Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Last 'Scapegoat'

These days, no one wants to be a scapegoat, unfairly blamed for the sins and failures of others. On the other hand, not many would mind having one now and then. I recently did a word search of the word scapegoat on the Los Angeles Times website and got 2040 hits! I was reminded that almost anyone can become a scapegoat, demonized and held responsible for whatever mess we happen to be in. During the current economic crisis, in which people are struggling to hold on to their jobs, their homes, or their retirement, worried about continuing global conflicts, swine flu, climate change...the scapegoats abound. We've become masters of scapegoating -- the avoidance of responsibility for our own sin and personal failures -- and there are at least three ways that we try to do this.

We blame others -- even God -- for our own failures, mistakes and mishaps. Hitler blamed and then exterminated from 11-14 million people for the problems of his nation; at least 6 million were Jews, 3 million non-Jewish Poles, children and adults with physical and mental handicaps, homosexuals, biracial marriage partners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, communists, and other political opponents. He blamed them for corrupting racial and national purity; he said they were "life unworthy of life"and he sent them all to systematically die in the gas chambers -- an unspeakable and horrific tragedy. You or I may disagree with a person's behavior, politics, or beliefs from time to time; but that does not mean that I can demonize and blame them for all the world's problems, or even my own.

Secondly, we compensate for the mistakes we have made by trying to do good. The idea is to counterbalance all the bad stuff we’ve done with an abundance of good deeds, and hope that the good eventually outdistances the bad. If we have hurt a family member, a friend, or someone at church with our words, we may try to smother them with niceness. I have to confess that I've done this more than a few times with my wife Lisa...anything to avoid having to apologize for my actions!

Finally, we practice denial. A visitor I met in church one day commented sarcastically “I come to church once a year to be reminded how bad I am.” In one sense, I could sympathize! Like me, she desperately wants to believe that for the most part she is a pretty good person. But the truth is not that we never do good, but that (given the right conditions) we are all capable of doing a lot of bad; lying, cheating, stealing, overindulging, lashing out in anger and violence, breaking oaths and promises…and in a million subtle and not so subtle ways contributing to the rising tide of evil in our world.

Of course, none of these ‘scapegoats’ work very well…because we still feel as lousy, guilty, and ashamed as we did before we tried them. But there is an alternative! In Leviticus, we read about a ceremony that served as a dramatic illustration of God’s way…the way of repentance and forgiveness: it was called The Day of Atonement, a ceremony that celebrated the cleansing of God's people from sin through the scapegoat (Lev. 16: 1-10; 20-22). Two animals were chosen for that particular day. The first animal was sacrificed—a blood atonement for sins. It demonstrated in a graphic way, that sin's atonement carries a great price, and that sin itself causes great pain. But the second animal was driven away as it bore the sins of the people away from the camp.

"[Aaron] is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert" (Lev. 16: 20-22).

This was the original scapegoat! The goat had done nothing wrong. It was not sent out into the wilderness because it was a mean goat, ate too much, didn’t give enough milk, or gored someone with its horns. It was banished because it was symbolically carrying away the sins of the people – in fact, all the sins of the people. The scapegoat demonstrated in a graphic way the complete removal of our sin through God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The Day of Atonement was an annual ritual of confession and repentance, and as such it was only a foretaste of what God would do personally and completely through Yeshua (Jesus, the Messiah). For Jesus is our great high priest who, unlike Aaron, represents not just Israel but all of humanity. As God-with-Us, he is the ultimate scapegoat, who was led away to a cross where he bore the curse for our sins and of the whole world. As the ultimate scapegoat, his sacrifice was the final act of atonement. (see Hebrews 10: 11-13). No longer would the high priest need to continually stand in the temple, offering sacrifices for the sins of the people. Indeed, there are reports that a mysterious change took place in the temple around AD 30. In the Jerusalem Talmud [Tractate Yoma 6.3] we read these words:
It has been taught: Forty years before the destruction of the Temple [i.e., AD 30] the western light went out [a sign of God’s presence], the crimson thread remained crimson [instead of turning white as a sign of God's cleansing, Is. 1:18], and the lot for the Lord [on the Day of Atonement] always came up in the left hand [instead of the right, a sign of God's disfavor]. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open [signifying God’s departure or an invitation to intruders]. Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, “O Temple, why do you frighten us? We know that you will end up destroyed. For it has been said, ‘Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars!’” (Zech 11:1).

This is a fascinating piece of tradition; for it suggests that around AD 30 when Jesus of Nazareth was beginning his public ministry, religious leaders were noticing mysterious changes on or near the Day of Atonement, as though God was not present nor operating in and through the normal temple rituals. Though the temple was destroyed in AD 70, the work of redemption has been completed. Yeshua has sat down at the right hand of God, and in his words from the cross: "It is finished" (John 19:30)! This is not just a nice piece of abstract theology...it has practical implications.
Jesus, the final scapegoat, gave us a powerful example to follow. He accepted blame even though he, of all people, was justified in blaming others. He forgave when he could have condemned; and calls us to repentance -- to accept the truth of our own sin and receive the assurance of God's forgiveness which he won for us on the cross. By his Spirit, he can empower us to stop blaming and start loving as he loved us: “In this is love,” says John, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4: 1-12).

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