Let those without sin choose the scapegoat

  • March 7, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C) March 17 (Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11)

Human memory can be very faulty when it comes to remembering the great things God has done for us. We need to be constantly reminded. The psalm’s refrain of “The Lord has done great things for us” is but one example of how the Scriptures continually proclaimed God’s past mercies and blessings.

This was even more urgent when the people of God found themselves in deep trouble or in the midst of suffering. Isaiah called to mind the mighty signs and wonders of Exodus and the deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army but there was a twist. The audience was told to forget all of these things — they were no longer of any consequence — because God was preparing to trump all past deeds on Israel’s behalf. Exodus would seem like nothing compared to what was about to take place.

Isaiah’s prophecy was delivered to the Israelites in Babylonian exile in the mid-6th century BC, and the great deed about to happen was the release of the captives and their return to Jerusalem. Once again God was about to deliver the people of God from the clutches of a superpower — the Babylonians and their conquerors the Persians. So the people were told not to dwell on the past or cling to deeds long ago, but to look to the future and expect even greater things from God.

It is easy to feel abandoned by God when we suffer or painful difficulties overtake us. There is often the tendency to look longingly to times past when God seemed so near and we were happier — at least in our fantasies. Real faith, however, is expecting and believing that God is continually at work on our behalf. Do not be swallowed up by suffering or allow hope and joy to be extinguished. God is certainly far more powerful than anything life can throw at us.

Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus convinced him to turn from the past to the future. He was proud of his heritage and his accomplishments as a Pharisee. Although he has sometimes been portrayed by later writers as unhappy and tormented with doubts and angst, he was actually quite happy and fulfilled in the spiritual life that he had been practicing throughout his lifetime. His experience of Christ was life-changing and it altered his worldview. The joy and wonder of his new relationship with the Lord was of such overwhelming intensity all of his previous experiences paled in comparison. Paul never looked back but continued to run the race and reach forward for the prize.

The school bullying that has filled the media in the past few years is but a variation on a very old human theme, that of scapegoating. There has always been a tendency on the part of some to vent their pent-up rage, fear, resentment or competitive greed on some hapless soul or an entire group. Various ethnic or religious groups are often the victim, or anyone who is different in appearance, customs, or lifestyle.

The woman caught in adultery had been cornered by a murderous mob that was out for blood. They attempted to get Jesus to sign off on the judicial murder by appealing to religious law. This was not about justice — note that her partner was conspicuous by his absence. Jesus’ only response was to write silently in the sand. It was not a list of their signs as legend has it but probably something inconsequential. He consented to the stoning but on the condition that the one without sin cast the first stone.

They had been projecting all of their negative energy on the hapless woman but he turned it back on them. They realized to their dismay that they were not in a morally superior position. He forced them to confront and acknowledge their own darkness.

After they had all departed, Jesus assured the woman that he didn’t condemn her and gave her some friendly advice: don’t put yourself in this position again.

During times of economic and political instability or religious turmoil, scapegoating usually increases as people search for a person or group to blame and persecute. We need to be vigilant that we are not seduced by emotional rhetoric, moral crusades, and fear to become one of the mob.