In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
From the very earliest times, Christians interpreted the death of Jesus using the rich theological and liturgical traditions that were available to them in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the practice of the first-century Judaism in which the first disciples had been raised and formed. Yesterday I spoke a little about the connections between Maundy Thursday and the institution of the Eucharist, and the Jewish Passover meal. I said that we should remember that the Judaism Jesus and his first disciples knew was not identical to that which is practised today; 2000 years of history have led to developments in Jewish practice just as they have in Christian practice. Today I would like to talk about another aspect of the Jewish tradition, that of the Day of Atonement and the scapegoat.
Judaism today is not a sacrificing religion, at least not in the sense that it was in Jesus’ day. The Temple has been gone for nearly 2000 years, and with it the round of sacrifices, including the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement is still kept by Jews today as a time of fasting and reconciliation. But in a passage from the Book of Leviticus, read at Evening Prayer yesterday, the sacrificial rites that were once a part of the Day of Atonement are described. It was the day when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and come into the presence of God in an immediate and terrifying way. This is what is referred to in the reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews that we have just heard:
“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” – this refers to the sprinkling of blood on the altar which was a part of the ritual of the Day of Atonement – “and our bodies washed with pure water” – again, the High Priest had to wash before entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.
But there was another aspect of the ancient ritual of the Day of Atonement which is not referred to in this passage, but which is nevertheless familiar to us, and that is the ritual of the scapegoat. On the Day of Atonement, two goats were taken; one to be offered as a sacrifice for sin, the other to be symbolically loaded with the sins of the people, and driven out into the wilderness. This ritual has an obvious symbolic and psychological value in the sense of liberation from sin, and liberation too from the terrible consequences of guilt and blame, and the term scapegoat has passed into everyday English to describe the all-too-common phenomenon of pinning the blame for a bad event on a particular person or group of people to distract from what is in fact a wider responsibility, thus saving a society or community from the consequences of wrongdoing, guilt and blame.
Christians have long applied this concept to Jesus. Appealing to the Suffering Servant tradition of the prophecy of Isaiah which we also heard this morning, Jesus’ suffering was understood as being for the sins of the world: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases… he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed”. Just as the scapegoat in Leviticus is driven out of the camp of the Israelites and into the desert, so too Jesus is taken out of the city, and suffers there for the sins of others.
When reflecting on the ways in which ancient Jewish concepts and practices have shaped our Christian theology, it is hard to avoid reflecting too on the sad history of relations between Christians and Jews. And on Good Friday this is particularly difficult, today being a day when in many parts of the Christian world, and at many times in history, Christians have gone to church to participate in the solemn liturgy of the day, and then gone out to attack their Jewish neighbours. This shameful history is ironically an example of scapegoating, and is based on a profound misreading of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and death.
When reading the gospels we must understand that Jesus and his first followers were themselves Jews. So when, for example, the writer of John’s gospel refers to “the Jews”, as we heard earlier today in the reading of the Passion, it is obvious that he is not talking about the entire Jewish people. He is rather using the term as a shorthand for a particular faction of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. The apparent animosity towards Jews that can be found in various places in the gospels, and especially in Matthew’s gospel, is that particular animosity that is found in the context of internecine feud.
Many of us will know how bitter family arguments can be, and the first Christians, themselves largely Jewish, were engaged in a furious battle with those Jewish leaders who could not recognise Jesus as the expected Messiah. As soon as the Christian faith began to spread among the gentiles, the references to Jews in the gospel accounts were taken out of the original context of a dispute between rival Jewish groups, and were used instead to pin the blame for Jesus’ death on the entire Jewish community. This was a terrible move with terrible consequences: it led to centuries of suffering for the Jewish people, and to a misunderstanding of the meaning of the Cross among Christians. Jesus came to liberate us from guilt and blame and the destructive practice of scapegoating; what a betrayal of His sacrifice it is to demand that the Jewish people themselves should be made scapegoats for His death. Jesus died for the sins of us all.
We would do well to be aware of the practice of scapegoating in our current context. Sooner or later this lockdown will end, and one way or another in time we will learn to deal with this virus. We will pick up the pieces, and there will be grief and hurt at the losses of loved ones, and there will be grief and hurt too at the lost livelihoods, the economic damage, and for some the poverty that will likely be the consequence of the pandemic. Questions will be asked, and rightly so, about what went well and what went wrong in our response to the virus. No doubt there will be a desire for accountability for mistakes made.
But there may also be a demand for scapegoats. Scapegoating is something quite different to moral accountability. Scapegoating is the symbolic and ritual placing of sins of the whole community on a particular individual or group. When we consider our response to Covid-19, it will be all-too-tempting to find scapegoats, to place societal failures on the backs of an individual or group, thus saving us all from the necessary but painful task of reflecting honestly at an individual and collective level on where things have gone wrong. It’s always so much easier just to pin the blame on someone else.
Jesus has liberated us from guilt and blame and their destructive consequences, by taking them upon Himself outside the city walls on the Cross. He has liberated us from guilt and blame, but He has liberated us for honesty and self-knowledge. That is why confession is such an important part of Christian tradition. We are liberated to look honestly at ourselves, to confess our sins before God, in the confidence that we have a High Priest who knows our weakness, who has offered the perfect sacrifice for sin, and who lives to make intercession with us before the Father.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.