Sacrificing Posessions

Chapter 2 image’You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Everybody in our society is familiar with that biblical commandment, It has always figured prominently in the Christian tradition. It finds constant expression in Christian worship and is frequently being expounded from Christian pulpits. Nearly everybody applauds the sentiment it expresses. Even those who have no longer any active association with the church regard this as the last remnant of the Christian lifestyle with which they can identify.

The commandment to love one’s neighbour occurs no less than eight times in the New Testament. It is mostly found on the lips of Jesus of Nazareth. Most Christians are under the impression this commandment is unique to Christianity and that it originated with Jesus. In actual fact he was simply quoting from the Jewish Bible, or what Christians now call the Old Testament. Moreover, this commandment is found in a section of the Old Testament where you might least have expected it.

In Chapter One I drew attention to the fact that a most detailed description of how animal and other sacrifices were to be offered in ancient Israel is preserved in the Old Testament. This sacrificial code is some 50 chapters in length. Tucked away in the very middle of it, and then almost only as the casual end of a longer sentence, is this now famous commandment. It is
perhaps because this Levitical Code is the book of the Bible least read by Christians that they have so often been unaware that Jesus was actually quoting Scripture, when he placed the commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ alongside the already famous Jewish Shema, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.’

But, you may ask, what has the love of one’s neighbour got to do with sacrifice? My answer takes the form of another question: Why is it that this simple commandment, which has shown such capacity to stir human imagination, first come to the surface in a complex set of directions on the ritual of animal sacrifice? The answer is very illuminating.

I have already briefly described the origins of the sacrificial slaughter of animals – that widespread practice which the ancient Israelites inherited from their prehistoric ancestors and which they continued until the Romans destroyed their Temple in the year 70 of our common era. Long before that, however, the prophets of Israel had raised loud protest against this ritualistic slaughter. They denounced it in scathing terms. They urged its abolition. They called for its replacement with a practical programme for the promotion of social justice. Indeed modern biblical scholars have sometimes seen these prophets as the ancient forerunners of the modern secular age in which religious rituals of an otherworldly character have a rapidly  diminishing place.

As everybody knows, the sacrifices were not abolished but continued for another 700 years. Yet the prophetic words did not altogether fall on deaf ears. The priests of succeeding generations began to take notice of the prophetic protest. Some 50 years after the first protest a now unknown school of priests sketched out a blueprint for a new kind of society which took into account the prophetic concern for social justice. This blueprint is preserved in the Book of Deuteronomy. It reads like long sermons put into the mouth of Moses, for its unknown authors wanted to claim the authority of Moses for what they were setting out as their ideal society. The traditional sacrifices and religious festivals still find a prominent place there – but a new element appears. Here we have, for the first time, a piece of social legislation which looks like a modern trade union requirement. It insists that every worker, right down to the slave and the toiling animal, must be given one full day’s rest in every seven. It goes further. Caring consideration of a special kind must at all times be extended to the orphan, the widow and the resident alien. These were the people who lacked the protection normally provided by one’s family. The whole community was now called upon to see that these unfortunate people were not disadvantaged. Nowhere else in the world of that day was there to be found such a far reaching expression of human concern, which completely ignored distinctions of class, sex and race.

A century later came another burst of creative priestly activity. The priests and other chief citizens of Judah were now in Babylonia, where they had been forcibly deported. They were facing the possibility of national extinction and were making a desperate bid to preserve their identity and their cultural heritage. The priests were committing to writing, in systematic form, all the ancient practices they had been taught by the generations before them. This is how that sacrificial code of 50 chapters came into its present form. But the priests did more than just preserve the ancient traditions. They took the words of the prophets to heart and they tried to redirect the thrust of the sacrifices. Right in the middle of their sacrificial code is a special section, today often called the Holiness Code. it consists of Leviticus 17-24. It is a complete unit in itself, and sets out what the priests felt to be the chief matter of concern if the Jews were to be true to their calling as the holy people of God and avoid national extinction.

The Holiness Code also starts off with the ‘how’ and the ‘how not’ to sacrifice animals, but it then leads into quite different concerns. ‘You shall not oppress your neighbour or hold back from him the wages which are rightfully his. ‘You shall not pervert justice, either by favouring the poor or deferring to the rich.’ ‘You must not go spreading slander or take sides against your neighbour on a capital charge.’ ‘You must not hate your neighbour or bear a grudge against him, let alone take vengeance on him. Indeed you must love your neighbour as yourself.’

At least three different words are used for neighbour. Sometimes it is ‘brother’. Sometimes it is ‘friend’ or ‘companion’. Sometimes another word is used which means something like ‘one of the people’, ‘a person of your own community’. This last word is used nine times and almost nowhere else in the Bible, This may reflect the priests’ growing community concern. Thus, first in the book of Deuteronomy and then in the Holiness Code of sacrifice, the Israelite priests began to shift the focus of attention from the ritual of the sacrificial slaughter to the moral duties of good citizenship ... to the need to develop a community spirit, which would have the effect of providing justice for everybody.

