Thursday, March 6, 2008


When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 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 by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-22)
This is the passage from Leviticus from which we get the term "scapegoat." The goat bore the guilt, shame and sins of the people on their behalf and it was driven into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It was a cleansing ritual so that the people could go on with their lives with a sense of wholeness and a burden being lifted.

But what about the goat? Live long enough, and you'll end up being a symbolic scapegoat for something. Anyone who has been a change agent in their workplace often finds themselves playing the role of the scapegoat! The sins of past inactions, poor policies, and bad decisions get heaped on the one who is trying to make a difference until they are driven out of the group. It is certainly much easier to dump our sins onto another and then drive that person out when they begin to shed light on our sins. But, does this ever cause us to repent of the underlying sin and return to a wholeness of relationship?

One way to understand Jesus' death on the cross was as an atoning death. On him was the sin of all humanity laid and for our sins he died. We still hear language like this in the Church. Jesus was certainly a change agent and, in his ministry, he shed light on the systemic sins of his culture. "... it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed," said Caiaphas (John 11:50). This certainly bears the marks of a scapegoat.

Jesus' death was more than this because of his resurrection. The scapegoat returned! Jesus' resurrection reminds us that we cannot run away from our sins or heap them onto someone else and hope they just go away. Jesus' resurrection is God's reconciling love in action. There are no scapegoats in reconciliation - nobody is driven into the wilderness to die. Even in the midst of our sinfulness (and yeah, there's plenty of that for all of us), we are promised through the resurrection that we will be reconciled back to God ... and to each other.

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