One thing you don’t want to be according to certain parts of the Bible is a goat. Check out Leviticus 17, where you will find instructions for what the community was to do on the day of Atonement. It involves taking two goats, bringing them before the temple. A coin gets flipped, and one of the two goats is selected to be sacrificed unto the Lord in the Temple. Hearing this, you might think that the other goat was the fortunate one. Actually, no. The other goat was cast out by the community to die a slow painful death in the wilderness. This goat was to carry with it all the guilt of the people. Hence the term “scapegoat.”
Evidently the ritual was a useful one, unloading a certain amount of toxic blame and negativity, allowing the community to move forward into a new year with a clean sheet, feeling unified and renewed. Better, it would seem, to kill a goat than a human being, which is what people have been doing since the beginning of human history. Adam and Eve’s son killed his brother Abel, making him the object of all his frustration and resentment in life.
Over the last two thousand years, Jews have often played the role of scapegoat for Christians, with the most horrific example of this being the holocaust.
With the defeat of the Nazis and Fascism, Americans found a new scapegoat in the Soviet Union. Scapegoats can be useful in forming a sense of identity and unity. For about forty years, we felt confident of our moral superiority to the godless communists. But then twenty years ago the Berlin Wall fell, and with it Soviet communism. China began opening up as well. This, of course, was a good thing, but it presented something of a problem in regard to losing our identity-shaping scapegoat.
About this time conservative Christian pulpits began to identify a new scapegoat: Gays. Then in 2001 the terrorist attacks of September 11th provided a more threatening scapegoat: militant Moslems.
The thing about scapegoats is that generally speaking they do have certain negative qualities that lend themselves to becoming a scapegoat. Goats, for instance, tend to be harder to keep than sheep, because, interestingly enough, they are smarter than sheep, and hence better at escaping.
The problem with scapegoating though is that it blinds us to reality. By focusing on the sins of the scapegoat, we overlook our own sins. We reduce the world into a simple dichotomy of pure good and pure evil, with ourselves squarely among the good. The positive qualities of the scapegoat can’t be recognized.
I’ve focused on the big social-political examples of scapegoating, but what I’m describing is more pervasive than that. We all engage in it. If you’re sitting there thinking, “Gee, Jeff, I’m glad you’re giving this sermon, because so and so needs to hear this,” think again: you are so and so. I am too.
The democracy that we Americans tend to be so proud of is failing precisely because we have a hard time resisting the urge to scapegoat those who disagree with us. Who is responsible for all of our problems? The people on the other side of the political spectrum from us, whoever they may be.
Those of us who pride ourselves in our tolerance can be downright intolerant of people whose views don’t match those of ourselves.
The health of every marriage and every other intimate relationship is directly connected to the ability of the partners to resist the urge to scapegoat other person; to locate all the guilt for what goes wrong in the relationship in the other person.
In his ministry, Jesus had this persistent affinity with scapegoats. He tended to hang out with outcastes, much to the distress of those who had cast them out. At the dinner part of a Pharisee, he welcomed the embrace of “woman of the night”, perhaps a prostitute, angering the Pharisees. (The thing about prostitutes is that they would have no business if not for the customers willing to employ them for the expression of their lust.) He reached out to the Gerasene Demoniac, cast out from his community as the embodiment of darkness, and when the man was delivered from his bondage, the good people of the community are strangely displeased. (Losing a scapegoat can mess with your head.) The woman who was caught in adultery and brought to Jesus and the way to be stoned, ( it take two to commit adultery, a fact overlooked in this story) finds a friend in Jesus, who says, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.”
And in this morning’s Gospel lesson we hear about Zacchaeus , another classic scapegoat. As a rich taxcollector who has been conspiring with the Romans to profit from his own people in their oppression, he provides an easy depository for all the sin and guilt of the community. To the community’s great dismay, rather than add on to the pile-on of accusation focused on this taxcollector, Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. In challenging the peoples’ scape-goating, Jesus himself becomes their scapegoat.
It is just a matter of days before he will be nailed upon a cross, becoming, in a sense, the scapegoat for all of humanity, with the idea being, Jesus has hereby put an end to all scape-goating, once and for all. Unfortunately, we Christians more often than not haven’t gotten this, so we keep on looking for another scapegoat to put all the blame on.
I heard a hopeful story on the program I often listed to named Radio Lab. In a small town in Oregon, with all the qualities you associate with small town life, a man named Stu grew up. Everybody in town had always known Stu, as it the way things are in small towns. As an adult Stu was owned the only movie theater in town, located in the very center of town, which gave Stu something of a central role in the town’s life. Caring deeply about his town, Stu was involved in the Chamber of Commerce and local government.
Now it just so happened that from fairly early on in his life, Stu was aware of a way in which he was different; specifically, he didn’t really recognize himself as male, and felt a desire to wear women’s clothes. As he described it, when he looked in the mirror, he just liked himself better when he wore women’s clothing.
At some point Stu began to experiment in fairly subtle ways with the way he presented himself. He began by occasionally painting his nails. As a promotional gimmick for the movie of the week, Stu would dress up as one of the characters, always choosing a female character: Princess Leah, for instance, in Star Wars. It struck people as a bit odd, a curiosity, and they would drive by the movie theater to see what character Stu had taken on this week.
Slowly, over the years, Stu went further, undergoing in part a sex change. Eventually there was no mistaking what Stu was doing; he wore women’s clothes all the time now.
Now if Stu had come from the outside as one who behaved this way, perhaps the town would have rejected him. But since they had known and loved their whole lives, they tolerated what they saw as Stu’s eccentricities. Folks might have said the cross dressing wasn’t something they exactly “approved” of, nonetheless he was “their Stu,” and they knew him to have a good heart.
In fact, in 2008 Stu was elected in a close race as mayor of their town, a fact that made national news. There is a distressing church in Kansas that sees it as their mission to travel around the country holding signs that say things like “God hates Fags”, and announcing that Hell is America’s destination for tolerating gay people. When these folks heard about Stu getting elected, well they quickly sent a half dozen or so of their members on a road trip to Oregon, where they set up an ongoing demonstration in the center of town.
As you might imagine, Stu was pretty distressed, and he encouraged his people to just ignore the demonstrators. But the townsfolk felt offended by the demonstrators, so it only seemed right to them to set up a counter-demonstration. Somebody got the idea that their point could be made a bit stronger if the men in the counter-demonstration dressed up in women’s clothes, and the idea caught on. In short order, there were a couple of hundred cross-dressing counter-demonstrators, many of whom would have described their selves as being by nature pretty conservative. They weren’t about to let “their Stu” be scape–goated. Before long, the folks from Kansas left town.
If truth be told, we are all pretty weird. Scratch the surface of the appearance we work hard to manage, and you will find an odd ball with quirks that might make cross-dressing seem pretty tame. Jesus comes to stand with the odd balls — the scape-goats — and here and there, grace prevails, and the kingdom of God is discovered. And as Jesus said of Zaccheaus, “Salvation has come to this house, today.”