Home Page

Fr John Hemer
Home Page 

 Reflections on Scripture Home Page

The New Testament

John Hemer MHM

MHM - Mill Hill Missionaries

This paper was given as part of a series of post Easter talks by Fr. John Hemer, Biblical Scholar and Theologian of the Mill Hill Missionary Institute at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel & St. George, Enfield, England in April and May 2003.

There are perhaps few clearer illustrations in the NT of how the scapegoat mechanism works than the lynching of the adulterous woman in John 8. Of course we wonder where the man is, probably in the crowd since when a group of people starts to behave as a mob all distinctions between righteous and sinner disappear. When someone is made a scapegoat the equation is always unanimity minus one. What unites the crowd is not really mutual interest or concern, although that may be the impression given, but their fury, which must find a victim. Note that the woman here is guilty – Jesus does not approve of that, he tells her to sin no more. But God is always on the side of the victim, and in a situation such as this the moral status of the victim is immaterial. The mob assume that God is on their side, and that their violence is good violence. Jesus, rather than attacking this idea head on, simply defuses it, breaks the spell and robs the impending violence of its sacred aura.

            Had the mob achieved their aim and stoned the woman, they would have gone away with a peace having descended upon them. Peace thus achieved is the peace that the world gives. The whole of biblical revelation has been trying to wean people off this kind of peace born out of violence. Small wonder then that as part of his farewell discourse Jesus says:

Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace which the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. (John 14:27) In the same passage Jesus talks about the indwelling of God: If anyone loves me he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him. (14:23) Remain in me as I in you. (15:4)

The only possible antidote to this problem is making the focus of one’s life a dedication to the non-violent God revealed by Jesus. When people remain in anything else, even a religious ideal, the result will always be violence.

In the Gospels we see a pattern of people who were normally enemies banding together to plot the destruction of Jesus.

The Pharisees went out and began at once to plot with the Herodians against him, discussing how to destroy him (Mk. 3:6) At the passion, after Herod has made fun of Jesus, he sends him back to Pilate and Luke comments: And though Herod and Pilate had been enemies before, they were reconciled that same day. (Lk. 23:12)

            Because this type of violence is the universal human problem it is theologically inevitable that the Son of God would fall victim to it. Peter exhibits this understanding clearly in his prayer in Acts 4: 24-31. He begins his prayer by quoting Psalm 2:

Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring? They arise kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his anointed. This is what has come true: in this very city Herod and Pontius Pilate plotted together with the gentile nations and the peoples against your holy servant Jesus. . .  

Because this is a universal human problem it is the judgement of the NT that Jesus, the Son of God is the necessary scapegoat. This is what Luke means when he says:

it was ordained that the Christ should suffer. (Lk. 24:21)

The Gospel exposes the Pharisees’ desire to kill Jesus for what it is, a sacred delusion of the grossest kind. (Delusion because they are convinced they are doing a holy work for God). Jesus tell them that they simply have never known God – rather an amazing thing to say to the official custodians of divine revelation. But one of the things the Bible is showing us is that a great deal of what we thing is God or is from him simply isn’t. When people nowadays say: “Is nothing sacred any more?” the only possible answer is “no” or at least very little. So many of the institutions and ideas which we at least tacitly took to be God-given have been shown up to be merely human. It also shows us that there is one thing that leads to the desire to kill, the claim by Jesus that he is God. When Jesus in the above cited passage from Mark says that he is justified healing on the Sabbath because he is master of the Sabbath, that’s when the people start to plot to destroy him. After the healing of the paralytic in John 5 we read:

This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also called God his father, making himself equal with God. (5:18)

Jesus is not a random scapegoat. The universal conspiracy against the Son of God shows that in its heart the human race holds a grudge against God himself. This has been hanging around since the garden of Eden. Centuries before Peter’s sermon the psalmist complained:

For your sake we are slain all the day long and are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.(Ps.42:22)

The wicked persecuted the just because they wanted to strike at God. The unparalleled religious persecution in the last two hundred years, the venomous scorn which the mere mention of Christianity calls forth from many in our own time bears witness to that. The Gospel shows how Jesus with his message of God’s boundless love, his attitude towards sinners and his claim to be one with God increasingly provoked the enmity of all. This hidden resentment is not something that people can ever discover through introspection or self-analysis. Only meeting boundless goodness face to face can uncover it.        

