Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and make good your vows to the Most High.
– Psalm 50: 13-14
This excerpt from Psalm 50 is a brief statement that God does not ask us for physical sacrifices. And what a radical idea that must have been, when Greek, Roman, and other religions would regularly bring animals and other goods to their temples so that they could be seen honoring their gods. In a way, it must have been a relief for them, a way of feeling connected with the divine, as they saw the rising smoke of their burnt offering, or the meat of their animals divided by the priests. The physical presence of their acts would be a reminder to those worshipers that they were upholding their side of their bargain.
In contrast, Christianity does not demand these sacrifices. We are asked to believe and to give thanks, and we receive salvation for it. Jesus himself, in today’s reading of Matthew 23, reminds us not to be like the Pharisees who do all their deeds to be seen by others.” It is not for Jesus’ followers to gain grace by providing a feast.
Christians have long had to struggle with this constant contradiction. We are called to believe, and our belief motivates us to be charitable. But in contrast with transactional religions our charity is the effect of salvation, not the cause. Christians are instead given a more difficult challenge: we are asked to live the life that God wants for us, and to resist the temptations that would lure us away. We will all fail along our way, but we are always asked to try. When I reflect during Lent, I try to remember that the ultimate and difficult challenge God puts before us is nothing more than to accept what he has given us, to live a good life, and to be happy.
Links to the appointed readings and prayer for today: