Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23)
At every celebration of the Eucharist during Lent, we say the words, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” They echo the words of John the Baptist, who when he first saw Jesus coming to be baptized shouted out, “Behold, the lamb of God.” But what do they really mean?
To get ahold of that, we have to turn back to the Old Testament, in the 16th chapter of the book of Leviticus. There God give Moses and Aaron explicit instructions that to deal with the sins of the people, a live goat shall be presented in the tent of meeting, and Aaron is to lay his hands upon the head of the goat and confess over him “all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, and all their sins,” as the text puts it. “He shall put them upon the head of the goat, and then send him away into the wilderness.” The animal that takes away sins, in other words, is at its most literal level a goat that symbolically has the sins themselves placed upon his back, and then is banished to die in the desert. He is a scapegoat—blamed for the faults of others, and made to pay the price for their sins. And so Jesus, the “lamb of God,” has been interpreted in that framework. But there’s a lot more going on in this idea of scapegoating than that.
It is, for instance, not merely an archaic form of sacrificial religion. We human beings engage in scapegoating all the time. Whenever we are confronted by our own unresolved problems, or unfulfilled desires, our tendency is to blame someone else for our own faults, and then to make them pay for it—what the theologian James Alison calls the scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating is therefore driven by our own irrational emotions, instead of coherent fact. And rather than the guilt of those who are its victims, all scapegoating really demonstrates is the hollowness and anxiety of those who engage in it. And not only that, but the scapegoat has to be someone sufficiently like us to be recognizable, yet sufficiently different to be expendable.
So think of how Nazi Germany treated the Jews. Or how the Jim Crow south segregated the blacks. Or how the rightwing in today’s Poland calls for bans against gays. Or how immigrants in today’s America are labeled as the enemy. Or even how a family learns to ostracize its proverbial “black sheep.” We always find it easier to scapegoat (to blame) someone else, than to take responsibility for own deficiencies. “If only it weren’t for ‘those kind of people,’” we tell ourselves (whoever that might be), “then all would be well.” As Dwight Eisenhower once remarked, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all human hunting expeditions.”
Palm Sunday is a day when the dynamics of scapegoating are on full display. At first, the people welcome Jesus as their king, “All glory, laud and honor.” But then, in the part of the story that we don’t get today—what comes between his entry into Jerusalem and the people turning against him—Jesus starts to confront them with what is wrong. They have confused their loyalties to God and Caesar; they have let the temple lapse into a house of corruption; they rely on religious sophistry, rather than true conversion of spirit. No wonder they turn against him! And they make him the scapegoat for these, their own shortcomings, project their own sins onto t his innocent person by shouting “crucify him, crucify him!”
The cross, however, is where God intervenes to unveil the hypocrisy and self-deception that are at the heart of the human rush to scapegoat. When Jesus pleads from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” he names scapegoating for what it is: an irrational reliance on violence and exclusion to try to resolve the human conflict that is the fruit of our rivalry and desire.
And naming it as such, Jesus simply absorbs it, judging it by giving in to it as one who is nevertheless innocent of its claims. And then, just when we would expect him to return in judgment and indignation, Jesus debunks this predilection to self-righteous violence as having nothing to do with God. In the resurrection, the victim becomes the healer; the accused becomes the reconciler. Jesus returns to reknit the community that had disintegrated through his trial and death. He shows us that God is not about blame. God is not about violence, and has no interest in it. God does not scapegoat, projecting onto Jesus the guilt of our own fault, and making him pay the price.
Rather, through Jesus God calls us out of and beyond all that, into a new way of being in the beloved community. Having voluntarily stood in the place of the victim, in the place of the one who is excluded, the resurrected Jesus goes about reconstituting humanity instead as a place where “everyone’s in.” In this new creation, there will be no scapegoats, no distinctions based on difference. So rather than the cross being a necessary act of violence that somehow satisfies God’s anger at our sin (as we have sometimes been taught), Jesus shows us through the cross that God’s real interest is to reveal the uselessness of violence and to lead us toward a better way.
The challenge, then, is for us to become the sort of people who can let each other in without fear. No matter how strong the temptation is for us to behave as if we can solve our problems by all agreeing on who the bad people are, and then banding against them—we are called by Jesus to be a people of wholeness. Or, to use a word that we explored in last week’s forum, we are called to be “catholic,” in the sense that to be catholic is to undo all the forms of separation or differentiation over and against someone else that allow scapegoating to occur.
Of course, it is difficult to do this. To receive and welcome someone whom we usually regard as a strange or fearful Other involves growing beyond the limitations of our own self-identity, actually to become someone more than who we now are. In short, we are called to become a new sort of “we,” refusing to let difference become determinative. And that’s the frightening thing about being a catholic church, a church where “everyone’s in” (as we claim to be): the defense and reception of the Other doesn’t mean a whole lot of different groups of separate people who merely get along. It means we, the holy common people of God, the entire people of God, the reconciled people of God. Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, is a day to discover God’s vision for that depth of solidarity among the whole human family. No more scapegoating—not in the kingdom of God! Amen.