By: Rev. Gene Dyszlewski
I’ve chosen these two readings to illustrate a point, a perspective on Christianity that colors how I approach the teachings of Jesus. Several of you have told me that you tend to ignore the Old Testament in favor of the New. While I think that the viewpoint of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels are authoritative, the Hebrew Scriptures provide the foundation to Christianity. However, Jesus is the lens through which we view the foundational teachings.
You may recall that Jesus said, “get past the idea of an eye for an eye; it’s a bad idea.” There is a new law,’love one another.” Jesus taught his disciples to forget Temple worship and the holiness code. Well, over the past 2,000 years some old and dated ideas have lingered or reentered Christian thinking. One is the idea of a scape goat.
The reading from Leviticus describes the temple practice of atonement for sin. Again, Jesus rejected temple worship and the holiness code of Leviticus. The very idea of temple worship is that the priest is the intermediary between you and God. This is antithetical to Jesus approach to religion, which is relational. This is especially true if you behave in such a way that you harm someone. In this framework your flawed conduct is identified and some ritual is performed on your behalf to make God like you again. It simply doesn’t work that way. This ritual atonement simply does nothing to address your flaw and the wound that may be behind it.
A major get rid of sin mechanism was the scape goat ritual. In this process a temple priest would do a cleansing ritual for himself. Then he would place his hands on a goat’s head as a means of putting all the faults and failings of the people on the head of the goat. The goat was led out into the desert and left on its own. Probably to be eaten by wolves or jackals.
This is a bad idea for several reasons. First of all it doesn’t work. It is guilt that the ritual is designed to relieve, not sin. If you have enough of an imagination, it may feel good for a few moments but it doesn’t really address the flaws that may be what has caused the guilt in the first place. It is bad theology. It is also bad psychology.
Scapegoating is a psychological mechanism to blame something on someone instead of owning the blame. These days blaming people for problems has gotten out of control. Scapegoating seeks to find the one single reason that addresses some distressing issue. Life is almost always more complex. Too often one factor that may in fact be an element contributing to the problem may not be the only component. So, we end up without a real solution; but we feel better. Why do we do this?
Tension. Anxiety. When humans identify something as a problem, it is typically something without an obvious solution. If a solution was evident, it wouldn’t be seen as a problem. Some human situations are complex. The real important ones, like living with diversity, often come with a paradox. We don’t like living with tension and anxiety. We are drawn to resolve the cognitive dissonance by choosing a probable reason which may be at the expense of the truth. Truth emerges from wisdom and wisdom requires patience, forbearance. We need to sit with the tension of conflict.
For example, dealing with ideological diversity presents us with a paradox. It is easy to see the other side is not only wrong but bad. Religious diversity also presents us with a paradox. Some tenets of Islam conflict with and negate some essential beliefs of Christianity. These differences are mainly theological and dogmatic rather than moral. Some of our thoughts about God are different. If it is important for me to right, I will beat up the muslim for their inaccuracies. If I am interested in relationship, I will focus on the immense commonalities among our moral beliefs and acknowledge that there are differences. What I cannot do is understand how to resolve the contradictions.
Sometimes life demands that we hold conflicting ideas. We need to hold them in our hearts more than in our heads. Our need to be comfortable gives us permission to scapegoat. Scapegoating feels good for a moment but in the long run does not resolve the issue. Therefore, scapegoating is not what we do. It is psychologically and theologically the wrong move.
Unfortunately Jesus gets conflated with the scape goat. The reading from John gives us a familiar phrase that is often misinterpreted in this way. John the Baptist tells his followers that Jesus is the the lamb of God. My primary concern about this passage is the word sin. In looking at the Greek text, the word used in Homeric literature is not translated as sin. The word may be translated as mistake or flaw. Sin has a particular meaning that developed over the centuries. It carries with it the idea that it is an act that insults God in some way. “Amartian” (αμαρτίαv) has no such meaning attached to it in any other context. In fact, Homer used the word to mean flaw.
The significance of this distinction is that this becomes a healing metaphor not a juridical one. The Lamb of God is a healer of the world, a healer of humanity and not someone who settles accounts with an angry God. Ironically, this metaphor about Christ has gotten conflated with a Jewish practice that was rejected by Jesus. For those of us far removed from our agrarian roots, a lamb is not a young goat. Lambs are young sheep; kids are young goats.
The Lamb of God metaphor has nothing to do with the scapegoat. It is a recognition of vulnerability. The servant of the Lord is vulnerable. There is something about God putting on the mantle of vulnerability that may be disturbing to us but that’s what John is telling us. Relationship is built upon vulnerability not on power.
Salvation comes from the latin word for healing. Following the vulnerable servant of a vulnerable God is how your flaws and your wounds are healed. Jesus was a healer, a vulnerable healer whose death was inevitable because he was human However, his crucifixion was unfortunate. Jesus death was not payment for my sins. Jesus life was lived for my sake. We are post enlightenment people. The concept of sin as an act that upsets God no longer resonates with most people today.
Jesus didn’t have a sin obsession. He invited us to be fully alive, loving people. He gave us the beatitudes and other precious teachings to encourage us to focus our lives on flourishing not on sin avoidance.
Another thing that I find interesting, in the same verse with the Lamb of God, the word for world is an interesting one. The word is cosmos (κόσμος)” Cosmos is a little broader than world. In the ancient world, cosmos was understood to mean order in the world versus chaos which is disorder in the world. What John the Baptist said, may have been behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the flaws of the world. What his followers heard, and what many in the infant church heard, and what I hear is, “behold the vulnerable servant of a vulnerable God who heals the flaws of our existence that we may flourish.