Question: Fr. Joby M.
Jesus was killed as a scapegoat. How do you think about it together with the fact He was annihilated by the bitter opposition of those who wielded power and that He was sacrificing Himself? He was sacrificed by Jewish religion and Roman Empire and then how did He sacrifice His life to the will of the Father?
Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS
The book of Leviticus giving directions about the selection and function of a scapegoat says, “the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel (Levi 16:10). Further it says, “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness” (Levi 21-22). Since then the religious ritual of scapegoating continued but scapegoating in various ways were practiced even before the Old Testament times and continues even today in various forms and types. The great anthropological philosopher, René Girard observes, “Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them.” In all religions, socio-political organizations and even families the practise of scapegoating is common. Whatever be the religious, psychological, cultural, social and anthropological reasons for the same, it is the unjust victimisation of an individual or a group in order to escape from the responsibility of accepting the consequences of criminal attitudes, behaviour or actions by those who are actually responsible for them. It is a defence mechanism for self-preservation or group preservation employing wrong means. Religions sacralise and ritualize it by making it a sacrifice.
Without any religious interpretations world history affirms that Jesus of Nazareth was a scapegoat of both of the Jewish authorities and the Romans who ruled Palestine at his time. The crucifixion of Jesus was a miscarriage of justice by Pontius Pilates, the governor appointed by the Roman colonial power which illegally occupied Palestine. It was clear that Pilate would not have taken the decision to crucify Jesus, had He not been forced by the Jewish religious authorities who threatened Him with dire consequences if He did not stop someone challenging the supreme authority of Caesar.
Jesus did not just die on the cross as pious devotional expressions narrate the most ignominious event of crucifying someone whom everyone knew as innocent except those who were blinded by desire to protect their positions of power. He was brutally murdered. Why? Fear had gripped everyone involved in this tragic event except the one who was crucified. Pilate was afraid of someone informing Caesar that he had taken the side of a man whom the Jews accused of challenging the sovereignty of Caesar by claiming to be the king of the Jews. The Jewish religious authorities like Annas and Caiphas were afraid that the religious power-structure that provided them enormous power to control the destiny of their fellow humans would be challenged if they allowed Jesus to continue His preaching and healing. The ordinary people who shouted, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him” were afraid that they might be expelled from the synagogue by those who wielded religious power if they would not support the nefarious plans of those unscrupulous religious authorities to kill an innocent human being! The disciples of Jesus were afraid that they would lose their life for associating with Him as they ran away from the scene of His arrest. Peter, their leader denied Jesus three times for fear of the Jewish authorities. Jesus, the scapegoat, alone remained fearless! Though it was difficult for Him to give up His life, He surrendered His life to God, whom He called Abba rather than giving up the values He believed in and preached with courage and conviction.
Jesus, murdered as a Scapegoat for his Values
The Christian piety expresses the murder of Jesus as death on the cross for the sins of the world. Certainly, that is the faith-experience of the early Church and that of the Christians of all times. However, the secular terms like death on the cross or dying on the cross, crucifixion etc. do not express the cruel murder of a just and innocent Jesus for what He stood for. Jesus proclaimed the values of God’s reign that was already present through Him and through His proclamation of it. Jesus preached that the “Kingdom of God” or God’s reign is in their midst to be recognized, accepted and celebrated. He spoke about it with such an authority unknown to His predecessors that the people recognized it saying, “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:29). It is His Abba experience that made Him proclaim that for the God whom He experienced humans and their well-being are more important than Sabbath, laws and the temple. For this God of Jesus, justice, love, equality, reconciliation, peace, compassion and other values that make humans really humans are more important than all religious rituals including the most sacred sacrifices.
Jesus not only preached the values of God’s reign but actualized them in His life. Justice was a kingdom-value for Him and therefore He stood against the religious and economic structures and systems of the Jewish society that practiced injustice. He had the courage to cleanse the temple by chasing the criminal, money-changers and merchants who exploited the poor. He stood against the powerful religious authorities of His time who exploited the weak and the ignorant with prophetic zeal and courage naming their ways of exploitation (Matthew 23:1-35). Equality was a value for Him that He recognized the equality of all humans. For Him man or woman, children or adults, ritually pure or impure, rich or poor were all the children of the same Father in Heaven. He had table-fellowship with the so called outcastes and sinners. Those ostracized by the Jewish society because of their physical, psychological, social and spiritual sicknesses were welcomed and healed by Him. He welcomed sinners and forgave them and offered them a new life. Thus He concretized the values He believed in as an expression of His faith in his heavenly Father. Finally, when the Jewish religious system sought to annihilate Him, He had to take a decision either to give up the values He believed in and concretized in His ministry or give up His life.
