Our Great Scapegoat

champaigne_shepherd1Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus thought about telling them this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And, on the sixth day, as you all know, God created Adam and Eve.  After a time, they had a son.  His name was Cain.  And a short time later, they had another son, named Abel.

Now, as you Pharisees and scribes no doubt know—because, after all, you are good Jews; you were brought up on the scriptures by your parents and the Temple—as you know, Cain and Abel grew up.  And one day they were out in the fields, offering sacrifices to God.  And, curiously, Abel’s sacrifice pleased the Most High God; but, for whatever reason, Cain’s did not.

An overwhelming jealousy came over Cain; and what did he do but rise up against his brother Abel and strike him down, dead as anything?  You know all this.

But what did God do next?  Did he strike Cain down, saying something like, “Vengeance is mine?”

No!  Rather, God put a mark on Cain and exiled him off to another place.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: God put a mark on Cain so that everyone who came in contact with him would avoid him; so that everyone who came in contact with him would know he was a monster and thus steer clear.  For this is what you’ve been taught.

But it’s not like that at all!  Rather than putting a mark on Cain to identify him as a murderer, isn’t Cain’s mark rather a grace from God?  Read your scriptures!  According to them, Cain’s mark is so that others will not be able to take vengeance on him.

And then, with this mark of God’s protection and grace upon him, what does Cain do?  He settles in the land of Nod, east of Eden, where he establishes a new civilization, replete with culture, laws, morals, ethics, politics, and so on.

Cain’s son Enoch founded a whole city bearing his name.  Cain’s descendant Jubal (according to Genesis 4:21), “was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and the pipe”; and his descendant Tubal-cain “made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.”  That’s what the scriptures say!

Cain grumbled about his brother.  All of his problems, he told himself, were because of him.  Thus, Abel became Cain’s scapegoat.  So Cain killed Abel.  And then—interestingly enough—he went off to found a civilization.


All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus thought about telling them this:

In the beginning of the history of Rome, after the great Aeneas had landed on the shores of Italy at Latium, as you all know, twin brothers were born by the names of Romulus and Remus.

As young men these twins were astounded to hear a prophecy about themselves: one of the two was destined to establish a great city that should one day become an empire to rule the entire known world.  One of these two, the prophecy said; not both!

And thus the audacious Romulus began to build a sort of wall, establishing boundaries for his new city.  But Remus caught wind of Romulus’s plan and, in a display of defiance, jumped over Romulus’s wall, in full sight of Romulus, to say in effect that his boundary meant nothing.  The city is mine to establish, Remus said, not yours.

And, as you all know, Romulus rose up against his brother in a fit a jealousy and struck him down, dead as anything.  He then went on to establish the great city Rome, with all its civilization, culture, laws, morals, ethics, politics, and so on.

Now, O Pharisees and scribes, does this story remind you of anything?  Doesn’t it sound a lot like the rivalry between Cain and Abel?

Except now there’s a major difference.  In Cain and Abel’s story, Cain was wrong to spill his brother’s blood upon the ground.  And thus he was exiled in punishment.

But here, in Romulus and Remus’s story, the gods in fact approve of the killing; for the killing of Remus was, according to the pantheon, not a murder but a necessary sacrifice.  If Remus had continued to live, according to the gods, then the city would never have been founded.

So: Cain is guilty but nevertheless forgiven; Romulus isn’t even guilty.

Abel and Remus were both scapegoats.  In the Jewish story, Abel was a scapegoat for his human brother.  In the Roman story, Remus was a scapegoat both for the human and the divine.


What is it about us and scapegoats?

There’s something in all of us that gravitates towards rivalry.  It’s nothing new, nothing unique to our generation.  The Olympic Games date back almost three millennia, to 776 BCE (according to the IOC).

Even in Eden, rivalry was part of the serpent’s strategy in tempting Eve.  “You will be like God,” the serpent claimed.  God was made Eve’s rival.

Now, there are individual rivalries—Cain versus Abel, Romulus versus Remus, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier.  And there are group rivalries—the Trojans versus the Greeks, the Patriots versus the Colts, Republicans versus Democrats.

Evolutionary biologists point to natural selection: this innate competitive instinct is in our species for our own survival, they say.

Whatever the case, it’s there.  Competition is part of our human make-up.

And a very real part of rivalry is the scapegoat.

I want to get ahead, to be first.  And one way to do that (among others) is to place all my problems, faults, inadequacies, and weaknesses on someone else: a scapegoat.  Then I feel better about myself.

Eve told God, “The devil made me do it.”  Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Romulus said the gods needed Remus as a sacrifice.  The Romans captured and enslaved the Greeks because, they said, the Greeks had conquered the Trojans: they got what was coming to them.  Tom Brady deflated footballs.  The reason the economy is so bad today is because of Obama; or, if you’re a Democrat, because of Bush.

What is it about us and scapegoats?

I’ll tell you what it is: they unify us.

If it were only and ever up to individual rivalries, we humans would never unify over anything.  Cain would kill Abel and Romulus would kill Remus; then, in some dark alley of mythology, Cain and Romulus would meet and fight until only one was left standing.

But, strangely, curiously, scapegoats unify us as a group against our rivals.  In the scapegoat we find a common enemy.

Suppose there’s a divisive issue at your place of work.  The boss thinks she’s found the source of the problem: a grumpy co-worker no one seems too sorry to see let go.  Then, curiously, after the co-worker is fired, the issue clears up—at least for the time being.  And then you all say, “Well, I guess the grumpy co-worker was the reason we couldn’t accomplish our agenda after all.”  For now that he—your rival—is out of the picture, why, you have some peace.  As a group, you are unified.

This peace may last only for a moment, sure.  Nevertheless, now there is unification amongst the ninety-nine because the one at fault has been discovered, identified, and cast out.

We humans are kind of a nasty species, yeah?  We tend to think in dichotomies.  It’s either we or they; the good guys or the bad guys; Democrat or Republican; the ninety-nine or the one.

We form our own rivalries in our minds, pick sides, establish loyalties, and fight against our common enemy, our scapegoat.  We establish unwritten rules about who’s in and who’s out; who’s saved and who’s not; who’s worthy of inviting to church and who’s not; who are the tax collectors and sinners and who’s not.

Yet, by God’s grace and forgiveness, even Cain went on to found an entire civilization.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus told them this parable:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? . . .  Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”

You know what Jesus is talking about here?  This is the new civilization Jesus has founded, the City of God.

Jesus includes the lost sheep in his city.  Like an old woman who values every single coin she possesses, Jesus searches far and wide until he finds them all.

In his new civilization, the City of God:

  • Jesus includes the Cains.
  • He includes the Romuluses.
  • He includes tax collectors.
  • He includes sinners.
  • He includes Pharisees.
  • He includes scribes.
  • And he includes scapegoats.

By the way, who is the greatest scapegoat of all?  Isn’t it Jesus Christ himself, our great Scapegoat, upon whom we have placed all our sin and misery?

And finally, when all the lost sheep and coins, Cains and Romuluses, tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes—when all the forsaken scapegoats have been found and welcomed into Jesus’ new civilization, the City of God, there will be great rejoicing!


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