Dead Jewish Comedian Preaches on Atonement

Driving home from the beach yesterday we were listening to one of the comedy channels on XM Radio, Laugh USA (it’s the only one that is without raunchy profanity). One of the shorter segments was from an old Mort Sahl routine that he must have performed in 1960, because he speaks of the U2 incident as currently taking place. I tried to find a transcript of his act but I’ll have to rely upon my memory.

Sahl was a groundbreaking political comedian and he stepped on a lot of toes that deserved stepping on, both Left and the Right feet. He had sort of a rambling stream of consciousness type of delivery and in the course of this monologue he mentioned religious people and that they were in support of capital punishment, even if it meant that the occasional innocent victim might be killed. Sahl found this to be ironic, since an innocent victim of capital punishment figured so heavily in our theology (he must have been referring to Christians).

I think it’s interesting that nearly fifty years ago a Jewish comedian accurately nailed what is wrong with so much of the church. We have placed so much emphasis on the necessary sacrifice of Jesus – necessary so that we might benefit – that we forget that what was done to him was evil. Those Roman and Jewish leaders who conspired to have him crucified did so in order that the status quo, an uneasy peace, might be maintained. It mattered little to them whether or not Jesus was deserving of execution and they knew nothing of God’s atoning ‘plan’ for his death. They chose to overcome political rivalries and intense dislikes in their mutually assured destruction of this thorn in everyone’s side. Everyone who was in power, that is.

We forget this when we are willing to support a justice system that allows the sacrifice of innocent victims in order that we may exact vengeance on those who deserve it. Jesus, as God incarnate, did not die of disease or in an accident or of old age; his life and death should still have satisfied God’s substitutionary demands (according to some of the prevailing atonement theologies). Yet he was made a political scapegoat and then executed in a tortuous manner that was well known to the people of the time, so well known that there apparently was little need for the early church to make an icon of the cross. They knew fully well what crucifixion was and what kind of people were killed in that manner. As victims of Rome’s persecutions they could easily empathize with those crucified. Yet they knew that it need not be their fate, that Jesus had destroyed this need for scapegoats. Even so, if such a fate befell them, they had already been vindicated by Christ. He had pointed out the illegitimacy of systems of sacrifice.

Throughout the scourging and nailing to the cross Jesus presented a blunt yet nearly silent testimony that what was taking place was wrong. Yes, I do believe he had to go through with this, that it was the Father’s will. Not to satisfy his Father’s demand for innocent blood, but so that we might understand his indictment of us all, for our ( if, at times, ignorant ) collusion in these sacrifices. Every time we stand by and allow someone to suffer or die because it is in some way expedient or necessary for peace, harmony or the well being of the majority, we hammer another nail in the Cross.

The world continues on a never ending cycle of sacrificing one scapegoat after another. We rationalize this violence, saying it is necessary so that peace might be made and ‘justice’ served. Whatever benefits come from this violence (or threat of violence), they are only temporary and soon the world cries out for more blood. Satan creates the problem and Satan provides the solution.

But the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross took place only once and with his resurrection Jesus cheats Satan of his victory. We need to only look towards this supreme act of self-sacrifice, the ultimate expression of love, to understand how we can break this evil sacrificial cycle that plagues us. The example of the Cross teaches us that we may be resurrected from this mire of selfish death. We must learn how to die for God. This means that, like Jesus , we must be being willing to die for others, not requiring that they die for us. This is hard stuff to swallow and history has shown that we have little appetite for it.

As Mort Sahl reminds us, Jesus was also an innocent victim, a scapegoat, unjustly sacrificed by worldly powers to satisfy worldly needs. Jesus said that what we do to others, especially our victims –even the lowest of the low – we also do to him.

Another Jewish fellow, not so funny, once said this:

With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6: 6-8


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  1. #1 by BillG on September 27, 2008 - 11:56 pm

    You know, Chris, it just amazes me that some people can believe that they have the only to me interpretation of the Bible. That seems like hubris to me. After all, the New Testament was written nearly 2000 years ago (and the O.T. even earlier). It was written by people who thought differently and viewed the world differently than we do today. And they were writing for people who thought differently and viewed the world differently than we do today. How can we even understand it if we do not view it first the way they saw it and then try to understand how that translates to our world and our circumstances?

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on September 28, 2008 - 12:17 am

    It does seem to be a very narrow way of looking at scriptures. But of course some think that Jesus encourages a narrow, literal interpretation of scriptures with his warning that the ‘way is narrow’.

    But I agree with you. We are hardly reading the bible ‘literally’ when we come at it with our 20tht century mindset and attempt to cull meaning from translations that are often taken out of context. Of course to do differently is frightening to many, it is much safer to have a rigid, clear cut understanding that all will agree upon. It’s scary to question orthodoxy.

  3. #3 by Dennis J. Fischer on September 28, 2008 - 3:23 am

    Most of what we know about an eternal place called “hell” was taught by Jesus Himself. If we truly believe that heaven is eternal, then we must likewise believe that hell is eternal (see Matt. 25:46). The same adjective describes the unending, conscious nature of both realms. Indeed, we can trust the words of Jesus.

  4. #4 by Christian Beyer on September 28, 2008 - 8:33 am

    Welcome Dennis. Thanks for your thoughts.

    I disagree with your statement, though. Jesus did speak of ‘hellish’ consequences for those who live their lives apart from God, in particular those who live lives of selfishness and religious hypocrisy. He never spoke of “hell”, a word and a concept that was not part of Jewish theology. In Matthew 25:46 Jesus was not providing us with a theology about hell but a theology that makes service to others a necessary quality, something that we rarely remember.

    We talked about this on some earlier threads, particularly;

  5. #5 by logiopsychoambrosiaivorytowerpath on September 28, 2008 - 9:58 am

    To Dennis–Why do some people insist on a thesis/antithesis model of reason? Why does it follow that if heaven is an eternal deal, hell must be the same? Does every question have an either or answer?

  6. #6 by logiopsychoambrosiaivorytowerpath on September 28, 2008 - 10:00 am

    Most of what we believe about hell was taught by Dante Aliegeri in his poetry that includes “The Inferno” and from Faustian legends.

    This business that “Jesus talked more about hell than heaven” is nonsense.

  7. #7 by logiopsychoambrosiaivorytowerpath on September 28, 2008 - 10:01 am

    both are not supported by the text.

  8. #8 by Christian Beyer on September 28, 2008 - 12:12 pm

    Write this down in your baby book, Bruce: I agree with you. (Might not happen again for some time 😉 )

  9. #9 by logiopsychoambrosiaivorytowerpath on September 28, 2008 - 1:49 pm


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