The narration about Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane with “sweating blood” expresses His intense experience of inner pain of decision-taking either to give up the values or give up life. He gives up His life rather than giving up the values He stood for. It is here that we find relevant what Viktor E Frankl states in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning referring to his own experience facing death in the Nazi Concentration camps. He says, “The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you become the plaything to circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity…” Jesus never let the Jewish or Roman powers to rob Him of His self or freedom, He gives Himself up trusting in His Abba come what may! That is the ultimate test of one’s faith – whether one would give up his or her life or give up the values she or he believes in. Jesus sacrifices His life rather than sacrificing His values. Some before Jesus and some after Him have done so. But what makes the sacrifice of Jesus different from others is the experience and recognition of Jesus as God and human after they encountered Him as alive after His death and burial in the tomb! Therefore, not only humans but also God is involved in this self-offering. Self-offering or self-sacrifice one makes not only reveals the mystery of humans but also the mystery of God. When it is ritualized without corresponding self-offering it becomes an empty ritualism. When any system or persons make others victims and offer them at the altar of their self-interest, it is a perversion of sacrifice. Here again the victim can become victorious when the ‘last freedom’ is used transforming forced offer into a self-sacrifice so that something good may be effected both for the victim as well as for the perpetrators of the crime. Jesus’ life and mission show that He lived for others and He transformed His victimhood into a self-sacrifice for others.
Mystification of the Cross
Both the New Testament witness as well as the Christian piety tried to spiritualize the Cross because it was a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles (I Cor 1:23). The mystification or the spiritualization of the cross began in the New Testament itself. When Matthew and Mark present the last cry of Jesus on the cross as the one who was abandoned by the Father (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”), Luke expressed it as the surrender of the Son to the Father(“Into your hands I commend my spirit), John presented it as the triumphant accomplishment of the mission entrusted to the Son, (“It is finished”). When the cross was spiritualized it became an object of worship forgetting the cause of Jesus’ crucifixion.And it became a substitute for following the values Jesus stood for and suffering the consequences of such a following of Jesus.
The theology of the cross presented the cruel torture and murder of Jesus only as the death on the cross for the sins of the world designed by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the questions, ‘who is this God who wants the sacrifice of his Son?’ or ‘why should Jesus be a scapegoat for others?were not raised. It was taken for granted as a design or plan of God, the Father, for the salvation of the world. Therefore, in the middle ages, Anselm of Canterbury advanced the theology of Satisfaction in his book, Cur Deus Homo (Why did God become Human’) that God’s offended honour and dignity by the sins of humans could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-human, Jesus Christ. One could raise the question, ‘What kind of God is this who wants the sacrifice of his Son?’ Some others held a ludicrous theological view that by committing sins humans are in the custody of the devil and he must be paid to release humans from this slavery. Such a theology presumes that by his death Jesus paid a price to devil to save humankind as though the devil is more powerful than God. Such theological opinions entered into many prayers of popular devotions that a number of Christians believe that this is the correct understanding of the mystery of the cross even today.
Jesus’ Self-Sacrifice reveals God
One who believes in God can find meaning in whatever happens in his or her life by relating it to God. It is the same with the crucifixion of Jesus by the Roman power and demanded by the Jewish religious authorities who found Jesus a threat to their power and position. But the early Church recognized in the self-sacrifice of Jesus who was murdered by the unjust system, the eternal sacrifice of God played out in history. Abuse of God-given human freedom makes even God its victim. As long as humans misuse their freedom the victimhood of God continues and God suffers when humans suffer because God cannot be separated from humans.
The Old Testament ritual of scapegoat who carries the sins of the people is interpreted in the New Testament as the pre-figuration of Jesus Christ (John 1:29; II Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 9:11-14). Jesus Christ as the Word became human includes every human and what happened to him affects everyone whether the one is the victim or the perpetrator who has committed the crime of making another the victim of his or her cruelty and he suffers in both of them because God is love. Love involves sacrifice. Was it the will of the Father that Jesus had to suffer as a victim of the brutal power structures of his time? It can be better understood as the consequence of God’s choice to be born and live as human in a situation that opposes God. God cannot take back the gift of freedom which God has given to humans. God continues to suffer and sacrifices himself till all humans use their freedom properly to unfold themselves as humans in right relationship with God, other humans and the world in which they live.