Scapegoats and Lightning Rods (Matthew 27:27-44)

The year was 2003 and the place was Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was the sixth game in a 4 out of 7 series with the Florida Marlins for the National League Championship. The Cubs were leading 3 – 0, just five outs away from going to the World Series. Then it happened.

With one out, Marlin second baseman Luis Castillo fouled one into the first row of seats off of the third base line. Several spectators reached for the ball as left fielder Moises Alou made a play on it. Just as Alou was about to make the catch, the ball deflected off the hands of a Cubs fan. That fan’s name was Steve Bartman. Alou visibly displayed his displeasure.

After that failed attempt to make an out, the inning broke open in favor of the Marlins. They scored eight runs, defeating the Cubs 8 – 3.

Because there were no replay boards in Wrigley Field, no one in the crowd knew of Bartman until friends and family members who were watching the game on TV started calling them on their cell phones. Bartman had to be led away from the park under security escort. As he and his friends who were with him were led out of the stadium, fans pelted him with drinks and other debris. Bartman’s name and personal information about him appeared on Major League Baseball’s online message boards minutes after the game ended. As many as six police cars gathered outside his home to protect Bartman and his family.

The Cubs went on to lose game 7 and Bartman issued a public apology saying he was truly sorry, that it happened so fast he didn’t even see Alou trying to catch the ball. He simply reacted. Indeed, everyone around Bartman had reacted the same way, but it was Bartman’s hands that actually touched the ball. Bartman became the scapegoat for all their frustration and anger.

Since then, Bartman has kept a low profile. He has never given an interview and declined numerous endorsement deals. ESPN did a full length documentary on the incident in 2011 and Bartman again refused to be interviewed or appear on the program. Bartman also declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial. One can only imagine how his life has been impacted by this incident; perhaps he still fears physical harm.

Of course, there were a number of reasons why the Cubs lost that game and the final game to the Marlins that year. So why all this focus on Bartman? Why is it that we seek out scapegoats?

The image of a scapegoat recalls a ritual performed by ancient Israel on their holiest day of the year—Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. A goat was chosen by means of casting lots. Actually there were two goats chosen, one was killed as a sin offering to make atonement for the holy place, the other was allowed to live to make atonement for the sins of the people.

This is how the book of Leviticus describes the ritual: “Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness . . . The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region” (16:21-22).

This ritual functioned, I suppose, as a symbolical representation of the collective cleansing and forgiveness of the covenant people by God. Whether it was a healthy or toxic ritual for ancient Israel I cannot say. If it served as an expression of confession and repentance it may indeed have been redemptive. If, however, it was carried out as an act of projection and refusal to own one’s own culpability as so often happens today, then it was toxic.

We all know how Hitler made scapegoats of the Jews and how today gays have become scapegoats in Uganda and Russia. Think of how in our own country particular groups have been demonized and blamed: the poor are blamed for poverty, immigrants are blamed for the demographic changes happening all around us, and LGBT folks are blamed for the breakdown of the family. The scapegoat, whether an individual or a group, becomes the object of pent-up frustration and repressed anger, taking the form of subtle, malicious, verbal attacks or even outright venomous rage.

This scene from the passion story in Matthew’s Gospel pictures Jesus as a scapegoat. It begins with the soldiers stripping, humiliating and mocking him by stringing a robe around him, putting a reed in his right hand, and pressing a crown of thorns on his head. They spit on him and beat him and cry out, “Hail, King of the Jews.”

The scorning continues when he is lifted up on the cross. The crowd derides him as do the religious leaders—the chief priests, scribes, and elders. Even the bandits crucified with Jesus taunt and ridicule him.

The political and religious powers mock him as Israel’s King and Messiah and as God’s Son. The taunts echo both imperial and Hebrew claims. Caesar held the title Lord and King, and was also known as a son of God. The Hebrews utilized these designations for God’s appointed representatives and mediators of God’s salvation.

Of course the irony here is that Jesus was indeed functioning as Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son—God’s messenger and mediator of salvation. The early followers of Jesus, in retrospect, after being convinced that God raised, vindicated, and exalted Jesus, looked back at this horrific event and found saving significance in it.

So the question we need to ask—the question that is so important to our faith—is “How?” How is it possible that saving significance can be attached to the brutal, humiliating execution of a good man? How can this vicious, dehumanizing event be redemptive?

I think there are several ways, though today I want to mention two in connection with the image of scapegoating.

First, the scene Matthew pictures for us in the passion story exposes the evil of scapegoating much the same way images of African Americans being attacked and beaten in Selma Alabama exposed the evil of racism. Jesus became a scapegoat to end all scapegoating.

We are given an opportunity to see and judge. The key to change, however, is judging ourselves not others. We unjustly judge the other when we make the other a scapegoat. We justly judge ourselves when we are honest enough to see the many subtle ways we blame others and project our angst and anger on them.

In the remake of the movie, “The Bad News Bears,” there is a scene where Coach Buttermaker sees and judges himself. In the championship game the opposing team’s coach demeans his son who is pitching. Because his son refuses to throw at a batter, the coach walks to the mound, verbally assaults him, and then pushes him down, humiliating him in front of everyone.

