Have you ever noticed how easy it is to blame or do wrong to another person, when we gather with others who echo those feelings?
I remember when I was in sixth grade there was a new student who faced repeated mockery from the other boys, and one day was even crammed into a locker by them. The incident bewildered me. This pattern of targeting a single person as the object of blame, violence, or hatred runs rampant throughout human history. Today’s readings invite us to ponder this theme of the scapegoat, exemplified first in Joseph and then definitively in Jesus.
We read of how the ten brothers of Joseph were filled with envy, seeing that their father “loved him best,” and so they conspired to kill him. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the Pharisees a parable in which the tenants of a vineyard reject the servants sent by their master, desiring to keep the harvest to themselves. When the master sends his son in hopes of winning their respect, they kill him off as well. Jesus thus reveals to the Pharisees that he is the very son against whom they are plotting.
“Come, Let us Kill”
One phrase echoes like a refrain as we read these two passages together: “Come, let us kill.” In both scenes, a group of people come together and urge each other to destroy someone else. Why? At the heart of it is envy, a fear of one’s own lack in the face of someone else’s goodness. The brothers of Joseph saw that their father loved him more than themselves, and thus they projected their hatred upon him. The Pharisees, like the tenants in the parable, fear their own loss of position and so decide to gather up against Jesus.
The truth is, we all harbor this destructive seed in our hearts, through original sin. There is a deep-rooted inclination in the human heart towards resentment of another person’s goodness, and so we often take a certain hidden pleasure in bringing that person down. When we do it together, that target becomes the scapegoat—an object of all our blame, all that is wrong with us. Indeed, in the Old Testament the scapegoat was an actual goat upon which the sins of the people were symbolically placed by the priest, as an act of atonement.
What strikes me as I reflect upon this phrase, “Come, let us kill,” is the false sense of community invoked. When a group of people indulge in envy and hatred towards another person, they build up a false unity amongst themselves. This can manifest in even the most seemingly benign circumstances, as when we gossip or complain about another person with others. False fellowship arises.
Fellowship of Forgiveness
What, then, is the antidote to this false community based upon blame? We discover the answer in both Joseph and Jesus: forgiveness. Consider the unfolding of Joseph’s own story. Though exiled from his land and condemned to prison, when Joseph reunites with his brothers, he generously offers forgiveness: “You meant evil against me but God meant it for good.” We find this transformation of evil into good fulfilled most powerfully in Jesus, who as the ultimate scapegoat, the victim of our sins, offers the unmerited gift of forgiveness. Those who receive are thus gathered together into a new fellowship, the communion of love and forgiveness. Such is the strange and paradoxical power of the Cross, which swallows up all the enormity and ugliness of human sin, and turns it inside out into a flood of grace.
Today, as we meditate upon these readings, I invite you to consider this figure of the scapegoat. In your words and actions with others, do you participate in the fellowship of love, oriented towards God? Or do you ever slip into the false fellowship of scapegoating?
“There is a deep-rooted inclination in the human heart towards resentment of another person’s goodness, and so we often take a certain hidden pleasure in bringing that person down. When we do it together, that target becomes the scapegoat—an object of all our blame, all that is wrong with us.”
That sentence really penetrated – I see it in the realm of today’s dialogue in politics, social media, the cancel culture, and other venues where people gather. Unfortunately, now I see entire groups labeled as a scapegoat for something they never did. Your analysis is very timely and great for meditation. Thank you.
I enjoyed the stories and analogies of scapegoating and was immediately convicted to look at myself and how I may be acting and how I can change. My first act is to forgive a family member who has done great harm to my daughter. The second act is for me to pray for the wrong doer, my daughter and me. Then I must stop talking about what happened to others, I don’t want to build a community of people who hate the wrong-doerer.
I hope God can send us the Grace’s needed to forgive like Joseph forgave his brothers and to do eventually show love again to the person who has caused harm.