Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
Aug 12, 2018—Proper 14B
Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6:51). Which is … wait, what? That’s what they would have been thinking, anyway. They weren’t raised on bread described as the body of Christ, so they would have been flailing. The only possible way to make sense of this would have been to remember John the Baptist describing Jesus as the Lamb of God, and then connect that to the fact that (as the gospel writer made sure to tell us) it was currently Passover.
So they hear this echo of Egypt, when the Hebrew slaves were told to slaughter the Passover lamb and mark their doorways with the blood, so that the angel of death would know to spare their firstborn children. They were exempt from the punishment due the Egyptians. The blood was a sign, in fact, of their innocence, and a precursor to their liberation. They would be set free to return to their own land.
But now, that land has been overrun by an outside power, and Jesus is the new Passover lamb. It is Jesus who will be killed to set his people apart from the members of an oppressive regime; the blood of Jesus put over their doorways to save them from the judgment of God. Not to cleanse them of their own sins, but to make it clear that THEY are not the oppressors here. Rome will be the ones who will face God’s wrath for what they have done to the children of God, just as Egypt paid before them.
Jesus is the Passover lamb. In all four of the gospels, this is made clear. Paul then expands this idea, extending the image of Jesus as sacrificial lamb to other temple rites, in which Jews would make offerings in order to make themselves right with God. In these cases, THEY had sinned, and made an offering (something that cost them, something that required giving something up) in order to make things right with God.
In this larger context, Jesus is not only the Lamb of God who marks us innocent and spares us from death; he is also the sacrifice that acknowledges our sin and makes us right with God. He is Life, because he is bread and he is flesh and he is the lamb.
I would argue, however, that he is also the goat. Not GOAT as in Greatest Of All Time (although of course, he is! Duh), but goat as in the scapegoat. Or rather, goat as in both of the goats who were used in the ancient rites of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The turn of the year, when the Jewish people contemplate all that they have done wrong in the past year. For the things that they have done wrong to others, they make things right to whatever extent that is possible. For the offenses they have committed against God, well … they handled those in a couple of ways.
They took two goats. One goat was offered in the same way that a usual sacrifice was offered: something valuable is given to God as a sign of confession and remorse. No excuses or rationalizations or passing of the buck. Just the humility and willingness to give something up as acknowledgment and penance.
The other goat, however, functioned slightly differently. Over that one, the chief priests would confess all the sins of the community, all of the worst of human behavior of which we are capable. They would then drive that goat far out into the hills.
Why two goats? Well, Maimonides suggests that the scapegoat ritual symbolized casting our sinful impulses as far away from us as possible.[i] It underscored the fact that we can’t necessarily depend on our good impulses to keep us from sin. We have to fight. We have to drive them away, have to actively keep them far from us. It reminds us, I would say, that they are undesirable and destructive, despite how tempting some of them might seem.
So, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores it, we have the first goat, who symbolizes the better angels of our nature: the ones who can take responsibility and make restitution for the wrongs we do. But we still need the second goat, who reminds us of our worse impulses (the ones that worm around and rationalize; the one that say “it was her fault” or “everyone does it;” the ones that cry, “I deserve to have this!” or sneer “She deserves what happens to her…”): the ones that refuse to take responsibility for our own actions and inactions. The ones we must fight to drive away, again and again and again.[ii]
The scapegoat, then, only takes our sins upon itself as a reminder to us of our capacity for terrible sin. It doesn’t die in our stead. It doesn’t bear our punishment on our behalf. It doesn’t take away our wrongdoings by taking the blame for all wrongdoing. It symbolizes our wrongdoing to remind us of our wrongdoing. To show how powerful our tendency toward wrongdoing is, and how extreme our action to resist it has to be.
We use scapegoats wrong. We hold one up and place all the blame on them, and then somehow pretend we have freed our family, our company, our society of that wrong. But that’s not how it works. A scapegoat should make us more aware of that tendency in ourselves, not less. And it can only properly exist alongside the confession and repentance represented by the other goat.
These are powerful symbols. They were powerful in their ancient rituals and even more powerful now, eternally present in Jesus. He is the Lamb of God, and he reminds us of God’s intention to liberate the slave and punish the oppressor. He is the Lamb of God, and he embodies the promise of God’s acceptance of our confession and repentance. He is the Lamb (the goat) of God, and he warns us of the seductive power of our evil impulses and offers us the strength to cast them out.
The power is his, but the hands now have to be ours. He is goodness. But we can’t just let him be good for us, and leave it all up to him. Others are quite definitely evil. But we can’t just scapegoat them and pretend that all the evil in the world is on them. All of these sacrifices always pointed back to the people who made them, reminding them of what they needed to do. What we need to do. Who we need to be and can be, if we let the bread of life live within our flesh. May it be so. Amen
[i] Quoted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/1846869/jewish/The-Scapegoat-Atonement-and-Purification.htm