Imagine a group of workers in a parish club who are reasonably but not totally honest, who consider that the few little things to which they help themselves are necessary perks of the job, and certainly not stealing, because if they were working in a real pub they would be paid better wages anyway. A bar steward is appointed who is utterly honest and a loving person. Even though the other workers may be reasonably good Catholics, the steward’s honesty will provoke resentment rather than admiration because he shows up the hidden dishonesty of the others. Encounter with the Beloved Son also shows up the hidden enmity in people’s hearts. The resentment towards God which the snake engendered in the garden of Eden, treating him as a rival bears its ultimate  fruit and becomes visible in the crucifixion.

            Sadly, rather than learning this lesson about scapegoating, in the course of the centuries the Church merrily jumped on the same bandwagon. Especially in John’s Gospel Jesus’ opponents and killers are identified as the Jews. Some people took this as a licence to persecute the Jews as the ones who killed God. That was simply perpetuating the mechanism which the whole of the Bible is trying to unmask and replace with something else. The Jews killed God because he came close to them, he exposed most clearly in them the latent violence in all human hearts. Crooks don’t get nasty until you start to show them up for what they are. The Jews were the ones on whom the light of revelation shone. Being the chosen people meant more than just enjoying its privileges.  Perhaps the programme Big Brother illustrates how when you choose a group of ordinary people and shine the spotlight on them 24 hours a day, their weaknesses and foibles are very quickly exposed. If God had chosen any other race they would most certainly have done the same to him. Part of what we mean by the scandal of the cross is that we were drawn into exactly the same sort of scapegoating behaviour that the Jews engaged in. If we are not careful even the best Christians stumble over it.

This is also what Jesus is talking about in the difficult passage where he says:

Alas for you because you build tombs for the prophets, the people your ancestors killed. In this way you both witness to what your ancestors did and approve it. (Lk. 12:47-48).

The Pharisees were very aware of what had happened to the prophets, and they knew that was wrong. They should have learned the lesson that when people are killed by religious zealots that is never God’s will, but because they had not, they were still falling into the same trap. As the recipients of OT revelation they had enough data to come to the right conclusions about this sort of behaviour, therefore says Jesus:

This generation will have to answer for it all.

The scapegoating mechanism is hidden, but Jesus has been exposing it, and once this happens people must either admit to what’s going on and change their lives, or they continue it and kill the one who has exposed what they are doing, and so keep the whole thing going. Then he refers to Abel and Zechariah as prophets:

This generation will have to answer for every prophet’s blood that has been shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah. (Lk. 50:51)

Abel’s is the first murder in the Bible. Zechariah’s murder occurs in 2Chron 24:20-22 and because in the Hebrew Bible Chronicles is the last book, his is the last murder in the Bible. Abel’s murder occurs in the context of rivalry around sacrifice. Simply tell this story out of context and it would sound to the ears of its first listeners like a human sacrifice. The Bible tells it in such a way that we are in no doubt that this is simply a murder and that God has nothing to do with it. In that sense Abel is a prophet, he reveals to us something from God that we could never simply guess and that we would rather not know. Zechariah was a lone voice for the pure worship of Yahweh at a time when syncretism with pagan cults was rife. Because of this king Joash had him murdered, again silencing the voice of truth. So Jesus here simply points out that this mechanism of scapegoating and killing has been in operation from the beginning to the end of the Bible and that the Bible has constantly been making clear what it is – murder – even though the perpetrators want to pass it off as righteous religious zeal. As we move towards the passion it becomes increasingly obvious that Jesus himself becomes the victim of this same mechanism.

