Many years ago, I toured the Crystal Cathedral on my way back to Los Angeles, having just visited Tijuana Mexico where my youth group would build houses for the poor. The woman giving the tour told us all about the extravagant organ at the front of the church, and then said, “But of course, it isn’t our organ. It belongs to Jesus.” I screamed, “Jesus doesn’t want a pipe organ. The pipe organ could be sold, and the money used to build a thousand homes for the poor.” I didn’t actually do that, but I thought that, and it’s the thought that counts.
I think most of us believe that “good stewardship” is utilitarian. For ethics class in college, I read John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mill taught that “good giving” is whatever I calculate to produce the greatest pleasure and least pain for the most folks with the limited resources available.
We read the Old Testament as utilitarians and ask, “How does atonement work?” Because Scripture doesn’t give much detail in this regard—other than “The life is in the blood” and “The life belongs to me”—we come up with “theories of the atonement.” Most prevalent is the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement. It’s the idea that God is love and justice (defined as “not love”) and so in order to satisfy “justice” God needs to punish something, and he’s sometimes willing to take blood from a sacrifice rather than from you. Sacrifice is pain now that pays for pleasure later. And so, the sacrifice accomplishes something; it’s good for something.
In places, God appears to be so stingy and utilitarian that it’s just terrifying.
In other places, God is also terrifying, but for almost the exact opposite reason.
In 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 5-7, we read about the day that the Ark finished its journey from the wilderness to its resting place on top of the Holy Mountain in the Promised Land, the day that Solomon dedicated the temple.
As Solomon led the procession, they sacrificed so many sheep and oxen that they couldn’t be counted. (That’s strange, for utilitarians always count their sacrifices.) They all sing, “For he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” (That’s strange because the church has often taught that his love comes to an end and then: “justice.”)
The Glory of the Lord then fills the temple. The priests cannot stand, but Solomon stands and prays his famous prayer asking that the temple be a house of prayer for all nations, “that all the peoples of the earth” may know the Lord as Israel knows the Lord.
As soon as Solomon finishes his prayer, fire comes down from heaven and consumes the burnt offering and sacrifices, as all of the people give thanks saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” God has accepted the sacrifice, his presence fills the temple, the kingdom is secure, and the Son of David sits on the throne: Mission accomplished. Nothing more is required; there’s nothing to get for which they need to give. Next verse.
“Then the king and all the people offered sacrifice before the Lord. King Solomon offered as sacrifice 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep.”
Twenty-two thousand oxen are approximately 16.5 million pounds of steak worth about 90 million dollars. And we utilitarians think, “That’s a lot of Bull; that’s way more than a pipe organ at the Crystal Cathedral; that’s a bit extravagant” Yes, it is… not to mention the 120,000 sheep and the fact that an ox for an Israelite is like a tractor for a farmer; it was their primary utility. So, “What does that accomplish? What is that good for?” we ask. “That is not sensible giving.”
The Burnt Offering was totally consumed on the altar, and it accomplished “atonement.” Perhaps sacrifice atones for sin because not sacrificing is sin. And that’s why they sacrificed after they sacrificed.
The Peace (or Communion) Offering was made on the ashes of the Burnt Offering after atonement was made, and it’s not clear that this was “good for” anything other than fueling a raging party. Unlike the burnt offering the meat was to be eaten joyfully by priests and worshippers in the presence of the Lord. The dedication lasted seven days and then they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (or Ingathering) for another seven days, followed by the eighth day which is an endless 7th day that pictures God’s eternal sabbath when “Everything is good” and “It is finished” (including 120,000 sheep and 22,000 oxen).
There would have been a river of blood that flowed from the temple down the Kidron valley, through Gehenna, and on to the Dead Sea, the Abyss. We utilitarians think, “I’m glad that temple was destroyed, and Jesus is so sensible.”
The week before Jesus hung on the tree in the garden on the Holy Mountain, a woman anointed him with perfumed oil worth a workman’s wages for an entire year. Judas and the disciples grew indignant saying “This oil could’ve been sold, and the money given to the poor.” Jesus then says “Leave her alone. She has done a beautiful thing. She has anointed my body for burial.”
As Jesus hung on the tree, he would’ve smelled that oil. So, what’s it good for? Maybe it’s good for nothing, just good. And why did he hang on that tree? His blood runs down the tree and through Gehenna, on to the Abyss, and right on into you. Why was that necessary? What’s it good for?
That question assumes that the sacrifice of Christ must be good for some other reason. And our answer to the question is our “theory of the atonement.” But maybe the cross wasn’t necessary for some other reason, but it is the reason that makes all things necessary. Maybe God didn’t have to do it, but he freely decided to do it from the foundation of space and time. Maybe Jesus wanted to do it?
What if it was good . . . “for” nothing, and yet the good in everything that’s anything? What if Jesus is the Fruit on the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life? What if he gave his life even as we took his life, and he really believed it is “more blessed to give than receive?” Then the tree we call the Cross would be the revelation of Love (1 John 4:10, “In this is love”). Love is not good for some other reason. Love is the only reason that anything is good. God is Love for no other reason than himself.
When one person sacrifices, it looks like a man hanging on a cross.
When two people sacrifice, it looks like a marriage and feels like a honeymoon.
When all people sacrifice, it is the party in the Father’s House, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, and the Body of the Living Temple in which each member constantly loses their life and finds it.
When Solomon dedicated the temple, the people must’ve experienced eternal life now.
And so, I’ve wondered, “Have I?” Have I ever given in such a way that the pain is actually pleasure, and so the giving is the getting? Have I ever done something good for nothing, just good? Have I ever been anything but “sensible” and utilitarian?
In my old copy of Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill, I came across a page where I had scribbled in huge letters “I love my fiancé, Susan Coleman, as of tomorrow night!” That night I gave her a ring that cost me all that I had, even though I already knew that she’d say “yes.”
At the Jewelry story, I had wanted to grab Harry, the jeweler, and say, “Harry, I don’t care about the diamond, and I already know that she’ll say ‘yes;’ I just want to give all that I’ve got; I want to bleed for it, Harry. I want to sacrifice for her, Harry. It’s extravagant; it’s foolish; it makes no sense; but you have to charge me more; it’s love.”
I can’t make sense of the gift of God, but it’s making sense of me, and it begins to make sense to me when I picture God talking to Harry the Jeweler. The Spirit says, “Harry I’m dedicating my temple.” The Son says, “Harry I’m proposing to my girl.” The Father says, “Harry, I’ve got these kids and they don’t know who I am.” They all say, “Harry we are Love, The Trinity, The Sacrificial Communion of Endless Delight.” And so, he broke the bread saying, “This is my body given to you.” And he took the cup saying, “This is the covenant in my blood (the Life is in the blood).”
Maybe you shouldn’t ask “What’s it good for?”
Don’t use God; Worship God, and he makes all your giving good.
Whether it’s a pipe organ or housing for the poor, worship is a sacrifice of praise.
It’s giving without a thought of getting; it’s losing yourself and finding yourself happy . . . like God.