Jesus breaks the cycle of scapegoating

Proper 16 Year C    August 14, 2016

Luke 12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

I know what it sounds like to hear this text alone.  It doesn’t sound good. It doesn’t sound like the loving Jesus you want to hear.

So I want to say this clearly right at the beginning.  Read in context, we will see that Jesus did not come to bring the kind of division we’re seeing in this world.  Jesus is describing our divisions.  Jesus came to bring love, forgiveness, understanding.  But that’s an enormous challenge for us.

Somebody showed me their little Orthodox icon this week.  It depicts the Holy Family in the Temple in Jerusalem, a meeting recorded in Luke’s Gospel.  There are Joseph and Mary.  There is Anna, a prophet.  There is Simeon, also a prophet, who holds the baby Jesus in his arms.  I remembered what Simeon said on that occasion, as the Gospel According to Luke tells us:

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed.” (Luke 2)

Opposition.  The coming of the Prince of Peace brings a division.  Some try, at least, to follow.  Others oppose.

I remembered what Luke tells us about Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth when he read from the prophet Isaiah and then said he was here to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of Good News for the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind.  After the sermon, he got everybody enraged at him when he reminded them from their own Scripture that sometimes foreigners and people of other religions are more responsive to God than they are.  I remember they tried to shove him off a cliff on that occasion.  Do you remember that?

Opposition.  The message of Jesus brings about opposition, division.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man,” Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Plain.

“The Most High is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, so be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” he’s said in that same sermon.

We wish it were so easy, a world of mercy, of peace and love and understanding.  Would that it were easy; that all Jesus would have to do would be to tell us to forgive, to show mercy, to seek understanding, and we would just do it. But Jesus knows it isn’t so easy.

It seems clear to me that by the time we get to the point in Luke’s Gospel where we read today, Jesus is more and more aware of the opposition he’s stirring up with preaching like his.  And thus this passionate outburst.  Jesus wants the world to embrace the kingdom of God; a kingdom of love and forgiveness and understanding, and he wishes it were already accomplished!

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence in the world, and about how the Gospel story of Jesus speaks to this, and I’ve been influenced, as others have, by insights from a man named Rene Girard and by others who’ve studied his brilliant insights.

Girard points out the ancient roots of our habit of defining ourselves over against one another in societies, nations, tribes, families.  Our desires come into conflict, and when they do, conflict arises, which repeatedly erupts into violence.  When the level of violence becomes unbearable societies and families tend to find scapegoats upon which to place the blame for their conflict and division.  They find someone to blame, and to sacrifice, and peace is at least temporarily restored.

This scapegoating mechanism produced human sacrifice in ancient societies the world over.  The ancient Hebrew people of the Bible came into their identity amid the practice of human sacrifice in societies around them.

The ancient Hebrews were led to replace human sacrifice with animal sacrifices, and this lasted until the final destruction of their Temple, which occurred after Jesus’ day.  In short, the Bible is record of God trying to call people out of this violence, and it’s a slow process.

The event of Jesus Christ in the world represents the unmasking of this violent scapegoating process.  Jesus himself is made a scapegoat in the conflict around him.  You can see his growing awareness that this will happen as you read Luke’s Gospel.  He’s already told his followers that if they want to go with him, they’ll have to take up their cross.  And in today’s Gospel lesson I hear the looming awareness that this division that Jesus is witnessing for and against his message is a division that will eventually catch up with him.

And it does, of course.  He becomes the innocent scapegoat for the conflicts around him, and he is given up to death, as many humans were sacrificed before him to pacify a conflicted society.

Only this time the victim returns in Resurrection glory to forgive and to seek reconciliation, and commission his followers to preach repentance and reconciliation to all nations.  He is revealed as innocent.  Most important of all, he is revealed, not as the victim who is resentful, but as forgiving.   He is the victim who forgives.

Today I hear Jesus calling us to desire the same thing he desires.  He looks around him and sees us imitating one another in ways that hurt and destroy.  Today I hear the urgency of this calling, in a very small world that cannot abide more of this scapegoating, this Us versus Them and the violence that goes with it.

The God of Jesus is the God of love.  He He desires for us God’s kingdom of love, and that desire burns within him like a fire, and he wishes that fire would consume the world.

And as I think of that fire, I think of these words from Charles Wesley:

O thou who camest from above

The fire celestial to impart,

Kindle a flame of sacred love

Upon the altar of my heart.

 

There let it for thy glory burn

With ever bright, undying blaze,

And trembling to its source return

In humble prayer and fervent praise.

 

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire

To work, and speak, and think for thee;

Still let me guard the sacred fire

And still stir up the gift in me.    (Hymnal 1982, #704)

Amen