By Paul N. Walker
My son and I are Red Sox fans. We watched the Red Sox play the Yankees on TV many years ago. I think nearly everyone knows that the Yankees and the Red Sox are archrivals. Of course, we were rooting with all our might for the Sox, but something happened at Fenway Park that curbed our enthusiasm.
Alex Rodriguez, who plays for the Yankees, stepped up to bat. A-Rod, as he’s known, is a baseball megastar. A-Rod, however, had been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, a charge that results in suspension from the league. According to Major League Baseball rules, an accused player may continue playing while he appeals the charge. This is what A-Rod was doing, and therefore the umpires allowed him to step to the plate.
Of course, he was booed vociferously. But then it went a step further. Ryan Dempster, the pitcher, intentionally threw at A-Rod on the first pitch. The ball landed behind him. OK, message sent. But then the second and third pitches were up and inside, causing Alex to veer out of the way.
Then the fourth pitch was a fastball aimed right at the batter that hit him squarely on the elbow. The crowd cheered like the Sox had won the World Series. No matter what you think about A-Rod, that incident was unsettling. I was glad when Rodriguez hit a home run later in the game — a little instant karma.
Maybe if I’d been there, I would have been caught up in the moment and cheered the pitcher, too. Mob mentality does take over. But what’s behind that mob mentality? I wonder if A-Rod was just a scapegoat for all the frustrations, petty and otherwise, felt by the Boston crowd that night. Domestic arguments, professional slights, traffic cut-offs, basic unhappiness — did all these find expression in Dempster’s intentionally violent pitch?
I think we see this dynamic in our gospel passage today. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. A poor crippled woman walks in. She’s been hunched over for 18 years, presumably in constant physical pain. Jesus sees her, stops what he’s doing or saying, calls her over, and heals her.
This compassionate work of God creates the usual antagonism among the authorities. As the text says, they were “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath.” No surprise: we’re pretty well-versed in the use of religion against people, of ideology and institution over the needs of the individual.
What caught my attention this time around was the authorities’ response: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” This abstemious comment seems to be directed at the poor, suffering woman.
Really? This daughter of Abraham is healed after 18 years of pain and the religionists are nitpicking about which day of the week it happens? She’s been curved in on herself, unable to look another person in the eye for 6,570 days, and she chose the wrong day for healing? And she didn’t even choose it! She didn’t ask to be healed. Jesus, the friend of sinners, the one “whose property is always to have mercy,” sees her suffering and responds.
I think there is serious transference happening here with this bent-over woman. We tend to scapegoat the strange. And don’t we tend to hate in others the very thing we hate in ourselves? When we bristle at the ego in others, vilifying them as narcissistic, I wonder if we are transferring our narcissism, trying to deal with what is ugly in ourselves.
Parents are usually hardest on the children who reflect the bad qualities that they find in themselves. When our daughter had her learner’s permit and was driving, I tended to do a lot of yelling when I was in the car with her. What did I yell about? Of course, the very things I do wrong when I drive!
This scapegoating dynamic is at the heart of Moby-Dick, considered one of the greatest American novels. Herman Melville describes Captain Ahab’s consuming obsession with Moby-Dick:
The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning …
Ahab locates in the White Whale not just his own malignity, but the total of the world’s woes:
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down …
Moby Dick is Ahab’s “scape-whale.”
The curved-in woman in the synagogue is booed like A-Rod and has piled upon her already bent frame the rage and hate felt by the whole race from Adam down. What is deeply telling is the woman’s particular malady. Her body, in a dark twist on the definition of a sacrament, is an outward and visible sign of our inward and spiritual condition.
Martin Luther described our inner life as incurvatus in se, Latin for “turned in on oneself.” Basically, we tend to live inward, toward and for ourselves, rather than outward, toward and for others and God. And a life lived this way never leads to fulfillment and often leads to bitterness. When the authorities see the bent-over woman, they see an expression of themselves.
It’s doubtful they recognize this irony — who fully recognizes our sin? But who doesn’t suffer from incurvatus in se? Who isn’t bent over like this woman, experiencing the pain of self-orientation? And who doesn’t offload his malignities onto a scapegoat? Who really lives for God and for others, with her lips and with her life? As the hymn we sing says, “If thou iniquities dost mark, / Our secret sins and misdeeds dark, / O who shall stand before Thee?”
Although our defenses are high, the law convicts us all and we are, as the Scripture says, “without excuse.” This means people know there is something wrong, something that needs to be fixed or healed, but it is better and easier to locate that something wrong in someone else and not in ourselves.
Maybe deep down we know we cannot fix ourselves. We need a scapegoat, an A-Rod, a Moby-Dick, a poor bent-over daughter of Abraham, to take away the malignities eating at us, so we do not have to go on living with half a lung and half a heart.
The synagogue authorities knew about scapegoating. Every year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would present two goats. One, called the Lord’s Goat, would be killed and sacrificed to God. This goat represented the burden of the people’s collective sin. Its blood was taken behind the veil of the Temple and sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.
Later, the High Priest confessed the sins of the Israelites and placed them figuratively on the head of the other goat, called the scapegoat. This goat was sent into the wilderness, taking the sins away, never to be seen again. The nation’s sin was atoned for by the Lord’s goat and the scapegoat.
It is impossible to know whether all this was in Jesus’ mind as he healed the bent-over woman on the Sabbath in the synagogue. By healing the woman, he swayed those who were “rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” (Mob mentality, thankfully, can swing to the better side of the ledger.) Yet Jesus knew the prophecy from Isaiah:
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.
Jesus is our scapegoat. We cannot fix ourselves, and blaming or scapegoating others only makes things worse. The only one who could stand sinless before God is the one who, for our sake, was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” He was sent out of the city gates with our sins. On the cross his blood atones for all that is wrong with you, with me, and the whole race from Adam down. Amen.
The Rev. Paul N. Walker is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.