SCAPEGOATERS LOSE, SCAPEGOATS WIN!
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
September 13, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 50:4-9 Psalm 116:1-9 Philippians 2:5-8 Mark 8:27-35
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Usually when we talk about the cross, it is during Lent, in the context of the approaching death of Jesus on Good Friday, to be followed by His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Cross, when we focus on the cross itself and what it means for the Christian faith experience. Not all Christians view the cross the same way. Generally, Catholic Christian churches have a crucifix, that is, a cross with the Body of Jesus on it to remind us of the human suffering of Jesus as one of us, while protestant Christian churches have an empty cross to communicate the idea of the resurrected Jesus as a present reality. The fact is, however, you can’t have the Resurrection of Jesus without His crucifixion. They are both important parts of the passion narrative, each with its own set of meanings, but those meanings are interrelated with one another. In dying and rising, Jesus becomes Christ, and provides an unequivocal revelation of His divine nature.
One of the characteristics of the Gospel of Mark, which, incidentally was the first to be written, is what scholars call the “Messianic Secret,” where Jesus doesn’t fully reveal who He is until it becomes fully evident in His death and passion. Here we have Peter guessing that Jesus is the Messiah and then Jesus telling Peter to keep quiet about it. In other parts of Mark, Jesus tells those for whom He has performed miracles not to tell others. Keep in mind also that Jesus more often than not conveyed His message in parables…by telling stories…rather than direct discourse. Why did Jesus do this? Maybe he did not want to become known as a celebrity, so he could more easily move about among the people. Or perhaps He felt that His mission could not be understood apart from the cross.
Crucifixion, in the time in which Jesus lived, was a painful and humiliating form of punishment, reserved for the very worst criminal offenders in the Roman Empire. It was often used on political prisoners, with dead bodies left to decay on publicly placed crosses, for the purpose of showing those who dared to dissent what could happen to them. That is exactly why Jesus was crucified: He was a threat to the prevailing religious and political authorities. He was equally unpopular with everyone: the temple authorities known as the Sadducees, the legal scholars known as the Pharisees, Herod, the Jewish king, and the Roman empire. All of them saw Jesus as a threat to their domination systems. Jesus, therefore, became the quintessential scapegoat, which often happens to non-conformists who threaten popularly supported leaders or ideas and are trying to upend the status quo. The established leadership can always be expected to do what it has to do retain power, and their followers can be expected to support them in that regard. Witness the words of the high priest Caiaphias, who presided over the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, proclaiming to this sham tribunal, “you do not understand that it is better that one man should die for the people, so that the nation may not perish.” In other words, get rid of Jesus, to preserve those in power and the people who support them so that the existing order can continue. This is the scapegoat principle that lies at the root of social violence, and can be found in every culture throughout history. Empires have relied on it for self-preservation to crush dissenters: call out a non-conformist and incite the frenzied crowd to kill, confine, or drive away her or him. The more threatening the non-conformists are to the existing social structure, the more likely they are to end up dead. Modernly, we have the examples of Martin Luther King, Anwar Sadat, and Mahatma Ghandi. These guys were confrontational troublemakers. The white southern establishment, the irrational anti-Israeli Muslim mob, and the powers that ran British colonial India, all engaged in the despicable behavior of inciting mobs against them. Like Jesus, who was also a confrontational troublemaker, they expected to suffer. The world doesn’t like troublemakers, and usually responds by scapegoating them. For the same kinds of reasons that those guys were assassinated, Jesus was none-too-anxious to have His identity revealed so quickly. He needed time to get His message out and do His work. He wanted to put off having to suffer and die, so He could carry out his mission before going to the cross.
Yet Jesus knew the evitable was coming, as did Gandhi, Sadat, and King. Jesus eHHhhe gave us what is known among scholars as a “passion prediction,” in which he anticipated the events that would lead to His death on the cross. There are several of them throughout the synoptic Gospels, that is, those of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Knowledge of the circumstances of one’s own death was considered a sign of wisdom, the mark of an extraordinary person in the society in which Jesus lived. Jesus knew He was going to die, and He knew how. And he knew why. The “why” is important, because the intent of Jesus was to conquer death by His resurrection, so that death would have no more dominion over humankind. Jesus didn’t use His divine powers to retaliate against the evil people who victimized Him, because knew God would ultimately vindicate Him. Jesus knew not only that he would die, but that thereafter He would rise. What was hard for the disciples to accept, however, was, that He had to die before He could rise. That is why Jesus became somewhat impatient with Peter, who was looking at the situation of Jesus in purely human terms. For Peter at that time, life consisted only of the days of humanity on earth. Peter was thinking only of short term, earthly realities. Peter, being human, was thinking like we think. Peter and the other disciples were not yet ready for cross and resurrection. They could not fathom the enormity of the events that were to follow, events that were beyond their level of comprehension. Peter loved Jesus and wanted Jesus to remain on earth forever, in much the same way that we want ourselves, our friends, and our family to be immortal so that we can always have them in our lives. Peter had no idea of the pending agenda of Jesus, just as we lack certainty regarding what God has planned for our own futures.