            So the tombs of the prophets, instead of shedding light on what has gone on, enable people to cover it up. By developing a cult around them people are able to make them centres of religious devotion – therefore a good thing – seemingly – but at the same time this devotion helps obscure the lesson that people could have learned from these deaths, that violence in the name of God is always wrong no matter who does it.

In the light of this, it is therefore of enormous significance that the tomb of Jesus is empty, and people like Bultmann who say the empty tomb is irrelevant are themselves blinded to the anthropological significance of the resurrection narratives. The apostles do not meet Jesus here, He is not here, why look for him among the dead. In the NT there is no mention whatsoever of a cult around the tomb of Jesus. Outside the context of Christianity the tombs of martyrs and heroes are focal points for resentment for nationalism and for fomenting a will to revenge. Think of the tombs of the Shiite martyrs in Iran. The feast of Ashura, the commemoration of the death of Hossain, the Shiite Good Friday is the occasion for great sadness and bitter resentment against other Muslims and can often be a flash point for violence. Had Christianity begun as a cult which grew up around the tomb of Jesus it would probably never had spread so explosively throughout the Mediterranean.

            It is no accident that the greatest historical betrayal of Christianity, the event which led great sections of the Church into holy war, and allowed persecuting killing religious zeal free reign, was the crusades, and they were all about capturing the tomb of Christ. Even today the behaviour of people at the Holy Sepulchre is often more of a scandal than a help to faith. The keys of the church are in the hands of a Muslim since the Christians can’t agree as to who should have them, and so, as a monument, it remains ambiguous. And the tombs of the Christian martyrs are not focal points of resentment but reminders of the power of non-violent love.

            The Holy Sepulchre is not the focal point of Christianity, it’s the Eucharist. It is the sacrament of unity, of gathering separate peoples, based not on ganging up against a common enemy or scapegoat, but on forgetting those things. The human tendency is always to affirm the identity of the group in opposition to others. In the Eucharist we get our identity from God the Father. We discover who we are not by setting ourselves up against others but by uniting around the crucified and risen Lamb of God. The presence of Jesus in the resurrection narratives has nothing to do with revenge or resentment or shutting his enemies up. It is a totally different presence to anything the disciples have ever encountered. They cannot use old words or terms to describe it. Peter is not blamed for abandoning Jesus, simply asked to affirm his love.

The passion is a typical story of victimisation, with astonishing insight into the role of mob violence and religious zeal. It is, contrary to all myth, told from the point of view of the victim and not the victorious persecutors.

Another passage which sheds light on this is the saying of Jesus in Mt. 23:9: You must call no man on earth your father since you have only one father and he is in heaven is problematic. The church’s detractors gleefully quote this as  an example of how far we have strayed from the true teaching of Christ. A simple way of dealing with this objection is to ask people what they call their mother’s husband, and to remind them that in the very next verse Jesus says: nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, since you have only one teacher, the Christ. That would seem to put a lot more people on the wrong side of the argument. But that is not the point. There is no suggestion in Church history that Christians ever had a problem with how to address their parents, and to imagine that the second person of the Trinity became incarnate in order to teach us how to address the clergy is pushing things a little.

            To understand this passage we need to turn to John’s gospel Ch. 8, v.41. Jesus is speaking to a group of people who had shown faith in him and he was trying to get them to go further and admit that because of sin they were slaves, and they needed him to set them free. Jesus has also suggested that because of their behaviour, they cannot really claim God as their father, and we join the scene when they reply: The only father we have is God. Jesus answered: If God were your father, you would love me. Now pause. Jesus says in effect that God is not their father. Does that mean that they were not made by God? Clearly not. He means that the God he reveals is not the guiding principle of their lives. For ‘father’, read ‘guiding principle’. The true God, the loving, peaceful Father who persecutes nobody cannot be the one who guides their lives, since they have purposed to kill him. The real God would never have anyone kill another person in his name, and Jesus presses the point home in V. 44. You are from your father, the devil and you prefer to do what your father wants. He was a murderer from the start. Even though they think they are doing God’s will by killing Jesus whom they consider a blasphemer, this mere fact shows that their guiding principle is a violent, persecuting one, which Jesus calls the devil. (At this point we must note that many people have considered the Gospel of John to be anti-Semitic since Jesus is addressing the Jews here. John is not saying that the Jews are children of the devil, but that when people persecute others in the name of God they are in fact doing the work of the devil. That applied then to those who killed Jesus; sadly, in the history of the Church, many Christians have fallen into the same trap. When people use this text against the Jews, they commit the same sin as those particular Jews did at the time of Jesus.)

