Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Hear these words from the prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of the God of Earth and Heaven: “Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” That quotation, strangely enough, made me think of hockey, and then sports in general, and then politics, and all the stories I see on the nightly news. (This is the way a preacher’s brain works!)
How often I hear the “blame game” played! A team loses and there are cries to fire the goalie, the quarterback, the coach, the umpire, or whomever. It MUST be one person’s fault. “The buck stops here,” we say – and we decide who is going to carry the weight of the blame for everyone else.
The same goes for politics: whenever something goes wrong in politics there are cries for the dismissal of the “person at the top” – be it the Minister in charge of a portfolio, the head of the party, the President or the Prime Minister; conversely, those at the top often have a convenient scapegoat lined up to take the blame for them – or several scapegoats, in fact; witness the latest political scandals in the Senate and in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Even natural occurrences like major snowstorms can bring out the blame game! You’ve probably read or heard some of the subtle complaints the governor and mayor are making about each other and the National Weather Service in the wake of the storm that deadlocked traffic in Atlanta, Georgia last week!
Finger pointing and speaking evil of others is a way of life in our society. Just stand at the checkout line in a grocery store sometime and read the headlines on the magazines! That’s why, in our talk of justice-making this month, I thought it important to take a look at the interpersonal dimension of justice – and in particular – the tendency to point fingers, judge and blame others. This is part of what the prophet Isaiah spoke on behalf of the Holy One to the people of Israel. It’s also a part of Jesus’ own teaching – and it’s dramatically illustrated by his own life and death.
It’s a fundamental error in human thinking to want to scapegoat someone. The important work of cultural anthropologist René Girard traces this impulse back to the earliest points of human culture, when there actually often was a “scapegoat”. In Ancient Syria and among the people of Israel before the time of the Temple, it was a goat driven out into the desert; in Greece, during a time of disaster, an actual person would be cast out of the community. But here’s a more down-home example most of us can connect with: [René Girard, now a professor Emeritus at Stanford University, has elaborated what he refers to as “mimetic theory,” but which is also becoming known as an “anthropology of the cross.”]
Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy!”, pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummeling each other.
As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard and comes up to them, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!” The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and run the child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbor is now indoors crying….. [illustration from an interview with Girard by Brian McDonald, “Violence and the Lamb Slain]
Girard would say that within the Biblical narrative and especially within the story of Jesus we see an alternative to this human tradition of “scapegoating”, which, like Isaiah, he would declare sinful. When we scapegoat someone, we assume that the community is innocent, and the scapegoat is guilty. By firing the coach or impeaching the politician – or making fun of the neighbour kid – unity is restored in the community. But the Biblical story says the scapegoat is innocent; it is the community that is guilty of judgement and a miscarriage of justice. Girard believes that if we read the stories and teachings of the Bible through this lens, we begin to understand how truly radical the Gospel is.
So let us take a look at Matthew’s Gospel from that angle. It is our tendency when we read the New Testament to think of us as “the good guys” and “the Pharisees” or even “The Jews” as the bad guys. (That has had terrible historical and present-day consequences.) When we think of light and darkness, we associate the people who follow Jesus with being “of the light” and those who oppose him as being “of the darkness”. Yet did not Jesus agree with the Pharisees about the importance of “the Law and the Prophets”?
James Alison, a follower of René Girard, points out that we tend to read the Gospel as an inversion of the usual story. If the usual story of Jesus’ time was that the Jewish religious authorities were the carriers of God’s light or God’s Word, then the one who challenged them must be “in the dark”. We tend to invert that reading, turn it upside down. But Alison says that the Gospel doesn’t just invert, it subverts. It does so by reminding us that this “us and they” or “good vs bad”, “light vs. darkness” thinking is actually the very thing Jesus came to challenge. When Jesus affirms Hebrew Scripture, he does so most strongly when speaking of the love and mercy of God. He quotes both Isaiah and Micah, reminding us that God requires love and mercy, and that judgement belongs only to God. The “Law and the Prophets” that Jesus affirms are these passages that evoke the need to do justice and to love mercy.
Alison goes on to write: “In a world where nobody understood the viewpoint of the victim, we would all be right to side with the victim. But we live in a world where almost nobody “comes out” as a Pharisee or a hypocrite, and it seems to me that the way to moral learning proceeds in that direction…. Being good can never do without the effort to learn, step by step, and in real circumstances of life, how to separate religious and moral words from [the impulse to push others out of community, the impulse which at its worse ….] demands human sacrifice….And this means that there is no access to goodness which does not pass through our own discovery of our complicity in hypocrisy, for it is only as we identify with the righteous just of the story that we realize how “good” their procedure was, how careful, scrupulous, law-abiding, they were, and thus, how catastrophic our goodness can be, if we don’t learn step by step how to get out of solidarity with the mechanism of the construction of the unity of the group by the exclusion of whoever is considered to be evil…. [James Alison, “The Man Born Blind from Birth and the Subversion of Sin,” Contagion, Vol. 4, Spring 1997, pp. 26-46; now also ch. 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment. Mt. 5:20 near the conclusion of the essay.]
Okay, that’s a lot of fancy language, but what he’s saying is, we have to recognize ourselves in both the people we think of as good guys and the people we think of as bad guys; we need to recognize how quickly our belief in our own goodness can turn into not only judgement of others but even exclusion or harm of those whom we think aren’t good enough – or whom the community has decided to blame for whatever we might diagnose as “the problem”. It happened in Ancient Greece, when a plague or earthquake hit : a disabled person, a beggar, or a criminal would be driven out of the city (some scholars even say killed) in order to bring stability back to the community. We still do it: we fire coaches, we attack leaders, we dump on celebrities, we blame the poor for their situation and lock up people whose main crime is to be born different from the majority. We gang up together on one person or one group of people and make them pay for the mistakes and misunderstandings and conflict and failures of our communities. You’ve probably seen it in your workplaces and in place where you volunteer or where you are involved in sports or arts or recreation. I’ve certainly seen it in churches!
Isaiah and Jesus call us to something different. If we are people of the Light, then we ought to be people who see ourselves clearly, and who see others with the mercy we would wish for ourselves. No finger-pointing, no speaking evil, no scapegoating. If we are to fulfill the Law and the Prophets it is not enough to follow the rules and declare ourselves righteous and others unrighteous, to think of ourselves as good and others as sinners. To fulfill the Law and the Prophets is to love mercy, to do justice, and to leave judgement up to God. Only God can be trusted to see as clearly as judgement demands, and to be as merciful as perfect love requires.
Paul Nechterlein wrote a sermon about this for his congregation of Emmaus Lutheran. This was a congregation, like ours, that was trying to extend its outreach to the community. He wrote of his experience of leading a Bible study with guests from the homeless shelter. He talked about how they were grateful for help, but felt judged by many. Paul found himself getting indignant about that, but then realized he had to begin to see his own darkness, his own places of judgement. This is what he said to his congregation:
We have this habit of turning a call to be holy into a call to be holier than thou. We can even turn the brightness of Jesus’ loving forgiveness into the darkness of our judgmentalism. But, in a life of constant prayer, of staying in touch with Jesus’ loving forgiveness we can change things. We can change ourselves into better mirrors for reflecting that loving forgiveness. [Paul J. Nuechterlein, at Emmaus Lutheran, Racine, WI, February 6-7, 1999]
With the call of the prophet Isaiah and the merciful love of Jesus is our minds, we commit ourselves anew to being Light and Salt for the world, and we pray that through the Holy Spirit we might be transformed from within, into a holy, not holier than thou, people. Amen.