As Coach Buttermaker watches this scene unfold, something clicks—he sees himself and doesn’t like what he sees. It gives him pause and he decides to change. He decides that that is not who he wants to be. His moment of recognition sets him on a path of conversion. He decides to become a different human being.

This is what can happen when the absurdity and evil of scapegoating is exposed, and we are honest and courageous enough to see and judge ourselves.

A second way the crucifixion of Jesus can be liberating is when we decide to trust and emulate the costly forgiveness Jesus embodied in his death.

The late Clarence Jordan, the American Baptist who founded Koinonia Farm, asks, “Did God put our sins on the back of his son on the cross? No. He made him available and we put our sins on his back.”

He tells about getting a phone call at 1:30 in the morning. The guy on the other end said, “Mr. Jordan, I just wanted to let you know that within seventeen minutes there’s going to be a green pickup truck pull out of that dirt road there just below the bridge and it’s going to be loaded with dynamite. We’re going to blow your place off the face of the map. I just wanted to let you know so you would have time to get the people out of the buildings.”

Jordan tried to keep the guy on the phone by asking questions but the man who called was evidently in no mood to be conversational. He said in a huff, “Now, you have sixteen minutes,” and hung up the phone.

With telephone in hand, his son walks in and wants to know who it was and what he wanted. Jordan tells his son that somebody wants to blow up the place. His son says, “Oh” and goes back to bed.

Back in the bedroom, his wife asks what’s going on and he says, “Some guy called to say that he’s going to blow the place up in sixteen minutes.” She says, “Really?” and rolls over. Jordan thinks, “What am I to do? My own family doesn’t take this seriously.” So he, too, went back to bed.

Jordan writes, “I must confess the thoughts in my head were not conducive to sound slumber. I watched the clock tick off those minutes . . . and when it did headlights came up the road near that bridge and I thought, ‘Well, this is it.’ But we weren’t going to be out there under that light, running around in our pajamas like a bunch of scared nitwits. We were going to be in our beds. And if the world wanted to have a little blowing-up party, they could have a little blowing-up party . . .

“The pick up came and slowed down, and I thought he was coming in. But he didn’t. We felt this taunt that they threw at Jesus’ face—“Let him save himself.” He couldn’t. He was the one that he couldn’t save. He hadn’t come in the first place to save himself. He’d come to save mankind. He was the only one who couldn’t save himself . . . The taunt was true. For the world had to have a lightning rod to discharge its static, spiritual energy. And God made himself available in his son. And I think God needs in this world, available people who will bear the sins of the world.”

Jesus did not die because God required it. Jesus did not die in order to satisfy divine honor, or propitiate God’s justice, or appease God’s wrath, or provide a ransom, or pay off a sin debt, or bear divine punishment as our substitute. God did not make Jesus a scapegoat. The political, social, and religious powers came together to make Jesus a scapegoat.

And Jesus bears it all, without hate, without any wish of vengeance or desire for retaliation. He absorbs it in order to exhaust it, and thus makes a way for forgiveness and redemption. Luke’s version of the passion story especially highlights this theme when he has Jesus say from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The scornful taunt is true: Jesus could not save himself if he wanted to save others from the evils of scapegoating and the life diminishing and death-dealing consequences that come when we deny our sin and project our fears, insecurities, prejudices, and anxieties on others.

Let me offer one caveat and this is important. This bearing and absorbing of sin must never be used as a tool of oppression to keep victims from protesting their victimization. It must never be used, for example, to keep a woman in an abusive marriage or an employee from confronting a demeaning situation in the workplace. This is no excuse for not confronting injustice.

And yet there will always be a price in pursuing the way of the cross. It takes costly acts of forgiveness to break cycles of hate and violence.

Jesus doesn’t bear our sins so we don’t have to. The theory of substitutionary atonement is quite convenient—Jesus bears divine punishment for our sins in our place. There are no doubt several reasons for its popularity in American Christianity (many conservatives make it essential Christian teaching), one of which is that it fits American consumerism.

When Jesus spoke of his death he said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, then you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Jesus doesn’t ask us to believe some doctrine of atonement in order to be fit for heaven, but to follow him to the cross where he bears the angst and anxiety, the fears and insecurities, the wrath and enmity of the powers that be.

As we eat the bread and drink the cup of Holy Communion, let us not only remember the love, courage, and moral fortitude of Jesus bearing the sins of the world—the hate, prejudice, malice, all of it, but let us also decide to follow our Lord to the cross. Let us pray that we might experience and express a greater capacity to forgive and absorb the angst and anger of others, knowing that a magnanimous love covers a multitude of sins.

Our Good God, as we remember Jesus’ death and think about the way he was made a scapegoat, give us the courage to face our own participation and complicity in Jesus’ death, in the evil of scapegoating. And as we share now in Holy Communion, may we do so with humble hearts, confessing and repenting of the subtle ways we have hidden and denied our sin and projected it on others and blamed them for the evil within us. Give us the moral courage and divine love to embody the kind of love Jesus incarnated in his life and death.

* * * * * * * *

Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of “Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith” (http://www.nurturingfaith.info/being_a_progressive_christian/).

Topics: Worship & Liturgy. 8 Points: Point 8: Compassion and Selfless Love. Seasons & Special Events: Advent, Holy Week, and Lent. Ages: Adult. Texts: Matthew. Rituals: Communion. Resource Types: Sermons.

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