Let us pause to see the radical character of the changes first initiated by the Israelite prophets, for the modern world owes a great deal more to them than it ever realises. The primitive sacrifices, so harshly condemned by the prophets, had long been believed to he the way by which humans established good relations with the gods above and won their favours. The activities now being urged by the prophets, as the alternative, aimed at establishing good relations among humans. The prophets took the first steps in replacing the vertical look with the horizontal look And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of the process of secularization which characterizes the modern secular age. The word ‘secular’ properly means, not ‘irreligious,’ but ‘this-worldly’.

In the last chapter I pointed out that our word ‘sacrifice’ properly means ‘the doing of a sacred or holy thing’. It cannot be oven emphasized that (in the social and religious revolution initiated by the prophets} the promotion of social justice – the establishment of an harmonious human community – became the new way of doing the most holy thing possible. It is the form which sacrifice takes in a secular age, an age where our highest interests are this-worldly.

This revolutionary shift continued with Jesus of Nazareth, who followed in the footsteps of the prophets before him. For example, he is reported to have said, ‘If you are bringing your gift to the altar and you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, put down your gift and go and be reconciled to your brother. Only then are you ready to come
and offer your gift.’

Again and again in his recorded teaching, Jesus of Nazareth emphasized that a person’s relationship with God can never be divorced from one’s relationship with one’s fellow-humans. They are like two sides of the same coin. That is why Jesus linked together the two Old Testament commandments ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. They were like two sides of the one commandment. And we have seen they were both composed by priests who had been influenced by the ancient prophets.

Some of the parables of Jesus are in similar vein. One of them portrayed the divine king as saying, ‘In as much as you have shown your care for one of the least of my subjects, you have done this act for me.’ In other words, to make sacrifices of time, money or love, for one’s fellow humans is the same thing as to make sacrifices to God.

We can now see why the word ‘sacrifice’ came to develop a new meaning as a result of the radical changes which were taking place in the Judaeo-Christian tradition over a long period of time. It originally meant a slaughter of an animal as an offering to the gods above. It came to mean – and this is the second definition now offered by the Oxford dictionary – the ‘giving up of valued thing for the sake of another’.

This latter is the meaning of the word which is uppermost in our minds when we use it in daily speech. Yet, when we lose sight of where the idea of sacrifice came from, something essential to its meaning easily and quickly becomes lost. When that happens the word becomes debased and is only the empty shell of its former self. Again and again in human history basic principles do get lost and then we have to backtrack for a bit to recover them. We need to recover the sacred character of sacrifice, the sacred component involved in surrendering some possession for the sake of another person. We need to learn again what a demanding, challenging and costly thing all genuine sacrifice is, whether it be ancient or modern.

The reason why the making of a sacrifice is a necessary prerequisite to the establishment of greater social justice is very simple. Social injustice arises out of gross inequality in the possession and use of the planet’s natural resources. There are two chief ways in which the great gulf between the haves and the have-nots can be bridged. The first is by the use of force. This means either conflict between nations or internal violent revolution within a nation. In the modern era, wars have usually widened the gulf rather than lessened it, for the haves more often than not have the military might to win the conflict, and actually increase what they possess or control. For similar reasons it has even become more difficult to overturn an unjust order by means of violent revolution for it seems to be easier for those in power to hold revolutionary forces at bay. Thus injustice only becomes compounded.

The other way to overcome social injustice does not use force – but it is no easier. It is the way of sacrifice, the way in which the haves voluntarily sacrifice some of their personal possessions in the interests of the larger good. Unless this way is to remain an impractical and impossible ideal there are two very important components of it about which we must be absolutely clear. Both of them were present in the ancient form of sacrifice. Both of them remain essential for genuine sacrifice in a secular age.

The first is that genuine sacrifice is always costly. Token giving is not sacrificial. Giving away something which one does not want or which one will not really miss is not a sacrifice. The ancients knew that. A warning was carefully laid down in the ancient ritual for animal sacrifice. How tempting it would have been for a person about to offer a sacrifice to look through the flock for the scraggiest animal, perhaps a lame beast which had no future. No! It was laid down that the animal to be sacrificed was to be without blemish, a perfect specimen, the best in the flock; not the worst. The word used meant ‘whole’, ‘complete’, ‘perfect’. Sacrifice of such a kind was costly to the owner.

Something of that feeling clings to us still when we make gifts to our friends. We feel embarrassed if the gift we offer turns out to be cracked, or stained, or second hand, or even if the recipient later finds we got it in a sale for half price. Although we often say that it is the thought that counts rather than the commercial value, nevertheless quality remains an issue. If this be the case even with gifts, how much more is it essential for a genuine sacrifice?Costliness is of the very essence of sacrifice. The more it hurts us, the more it is a real sacrifice.

The other essential ingredient of genuine sacrifice is that we give it voluntarily, It is not a sacrifice if it be forced from us against our will. This fact, too, came to be emphasized in the ancient biblical code of sacrifice. Indeed a special word came to be used it is usually translated ‘free will offering’ because it comes from a verb meaning ‘to be willing’, ‘to be generous’, to ‘do something voluntarily’. What is even more interesting is that this particular term for sacrifice only begins to appear in those sections of the priestly heritage which reflect the influence of the Israelite prophets – the book of Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code. Thus already it was being recognized that any worthwhile act, either in the worship of God or for the benefit of one’s fellows, must be a voluntary one.

