We will put forth a person who has done some evil deed, and our righteous anger at him is supposed to absolve us of any of our own moral guilt. And his punishment is supposed to be enough to lower the cosmic justice deficit so that our punishment just gets graciously overlooked, like a first time $40 overdraft fee (he said with experience).
We collectively put forward someone we all agree did something truly hideous to be our divine judgment-bearer (because even those who don’t believe in god believe in God).
“This one. Take him as our offering. He has _________. We are all outraged (and secretly grateful it wasn’t us who was put forth for our sins). We have banished him from the good graces of our society. Please look away from us, now.”
But even righteous outrage won’t make a man righteous. And another person who deserves punishment getting punished doesn’t make me any less deserving of mine. I need more than just a pointed finger and another sinner getting his just desserts.
I need a truly righteous man to give me his righteousness. And then I need him to take my punishment for me.
Now, there was actually a time in the reign of King David when God punished the land for the sin of a man long dead, but allowed for an imperfect human scapegoat to bring a temporary end to His judgment.
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, ‘There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.’ So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. And David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’ The Gibeonites said to him, ‘It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.’ And he said, ‘What do you say that I shall do for you?’ They said to the king, ‘The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.’ And the king said, ‘I will give them.’ But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the Lord, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.
2 Samuel 21:1-9
God allowed the deaths of these men, with their bodies hung up for all to see, to be His people’s scapegoat. He allowed them to be put forth as the people’s representatives.
But this was all foreshadowing the Great Scapegoat to come once and for all 1,000 years later. His body, hung for all to see on another mount (but before the same Lord), would appease a far more terrifying judgment. And it would bring a far greater healing than an end to a famine.
If I may repeat myself: This is a very basic human impulse, this desire to put someone else forward as the evil one. After all, we each know we’ve sinned, and we know what the penalty for sin is. So what hope is there but a scapegoat? But being outraged about Matt Lauer or Russell Simmons won’t save you. And they cannot be your scapegoat (or mine). We should hate sin, both our own and that of others, but we cannot expiate our own individual guilt by trying to put forward a famous person with his own deviant sexual sins to answer for. He won’t do.
We need a better scapegoat. We need, in fact, the best one.
We need the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of His Cross.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21