A crisis really brings out something different in us, doesn’t it? Back in the winter of 2019, I was getting worried because there wasn’t any rain. Most of Australia that could be on fire was on fire for the entire summer. Then the rains arrived and parts of Australia were flooded. Now we’ve got a pandemic. Disaster after disaster has followed us over the last twelve months. It’s really stripped away our sense of control and left us trying to figure out the cause or, barring that, at least someone to blame. Did we lock down fast enough? Why did we let a cruise ship full of people carrying COVID-19 loose into Sydney? Why didn’t we respond like New Zealand did? You might think it’s deserved or you might think it’s unfair, but Scott Morrison has been Australia’s favourite scapegoat for the last six months.
But what is a scapegoat? Chances are you’ve heard the term, but it’s not one you use every day. The way we use the word is to describe a third party that we take our anger out on. Sometimes they deserve it, sometimes they’re just the messenger, sometimes they’re the bystander. Our closest modern term to it might be the “hospital pass”, where you pass the football to someone else so that they get tackled and end up in hospital instead of you.
Ever wondered where the word came from?
The scapegoat we need right now
“Scapegoat” is a concept we’ve inherited from the Bible. It turns up in Leviticus 16: in context, the chapter describes an event for Israel called the Day of Atonement—a day when the nation would be “made clean”. Making someone clean wasn’t about taking a bath; it had far more to do with being able to have a relationship with God.
In past times, the idea of “clean” and “unclean” would have been harder to explain. Now we live in a world where COVID-19 could be on anything, so we wipe down everything—hand sanitiser, wipes, masks, whatever it takes. You might be very dear to me, but if there’s a chance that you have the virus, I’m sorry: we’re not hanging out.
Sin—the state of our hearts where we decide that God isn’t our king—makes us even more unclean than a positive COVID-19 test result. Sin cuts us off from contact with God. And when you’re cut off from the source of life, all that you’re left with is death. If Israel was going to have a relationship with God, they had to clean their hearts.
This is why the Day of Atonement was important: it was when Israel would be made clean. God’s directions to the people were to select two goats to substitute for Israel: one would be killed, taking the death penalty that sin deserved, and the other would carry off the guilt that sin attracted. This second animal is the scapegoat:
Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat … When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness. (Lev 16:6-10, 20-22 NIV)
Say someone got the COVID-19 virus on their hands and touched everything in your house without washing them. It would upset your relationship with them, wouldn’t it? They could try to make amends by wiping down everything, but their actions to fix the problem can’t remove the fact that they did it in the first place. Two goats were needed to restore the relationship between God and Israel: one is for the payment of sin and the other for their guilt.
The ceremony happened every year. Israel’s substitution with two goats was a working solution, not a permanent solution.
In a lot of ways, we can see how the word “scapegoat” has carried over into contemporary use: one person who takes the anger, wrath, or guilt of another. Much like the original scapegoat, though, it doesn’t make the problem go away. It can’t.
A more permanent solution
This method of guilt disposal is similar to how we dispose of nuclear waste. Nobody can really deal with it, so we put it somewhere people aren’t and hope for the best. A permanent solution for Israel’s—and our—guilt was needed, otherwise we’d continue to be separated from God with our unclean hearts.
This is where we start to see the greater purpose of what Jesus achieves by dying on a Roman cross on our behalf. He acts as a two-in-one substitute and scapegoat. He dies as a substitute and rises from the dead to prove that the sin is paid for and that our guilt is dealt with permanently, not just wandering out in the desert somewhere. Our hearts have been made clean and, as a result, we can have a relationship with God.
Hebrews reminds us of the effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrificial death:
The law [the Old Testament law] is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins … Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God (Heb 10:1-4, 11-12)
So where does that leave us? Jesus acts as the scapegoat who permanently fulfils all the listed requirements. Like the first scapegoat, he carries our guilt. Unlike the first scapegoat, he’s able to permanently deal with our problem of sin and guilt.
But why would I need Jesus to take my blame?
“I was speeding because I was in a hurry.” “I say horrible things to people because I was damaged by someone else.” “I’m a victim of society.” We are very good at abdicating responsibility. It’s much more comfortable to believe that the darkness in our hearts was put there by someone else or isn’t really a big deal. It’s in our nature to be good, right?
I’m not so convinced that this is the case. COVID-19 is revealing something about human nature, as we scramble for toilet paper and figure out who’s to blame. As much as we want to say that the fault belongs with others, it’s easy to catch ourselves thinking and acting in the same selfish ways. And that’s just what’s on the surface. As our sense of control is stripped away by this virus, it’s exposing an uglier truth about our hearts.
We’re separated from God. If we want to connect with the source of life, we need a solution. It’s not to drop all our wrath on the PM and it’s not to send a goat into the desert. We don’t need a scapegoat now, because Jesus offers to take our sin and guilt and deal with it. This is far more important than a pandemic: this is Jesus making our hearts clean so we can have a relationship with God.