Today, one of the ways in which we try to promote greater social justice in our community is through the social welfare programmes which are paid for out of our taxes. We may sometimes want to congratulate ourselves for (at least through our taxes) doing something worthwhile for those whose need is greater than our own. But that does not mean that our taxes may be seen as a sacrifice. It may certainly hurt us to pay our taxes. We may be acutely aware of their costliness to us. But most of us have to admit that, if we were left to pay our taxes on a voluntary basis, we would contribute a good deal less than we do to the welfare schemes of the total community. It is partly because of our past unwillingness to make the required degree of sacrifice that in the end they are squeezed out of us by legal constraints. What we contribute under these conditions, costly though it may be, is no longer a sacrifice. It is only as we give our possessions to the greater good in a way which is both costly and voluntary that they are genuinely sacrificial.

If social justice is to he advanced, both within a nation and between the rich and poor nations, it is essential that we recover the spirit of sacrifice. The way we at present do it through taxes is often costly but rarely voluntary. The way we do it by contributing to voluntary agencies is admittedly voluntary but most often it lacks the element of costliness. In both areas we fall short of the full requirements of a genuine sacrifice.

The possessions we are being challenged to sacrifice are not always of a material kind which can be given a commercial value. They may for example be rights or privileges which we jealously claim and will defend to the hilt. So let me look briefly at some of the arms where currently we are being challenged to sacrifice our possessions in the interests of social justice.

Just before doing so it is important to realise that we have already come some distance since those ancient prophets first made their plea, viz. that instead of putting our efforts into providing more burnt offerings on the altar we should cause justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Progress may have been slow – but it has been very real. Some clamourers for social justice too quickly forget this and speak as if living conditions for the disadvantaged are as bad as they can possibly be. That is not so in this country and it is counter-productive to further improvement not to recognise it. It is only after we have acknowledged this that we are in a balanced position to survey what yet has to be done.Indeed, if we persist in fighting the same old battles as if nothing has been achieved at all it may well result in the loss of what has been gained.

Industrial relations is a case in point. In the last 100 years, through the strenuous efforts of the trade unions, tradespeople and unskilled workers have come to receive a much fairer share of the national cake than used to be their lot. But there comes a limit to the material gains one can expect to make. The time has come for industrial relations to be raised to a new level, where cooperation replaces confrontation, where people in all types of activity learn how to show restraint in their economic demands, whether it be salaries, wages or prices. Voluntary economic restraint is simply another term for sacrificing possessions.

In actual fact, instead of claiming that each of us is getting too small a share of the national cake, the truth may be that all of us are enjoying far too large a share of the international cake. The most urgent examples of social injustice are not to be found within a country like New Zealand. They are to be found in the great inequalities between nations, manifested in the degrading conditions of human existence in so many countries of the so called Third World. Recognising this deplorable state of affairs, the United Nations quite some time ago called upon the affluent nations to sacrifice one per cent of their gross national product as international aid. Only rarely has New Zealand managed to contribute even half of this amount. Yet such is our standard of living that we could sacrifice ten per cent of our GNP and we would still not go hungry.

But while we New Zealanders have enough and to spare, about a thousand million people live on the breadline or below. Literally millions of people are today starving to death, and not only in Ethiopia. This is what is meant by social injustice, and we are a party to it! This is not simply because we shut a blind eye and do not care sufficiently. It is because our affluence is at their expense. We of the affluent nations are less than a third of the world’s population but we possess or control more than two thirds of the world’s resources. The gap between the rich and poor nations is widening. As we get richer the poor get poorer. This is why patronizing handouts on our part will not solve the problem. As well as percentage offerings of our GNP we shall need to sacrifice possessions and rights which we have long regarded as legally ours. And if we are not willing to see the writing on the wall and opt now for the way of sacrifice, the time may come when these possessions shall be forcibly taken from us. The mills of God grind slowly, it is said, but they grind exceeding small.

Let me conclude with another boyhood memory. When I was ten years of age, living in Victoria, I was given a book for my birthday. It was called Our New Possession. It was a description of Papua, that German colony in New Guinea which had recently been given to Australia, following World War I, just as Western Samoa came to be possessed by New Zealand. In those days l was puffed up with pride with this new possession. It was still the days of the British Empire on which the sun never set. Not only has that Empire disappeared in the half century since then, but something more has changed. If a superpower today marches into another territory and claims it as its new possession, it can no longer announce it as proudly as it did in the19th century. It is required to justify its action to the outraged moral conscience of the world – as in Vietnam, Abyssinia, Nicaragua, Namibia and Cambodia. And the social conscience of the world is going to win. Today it is no longer considered morally right to take possessions from others.

Tomorrow it will no longer be right to hold on to possessions which exceed one’s fair share of the Earth’s resources. In order that we may advance to that time of greater social justice, in which the love of one’s fellow human is not simply an ideal but a reality – and advance to it in a peaceful and orderly way – we must recover the ancient significance of sacrifice and learn how to sacrifice our possessions for the common good.