much of our lives are steeped in the ick of the world. We find ourselves trapped by shame, guilt, hatred, fear, greed, and self-centeredness. When we have an experience of the Divine, it gives us a glimpse of what hope looks like, what the world could be if we lived more compassionately toward one another. Sadly, we struggle to find our way in a world that revels in darkness. We need a victory.

When we see Jesus upon the cross, we want to create meaning out of this horrible act of violence. Our brains want to right the wrong, to fix what seems like a huge miscarriage of justice. We create for ourselves the perfect victory solution. We need a victory. We need something greater than ourselves to life us up and out of the ick of the world. We need God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit to show us what real hope looks like and that life is actually worth living. We need a victory. To say that Jesus defeated or overcame sin, death, and evil means that we, too, have a chance to defeat or overcome these things in our own lives, with the help of Christ.

With Jesus on our side, we can defeat our addictions, we can learn to be patient and tolerant of others, we can even learn to be compassionate. We can lay down our anger, set aside our pain, be healed of physical and mental maladies, and find hope. It is the hope that we are looking for. No one, and I mean no one, want to slog through life without hope, even if hope is knowing that on pay day, I get tacos for supper. There has to be a reason for living. Most of us exhaust the worlds reasons—they simply are not good enough or lofty enough to matter—but the hope that Christ brings to us, that matters.

So, while this theory in its academic form does nothing for me, the value it has on our lived experience may be necessary for our salvation. After all, it is hope that ultimately saves us from the drudgery of this world.

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“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offering of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me, New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

We are beginning a new series on the various Atonement Theories posited by theologians and scholars throughout the ages. Our first Atonement Theory is called the Ransom Theory, which centers on the death of Jesus as a ransom payment for the sins of man. The ransom paid by Jesus settles the debt we owe God for entering into a life of sin at the time of Adam and Eve.

Throughout the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the two books that outline the law as given to Moses, we see countless passages regarding the sacrifice of animals for every occasion imaginable.

Animal sacrifice was a popular custom in the ancient world. It was used primarily to engage in more ritualistic conversations with the gods. Early on in the theology of the Hebrew people, sin against God was particularly egregious and needed to be dealt with through some form of appeasement; a way to keep God from being wrathful toward the people. According to Levitical Law, sacrifices of animals were to be made to atone for the sins of the people. Sin sacrifices were made daily by the priests to mitigate the sins of the community. There was also the Day of Atonement, a special day set aside for the sins of individuals, where folks would make a sacrifice on behalf of their own sins following a full day of repentance to those they had harmed throughout the previous year.

What we see in scripture, though, is a transformation in the understanding of God and how God interacts with the people and what expects from the people. By the time we get to the Prophet Isaiah, we are seeing a different side of God than what was reported in the early life of the people of Israel. This transformation is key to our understanding of God over time.

When God appears to the first humans in the book of Genesis, we see an interactive God who walks among them, who can see their nakedness, who talks directly to the people about his disappointment in them. Later God becomes more distant. By the time God leads the people out of Egypt, God cannot walk among them or have face to face conversations with Moses, he must hide himself in a mist so that Moses does not die. Later we find God becoming even more distant, so distant that David cries out to the mystery that is God because God feels so far away in times of trouble.

Through these various transitions of how the people see or experience God, God also changes his position on how he wants the people to behave. When Isaiah announces at the beginning of his prophecy to the people that God no longer wants their sacrifices, their hands covered in blood, this is a whole new way God is revealing himself to the people. He tells them in this passage that what he really wants is for them to change their lives, to reorient their lives toward being compassionate people who care about the “other” - cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

God’s idea of how they should live changes what God requires of them as a people. But does it mean that they are no longer responsible for sin? Is God saying to the people in this passage that they no longer owe a debt? Or is God changing the cost of their freedom?

To fully comprehend God’s intention, we’d have to crawl into God’s mind and know what he was thinking at this particular moment in history. It is impossible to know the role that sin played in God’s decision to say, “stop sacrificing animals, stop killing in my name.” It is, though, a rather bold statement because it changes the central focus of their worship entirely.

So, how does this affect our understanding of what happened to Jesus on the cross? We have to ask ourselves, “If God doesn’t want sacrifices from the people, why would he demand a sacrifice on behalf of the people?” How are these two things different? What kind of debt does God feel God is owed?

Ransom theory places the debt God is owed at the center of its framework. It posits that sin, something passed down from generation to generation, must be atoned for; but, instead of sacrificing more animals, God will accept this one and final sacrifice, that of his son, to pay the debt.

I suppose if the conversation begins with sin (all the things that we do that violate our relationship with God) then it is easy to see how someone must pay the price for that violation. Sadly, though, this makes me see God in the same way I would see a mobster. The kind of debt owed to God, and the price that is paid (Jesus’ death) seems a rather high price for someone else to pay for my mistakes. Not only to pay for my mistakes, but to pay a price for being human.

This is the part of the equation that is difficult for me to reconcile. God didn’t make humans perfect, as in, without flaw. This is where we struggle the most with the creation story, and it is the foundation upon which we need to build a different kind of understanding of God. Why would God punish his creation for sin, which is actually a product of the free-will we were given from the beginning of time. Our ability to make choices is the hallmark of being human.

As we wrestle each week with these Theories of Atonement, let us remember that we are first, and foremost, created in the image and likeness of God, and that our understanding of God and creation is limited to our own lived experience and the experiences of others. The evolution of our understanding of the divine tells us there is a better way to engage in the world and with our creator than death; it is called compassion—to feel with the other. The only debt we owe to our creator is to live like it matters.

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