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You might be surprised to learn that, in the Gospels, the concept of Jesus being made into a ‘sacrifice on behalf of the people’…

You might be surprised to learn that, in the Gospels, the concept of Jesus being made into a ‘sacrifice on behalf of the people’ doesn’t come from Jesus. In fact, it comes from the high priest, Caiaphas.

In John 11, he is the one who says: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He goes further and says that “Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.”

They realised that if Jesus gained too much of a following, the Romans would see him as a revolutionary threat and they would respond with violence. As Caiaphas says: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

So they see an opportunity here. In one move they can take out a rival and unite the people against a perceived common enemy. Sacrifice one man to save the nation.

We’re not talking about Jesus being offered to God as a “sinless sacrifice” to “atone” for our sins here. Instead we are very clearly talking about Jesus being scapegoated by religious leaders in order to bring peace and unity among the masses.

The often unconscious mechanism of scapegoating is as old as humanity itself. Groups find themselves in conflict with each other and violence threatens to escalate out of control. The solution is to unite the group against a common enemy and turn our anger, distrust, violence or hatred onto them instead of each other. Whether it’s “that political party” or “those immigrants” or “that woke agenda”, we’ll find someone or some group to scapegoat.

As René Girard said: “Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them.”

When conflict threatens to overwhelm, humans tend to de-escalate by finding a scapegoat to “bring peace”. Instead of facing our own demons, we find someone else to blame for our collective failures or “sins”.

For Caiaphas, the threat of conflict comes from internal rivalry and from the Romans. The scapegoat to achieve peace? Jesus. One man for the nation.

Just a few pages later and the plan has worked. The masses are united against Jesus and they are convinced about what needs to be done. “Crucify him.”

The difference with this particular scapegoating story is that the victim is presented as entirely innocent. (In religious language we might say “sinless”.) Even his executors can’t find fault with him, as Pilate himself asks: “Why? What crime has he committed?”

Furthermore, Jesus has walked willingly into the trap he knows has been set for him. He allows himself to become the focus of our wrath and “takes our punishment” even though he is innocent.

In so doing, Jesus embodies the very best of what it means to be human, self-sacrifice, whilst absorbing the very worst of what it means to be human, which is our urge to scapegoat and to sacrifice others.

This exposes and subverts the entire scapegoating paradigm and invites us to identify with all victims, all outsiders, all those pushed to the margins for the sake of the group.

As we reflect on the Easter narrative then, it’s clear this has nothing to do with God needing to be appeased by a righteous sacrifice in order to be able to forgive us. The wrath was never divine, it was always ours. We never had anything to fear from God, only from each other.

The Passion story reveals the immorality of our tendency to scapegoat each other and it invites us into a better story and a new way of living. The cross does still unite us and bring us peace, but not at the expense of a scapegoat as the old story went. Now it unites us against the instinct to scapegoat in the first place. The outsider then; the sinner, the tax collector and the prostitute, becomes not someone to blame but someone to love. For what we do to the least of these, we do to Christ.

As we approach Good Friday, may we find the courage to let go of the old story where God needs to be appeased by a human sacrifice. God has never needed a sacrifice in that way, as Abraham discovered on his way to sacrifice his own son Isaac on that mountain back in Genesis 22. Like Abraham, may we find the courage to drop the knife along with our misconceptions that God ever wanted this in the first place.

God has never desired a sacrificial lamb, though we keep bringing them. What God has always wanted, is for us to live in loving harmony with each other by practicing self-sacrificial forgiveness, even as we have already been forgiven ourselves.

In the scapegoating of Jesus we have seen the ugly truth of all scapegoating. May that truth now set us free.

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