The Way of the Scapegoat

(John 11:47-53)

For the Norman Ministerial Fellowship’s Holy Week Luncheon Services

At First Christian Church in Norman, Oklahoma on Good Friday, April 9, 2004

By Dr. Bruce Prescott


A little more than thirty years ago, I was an idealistic young trainee at the police academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico.   After receiving months of education in criminal law and weeks of training to rapidly respond and deal with public disturbances, we received some last minute instructions on how to deal with a problem that was common in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods of the city.  We were advised of the police department’s unwritten policy for responding to fights at wedding parties.  The policy was that officers would not respond alone -- which meant that our action would sometimes be delayed until a second unit was close at hand -- and we would announce our arrival with red lights and sirens.


Naive as I was at that time, I thought the policy was merely designed to create the psychological impact of a show of force and I worried that any delay in police response could jeopardize the health and safety of the people at the wedding.  I raised a question about this policy and will never forget the response that I received from my wizened, veteran, Hispanic instructor.  His answer was my introduction to the way of the scapegoat – though he didn’t use that terminology and I did not understand the mechanism that it represents at the time.


My instructor shook his head and explained, in layman’s terms, a process similar to what the French philosopher Rene Gerard describes in his book on The Scapegoat.  He advised me about what had almost become a ritual at some wedding parties in certain quarters of the city.  Mexican weddings were often very large weddings in which hundreds of people celebrated the union of two families.  They did that by doing a lot of dancing and drinking.  It was common for someone to drink to excess and it was not unusual for blood relatives, often cousins, to engage in fist fights with one another.  Family members could usually break-up the fights, but on occasions conflict got too heated for the family to control.  When that happened, the police were called to restore order.  But, no one wanted a member of their family to go to jail.  If the police actively intervened or tried to arrest someone, both sides would turn against the police officer.  On such occasions, the family (and from a legal perspective, all your witnesses) became united by facing a common adversary, and the police officer – an outsider – could easily become a victim of collective violence.


The process of uniting families by closing ranks against strangers and outsiders is not unique to Hispanics.  It is a universal phenomenon.  In fact, identifying some person or group as “other,” and then ostracizing them and committing acts of violence against them, is the most common means by which societies and entire civilizations achieve unity.


Throughout history in all societies, whenever economic, political and social change have seriously disrupted the relative peace and tranquility of community life, someone with authority, usually religious leaders, identifies a “scapegoat” – either an individual or a group -- who gets blamed for the disorder that besets society and then the scapegoats become victims of collective violence.


Something like that happened in Jerusalem two-thousand years ago.  The Roman army conquered the land of Palestine and subjected its people to their system of governance.  They occupied the country with their army.  They installed a brutal Roman dictator to rule over the country.  They set up a government of “puppet” indigenous leaders.  They even controlled the selection of who would serve as the High Priest of their religion.


It is not hard to understand why life in Jewish society was on edge at the time when Jesus lived.  Zealots were preparing to rise up at any moment and, by force of arms, drive out the Romans and all those who collaborated with them.  If you were either a Roman soldier or a Temple guard, it was a dangerous city in which to serve.


It was also a dangerous city in which to govern and to lead and it didn’t make any difference whether you were a Roman or a Jewish leader.  Tension was always in the air and tensions were always highest on feast days and holy days like the Passover.  Every time pilgrims flooded into the city of Jerusalem, the authorities – both civil and religious – were on edge.  To understand the tensions that filled Jerusalem in the days of Jesus, you only need to look at the tensions today in Baghdad on Muslim holy days.  Keep this thought in mind as we consider what happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.


Into the tension filled city of Jerusalem, Jesus entered on a donkey with crowds singing hosannas and waving palm branches as though they were welcoming a king.  Into this tension filled city, Jesus went to the temple and overturned the tables of the corrupt moneychangers at the “bazaars of the sons of Annas.”  Caiaphas, the High Priest, was the son in law of Annas, the former high priest (deposed by the Romans).  It was his tables that were being overturned.  And nearby this tension filled city, as the Apostle John tells us in the passage that immediately precedes our text, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  All of these things were threatening to either the civil or the religious authorities or both.


We know that everything that Jesus said and did pointed to the inauguration of the reign of the Kingdom of God.  We know that for Jesus the Kingdom of God was a kingdom of love and grace.  But, the authorities in Jerusalem had no comprehension of the kind of kingdom that Jesus was talking about.  The only kingdoms they knew about were built on violence and maintained by violence.  For them, any talk about a new kingdom of God posed a threat to their power and control. 


Our text reveals that a small band of religious leaders – all puppets of the Roman government – were the first to decide that Jesus must die.  They decided on a pre-emptive strike to secure the interests of their nation.  We should note how easy it was for these leaders to assume that their personal interests and well-being were identical with what was good for the entire nation.  Caiaphas focused their thinking when he prophesied that, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (v. 50)  What he did was to explain the scapegoat principle.


The scapegoat principle is the foundation upon which all the principalities and powers that rule over the kingdoms of this world rest.  That is why, whenever there is disorder or unrest, they all require another sacrifice to create an illusion that the peace and harmony of the community has been restored.  We should also note that whatever sacrifices have to be made are never voluntarily made by such leaders, they are always made for such leaders.


You don’t have to look back to the ancient world to see this principle in operation.  We live at a time when some of the captains of industry pay themselves more than 500 times as much as they pay their average worker.  The health of these economic leaders is adequately insured and their retirement secured at the same time that they are cutting employee benefits, outsourcing jobs overseas and transferring profits to off-shore bank accounts to avoid paying taxes.  No longer are just skilled and semi-skilled laborers being affected, now high tech workers are learning what it means to be the scapegoats of economic greed.  But the burden of scapegoating is still worst for those at the bottom of the pay scale.  Less than a week ago I heard about a Fortune 500 company that increased the salary of its CEO to the equivalent of $275,000 a hour – let that sink in, $275,000 an hour -- while voting to reduce health benefits for its minimum wage hourly employees.  How can such people look at themselves in a mirror? 