Jesus knew His place in history. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, His identity gradually unfolded, and in today’s Gospel passage, we have begun to have the first definitive clue. To give you an analogy, think of Saint-Saens Third Symphony, where we hear a little bit of the closing theme beginning in the middle of the last movement. Then we gradually hear more and more of it, until the organ drives it into our souls in a way we do not forget. By the time His ministry ended, His disciples knew exactly who He was. The cross and resurrection drives it home to us like nothing else, just like the organ in the Saint-Saens symphony.
Isaiah prefigured the role of Jesus as a suffering servant as explained in today’s First Reading from Isaiah, one of the four so-called “Servant Songs”. Jesus was given the role of a teacher to speak the words of life on behalf of those who suffer, especially those who are oppressed. Jesus able to do that because he was open to receiving God’s message and conveying it into the world by meeting oppression with a peaceful response rather than retaliation, just like King, Sadat, and Ghandi. Jesus was listening to God’s word and putting it into action, but part of that action was enduring suffering. Much as we would prefer otherwise, suffering is part of being a human person, and in many instances, suffering forms our character. Like it or not, our sufferings shape our ideals and personalities. For example, one who has grown up in poverty and worked all one’s life usually has a better appreciation of the value of money, and is thus more likely to make wiser investments, than the person lucky enough to be born into a family so wealthy that no one works. Or someone who has gone through a painful divorce later realizes the precious value of a marriage in the success of subsequent relationship.
We are able to profit from suffering through God’s support and guidance. God gives us strength. God is there for us when we need God, though not always in the ways we would prefer, and often not on our schedule. Knowing and accepting the mysterious nature of God is sometimes perplexingly difficult as we seek God as a beacon in our darkness. That was the leap Peter was unable to jump at the time of his conversation with Jesus in today’s Gospel. Peter did not realized that Jesus, the Anointed One, was the same person as Jesus, the Suffering Servant, who emptied Himself, rather than use His divinity to dominate in the manner secular rulers do, by inciting fear or using force to gain compliance with that they want. Rather, the route Jesus took was to use the power of humility and a non-violent refusal to retaliate to show us a better way. Jesus insisted on continuing His mission, despite advice from Peter, and despite the cost to Himself. Jesus loved us and was intent on bringing on the reign of God to improve the human condition to replace the powers-that-be in His age. Now as then, today’s prevailing religious and political authorities, though a bit more sophisticated and less brutal, still sing the same theme song: “do what I say or face the consequences”, kept in power by millions who seek the security of compliance with them motivated by fear. Jesus, however, did not operate from a fear perspective, but from a love perspective. Jesus loved fearlessly. He even loved His enemies who killed Him.
Jesus wants us those of us who are willing to take up their cross and follow Him to Calvary. As part of the humiliating ordeal of crucifixion, the victims undergoing that kind of punishment often had to carry their own crosses, like Jesus did, to the place they would suffer and die. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asking us if we are willing to pay that high a price to follow Him. Most people, as common-sense decision-makers, say NO. Most of humanity recoils at the idea of becoming a suffering servant. Confronted with the necessity of suffering, most people behave like Peter. We don’t want to trust Jesus in accepting that suffering is part of God’s plan for us. Our pain-killer culture masks our understanding of suffering. Yet in feeding hungry people and curing sick people, Jesus understood and responded to human suffering. Our suffering should teach us to respond to the suffering of others. But most people find responding to the suffering of others difficult, because they concentrate too much on avoiding their own suffering.
Jesus wants us to take up our cross and follow Him. We do that by accepting our suffering as part of our lives, and learning from that suffering, to deepen our relationships with God and other persons. Sounds hard, doesn’t it? But here is the silver lining in life’s storm clouds. Stones which builders reject have a way of becoming chief cornerstones. Despite the assassination of Martin Luther King, racial segregation is now illegal everywhere in the United States. Despite the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, India is independent of the British. Despite the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Egypt is at peace with Israel. Those who scapegoat others ultimately lose. Their so-called victims ultimately triumph, as Jesus did. AMEN.