            But we digress. In Jesus’ world, one’s father, the elders, the family, the culture all represented an enormously powerful force. As in any traditional society, there were all sorts of laws, directions, unwritten rules and assumptions which guided people’s lives, and woe betide anyone who tried to break away from them. In fact the substance of Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees was that they were more attached to religious custom than to God. For many of them it was almost impossible to see that there might be any distinction between the two. To put it more simply: for many people the things their father (i.e. culture) told them to do were one and the same as the will of God. We know from the sad history of religious wars, crusades, inquisitions and suicide bombers how wrong, how absolutely deadly, indeed evil, that idea can be. So Jesus must help people to make a distinction between their culture (or if you like, they way they do things or the things they learn from their parents and relatives) and God. So call no man on earth your father is another way of saying: “make nothing of this world your absolute guiding principle”. Whenever my nationality, or customs or race or status or whatever becomes the most important thing to me, I will almost always end up going against the will of God.

            The history of our salvation begins with God’s words to Abraham:

Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country which I shall show you (Gen. 12:1)

That statement means that for everyone who wishes to follow Abraham’s example and be led by the true God, faith will involve this sort of thing in one way or another. To have God as our Father, to call God our Father, means that ultimately we owe one hundred percent loyalty to him alone. To call anything or anyone else ‘father’, to be totally loyal to anything else, is to run the risk of rebelling against God.

            It is of real significance that the criminal who is released in the place of Jesus is Barabbas which means ‘Son of the Father’. Commentators who say that the crowd were asking really for Jesus, but Pilate didn’t know Aramaic properly so got confused and gave them the wrong one are completely blind to the significance of what’s happening here. The mob is offered two men who in name seem identical. Mark tells us that Barabbas had committed murder during an insurrection. His father, the controlling principle of his life, was the Jewish ethnic cause, and violence played a big part in it. Barabbas so hated the Romans that he was prepared to kill, and so morally became identical to them. They are both his rival and his double. The mob are in the grip of scapegoating fervour and are loyal to no one but the mob. Their violence is exactly the same thing that Barabbas had previously been caught up in. Naturally they choose one of their own. He had chosen violence as a way of bringing about peace – i.e. the end of Roman rule, and they are doing the same with Jesus. Killing him brings about peace – remember the words of Caiaphas. So this is not just a detail in the passion story, it reverberates with the central issue of the Gospels – what controls people’s lives.

            After the crucifixion Jesus sends the Paraclete.

Unless I go, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I do go I will send him to you. And when he comes he will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was in the right and about judgement. (Jn. 16:7-8.).

We see in the gospels that the principle of accusation and scapegoating is the way of the world. Instead of an accuser Jesus sends an advocate. Paraclete means literally ‘someone called alongside’ – a counsel for the defence, someone who will speak up for the victims. This goes against what mobs and societies want, someone to blame. No matter how much people try to silence it, this voice keeps speaking the truth. The world was wrong about sin because it identifies certain victims as sinners and persecutes them. About who was in the right because mobs always consider themselves in the right when in fact the burden of biblical revelation shows them to be always in the wrong. About judgement – well they thought that was the job of a righteous mob, whereas in fact that is the job of God alone.

Copyright ©; John Hemer MHM 2003

This version: 20th May 2003

Home Page

 Fr John Hemer
Home Page 

 Reflections on Scripture Home Page