By most signs, America’s political and economic leaders are no more inclined to make sacrifices than the principalities that were in power in Jesus’ day -- sacrifices are made for such leaders, not by such leaders.  None of them understand the servant leadership that Jesus exemplified and embodied.


They all stand in the long line of pragmatic, utilitarian leadership -- the kind of leadership for which Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate provides a classic example.  Pragmatic, utilitarian leaders always treat truth with skepticism and, like Pilate, they always end up sacrificing a scapegoat.  The truth is, even the best utilitarian ethic – the one that strives for the “greatest good for the greatest number” – conceals the fact that the good of some minority is being sacrificed for the majority.  That is why guilt, conscious or unconscious, haunts all such leaders.  Just look at Pilate.  No matter how many times he passed the buck and washed his hands, Pilate will always be guilty for sentencing a man that he knew was perfectly innocent to death.  He was the one who had the greatest authority in Jerusalem and he must bear the greatest responsibility for the death of Jesus.


Historically, however, many Christians have assigned the chief responsibility for the death of Jesus to the Jews.  All too often Christians have used texts like the one from which I am preaching to justify persecuting Jews.  The sad and tragic truth is that throughout history Christians have made Jews scapegoats for everything from famines to the black plague.  In the thirteenth century, 100,000 Jews died as a result of persecutions in Germany and France.  In the last century, nearly six million Jews died in a European Holocaust, while the church, with a few exceptions, either encouraged it and benefited from it or stood idly by. 


The church has cast a long, dark shadow over the cross of Christ.  That is why we dare not take Jewish concerns about a resurgence anti-Semitism lightly.  That is why there is well justified alarm in the Jewish community over the portrayal of Jews in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ.  (The most egregious example is the extra-biblical embellishment portraying Jewish children being possessed by demons and taunting Judas Iscariot.)  For 2000 years our passion plays and Good Friday sermons have been provoking anti-Jewish attitudes and actions --- sometimes with lethal consequences.  Already a survey released this week is showing that the number of American young people under the age of thirty who blame Jews for the death of Jesus has increased by 24% since Gibson’s movie was released.


Any increase in anti-Semitism is troubling at this time, but it is not just anti-Semitism that is troubling.  We should be alarmed by the increase and intensity with which people around the world are looking for scapegoats.  Who will deny that we are living at a time of great economic, political and social unrest? At the very least, since September 11, 2001, the peaceful and tranquil lives we Americans once enjoyed have been seriously disrupted. 


Today, everywhere in our world, fingers are itching to find scapegoats to blame.  Everywhere the principalities and powers of this world are promising that yet another sacrifice will make things better.  In places, fingers are pointing to Muslims.  Some places they point to Jews.  Other places they point to Christians. In places, fingers are pointing to liberals and humanists.  Some places they point  to homosexuals and feminists.  Other places they point to immigrants.  Fingers are pointing everywhere.  And, somewhere, you can be sure someone is pointing a finger at you.


What are Christians to do?  Are we going to become part of this vortex of violence that points fingers at scapegoats and demands victims to sacrifice?  Are we already part of it? 


What would Jesus do?  Better, what did Jesus do?


The gospels leave no doubt about what Jesus did.  He did not look for someone to scapegoat.  He did not return evil for evil.  He did not become part of the vortex of violence that characterizes our fallen world. 


Jesus willingly bore the burden of being the scapegoat.  He returned good for evil.  He prayed for those who crucified him and asked God to forgive them.  He gave his life so that the whole world could be united by God’s love and grace.


Let me conclude by returning to the illustration with which I began.  The world is not so different from a Mexican wedding party.  People from vastly different cultures and civilizations are being united into one interdependent global village and economy.  We have got some new relatives with whom we have to learn to get along.  Already there are cousins who are fighting and the fight is getting out of control. 


All over the world people are calling for God to intervene and restore order – but God has already intervened.  He already sent his Son.  Jesus was the lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world to break the power that sin and violence and hostility hold over us.  Jesus was the perfect scapegoat that exposed the lie behind all the false unities that are created by identifying and destroying a common enemy. 


The only true unity is the unity of the Spirit of love and grace that characterizes life in God’s kingdom.  As Christians we have been authorized to be Christ’s ambassadors to share this good news with all the world.  It is a message that can never be shared at the point of a sword.  The cross never follows the way of the sword.  It only suffers at the hand of the sword.  The way of the cross is the way of the scapegoat. 


If we are to share this message faithfully, then we must live like Jesus lived.  We have all been called to deny ourselves, to take up our own crosses and to follow him – even if, or especially if, it means becoming scapegoats ourselves. 


The truth of the matter is, Jesus revealed that it is far better to suffer the fate of the scapegoat, than it is to be part of any crowd or any system that looks for another victim to sacrifice. 


Jesus always stood with the scapegoats of society.  He stood with the publicans and sinners.  He stood with the lepers and the lame.  He stood with all those who were powerless, penniless and outcast by society.


And Jesus told us that this was the standard by which he would measure our fidelity to him.  In the end, there will be a day when the sheep and the goats are identified.  In the end, all those who scapegoat others will find that they have judged themselves by their own actions.  In the end, when we all stand before Him to give an account for how we have lived there will be far too many Christians who will be asking, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?”  And far too many of us will be hanging our heads when he says, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these you did not do it to Me.” (Matt. 25:31-46)


Jesus made it perfectly clear that he stands with the scapegoats of society.


Where do we stand?



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