Scapegoats

By Michael Smith

A Reading from Leviticus 16:20-34

20 “When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. 22 The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.

23 “Then Aaron shall enter the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen vestments that he put on when he went into the holy place and shall leave them there. 24 He shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his vestments; then he shall come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, making atonement for himself and for the people. 25 The fat of the purification offering he shall turn into smoke on the altar. 26 The one who sets the goat free for Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water and afterward may come into the camp. 27 The bull of the purification offering and the goat of the purification offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be taken outside the camp; their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be consumed in fire. 28 The one who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water and afterward may come into the camp.

29 “This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble yourselves and shall do no work, neither the native-born nor the alien who resides among you. 30 For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. 31 It is a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble yourselves; it is a statute forever. 32 The priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the linen vestments, the holy vestments. 33 He shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the Israelites once in the year for all their sins.” And Moses did as the Lord had commanded him.

Meditation

Scapegoating has become a common term meaning blaming a person for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others. The scapegoat carries the guilt for another. The literal scapegoat is introduced in today’s reading from Leviticus.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Jewish priest would lay his hands on the head of a goat, confessing the sins of Israel and thereby transferring the guilt of the people to the animal. The scapegoat was then driven out into the wilderness, carrying with it the disobedience and wickedness of the people. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has the LORD removed our sins from us” (Ps. 103:12).

Needless to say, scapegoating as a human behavior is unacceptable for God’s people. The concept of the original scapegoat takes on new life, however, in the suffering and death of Jesus who is recognized in the Suffering Servant of Israel:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is. 53:4-6)

Michael G. Smith served as bishop of North Dakota for fifteen years and is currently the Assistant Bishop of Dallas. He works with the Navajoland Iona Collaborative and is a Benedictine Oblate and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Tennessee
The Diocese of Liwolo – The Province of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan

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