Looking for a Scapegoat

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

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Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But He answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took Him to the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these I will give You, if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to Him (Matthew 4:1-11).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Yom Kippur, Israel’s Day of Atonement, was rich in ritual yet drenched in blood. In a sequence of divinely ordered steps, the high priest would carefully wash, dress, and prepare himself and the people to receive the blood-bought forgiveness for all their sins. The Lord commanded three animals be part of Yom Kippur. The high priest would sacrifice a bull, offering its blood and life for his own sins and then for those of his household. Next, two goats were brought to the tent of meeting as a sin offering for the people (Leviticus 16:5-7). Lots were cast for the goats, one for Yahweh and one for Azazel. Yahweh’s goat was sacrificed as a sin offering for the people of Israel. Its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat and on the altar (Leviticus 16:15-19).

The high priest placed both his hands on the remaining goat, confessing and conferring Israel’s sins upon it before a chosen man led it out into the wilderness to release it “to Azazel.” This poor abandoned creature came to be called a scapegoat and still stands as a symbol of one who is blamed for the crimes or sins of another.

In today’s Gospel, we meet the true Scapegoat as we discover that while sinners look to blame others, the Father puts the blame on Christ, and we look to the one who took the blame upon Himself.

Sinners look to blame others, shifting responsibility and consequences. We find plenty of convenient scapegoats. In childhood, we may blame our siblings, friends, or family dog. “Mom! Suzy is making me get into trouble.” “That e-cigarette isn’t mine; I’m just keeping it for a friend.” “I’m sorry Miss Winter, but the dog ate my homework!”

Following in the steps of Grandfather Adam, those of us who are married might make our spouse a scapegoat. “The woman whom You gave me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). “I’m not usually this way, but if you knew what my wife/husband has been like, you’d understand.”

In our daily life and vocation, our co-workers, bosses, or underlings become convenient scapegoats. “I’m ordinarily not one to complain, but if you had to work with her, you’d be saying something, too!” “The boss called me into his office. If he did his job, I wouldn’t have such a negative attitude.”

We even blame God when we can’t fault anyone else. “The woman You gave me…” “You call this a sin but I don’t see how it can be, since God made me this way. I was born this way.”

Ultimately, however, we are responsible for our own woes and can offer God no excuses; we cannot pass our sins or their consequences to others. We must confess: “Mea culpa!” Through my fault!

We must not pass the blame to others. But God can! And He did!

In Jesus’ Baptism, God placed the world’s sins and blame for them on His Son, just as He allowed the high priest to place Israel’s sins on the scapegoat. Like the Old Testament scapegoat, Jesus carried the sins away from the people and into the wilderness, the dry, lonely, hostile place of sharp thorns and wild beasts. While He was a willing participant in procuring our salvation, Jesus did not initiate His own actions but instead followed the Father’s lead as revealed by the Holy Spirit. The purpose is clear: the Spirit placed the Son in harm’s way, leading Him to be tempted, tested under fire.

As the scapegoat was abandoned to meet its doom, Christ was left alone to face Satan. And He’s got a least one hand tied behind His back, figuratively. St. Paul explains in Philippians 2, that Jesus “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (vv. 6–8)! Simply stated, the Bible affirms that when Jesus entered our world, He set aside the power and the privileges of Deity. He consciously limited Himself to live here as a man. Trusting in His heavenly Father for provision of daily bread and protection.

Jesus, physically weakened after forty days of fasting in the wilderness, did not seek strength from His divine nature to resist Satan’s temptation. He sought the power and help of the Word of God. Rather than blaming others, this Man shouldered full responsibility for keeping God’s Law on our behalf (vv 4-10) as He resisted temptation to its fullest extent.

The one allowed to test Jesus was the devil, “the slanderer.” As in Job 1:8, Satan faced the challenge of bringing low “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” Here, he confronted the One of whom the Father had just said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The ferocity of the wilderness’s savage beasts paled in comparison with the evil intent of Satan, God’s chosen instrument to proof-test the claim that Jesus is the Father’s beloved Son. Satan came to tear, crush, and devour the One who was sent into the wild bearing humankind’s sins.

As you read the temptations, notice how Matthew has ordered them. The three temptations move outward, like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond.[i] They grow in every expanding circles and reveal the extent of Jesus’ rule.

The first test was of Jesus regarding Himself: Would Jesus use His power to care for Himself? Would Jesus reject the path of suffering that will culminate at the cross by breaking His fast before the Father ends it?

The first answer: true sustenance is found not in physical eating and drinking but by holding fast to everything God says. As continued also in Christ’s next two responses, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6-8: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus did not come into the world to care for Himself. He came to care for you. His power would be made known in weakness, as He offered His life for you. So, Jesus ruled His life by denying Himself in order that He might give all He has for you.

Failing to weaponize Jesus’ empty stomach against Him, in the second test, the devil took up Christ’s chosen weapon, challenging Him by quoting the Scriptures. “He will command His angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” If Jesus should jump, the angels would certainly act as both Satan and Scripture say they will.

However, Jesus didn’t leap to the ground below. He continued to follow the way of the cross, not the path of self-glorification. He replied, “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7). Jesus will not rule Israel by a display of power. He will rule over Israel in weakness. Battered, bruised, and blood, He will die on cross underneath a sign which says, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Jesus will be Israel’s Messiah not by falling from the Temple, but by raising a new one. He will build that Temple on His death and resurrection, the foundation of God’s love which restores all things.

The one whom Jesus later describes as “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30) exercised his “reign” in the third test, offering to trade Jesus the entire world in exchange for one tiny capitulation. The kingdoms of this world “and their glory” would belong to Jesus if He first glorified the devil. Satan would give these to Jesus if Jesus fell down and worshiped him.

Jesus again turned to Scripture for His third answer: You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.” Jesus would not glorify Himself by protecting His own life or honor. He would not seek to escape the humiliation and eventual wrath set upon Him by the Father. Instead, He would continue to worship and serve only His Father, the one true God.

Yes, Jesus has come to rule the nations, but He will do this by submitting to His Father’s will, not Satan’s. He will be the Lord of the nations when He receives them from His Father’s hand. His death will take the punishment for all sin, for all people, for all time, and His resurrection will bring life and restoration to all things. By bowing to the will of His Father, Jesus will rise to bring the news of salvation to the ends of the earth. Jesus will one day stand on a mountain and send out His disciples in God’s mission to make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them and by teaching them, and bringing the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20).

As the scapegoat was led away from the encampment to die, so Christ was led outside of Jerusalem to die. The scapegoat likely would have been killed by wild animals. Jesus was certainly killed by evil men, and the guilt we’d like to shift to someone else He willingly took from us. But unlike the scapegoat, the sinless Son of God returned from the wilderness. Jesus returned to His people from the dead, having forever banished the sins He carried, even as He defeated death and the devil.

We look to the One who took the blame upon Himself. Knowing that we should have carried our own sins until we met hell’s destruction, we celebrate, knowing that God laid all sins on Christ our Scapegoat, and that He lifted our sins through our Baptisms. We repent of weighing others down with the blame and the shame due to us and instead ask for the strength to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Today, God reminds us that not only through blood sacrifice and death did His Son save us, but also through Jesus’ entire life, carrying the full weight of humanity’s transgressions upon Himself, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: “Surely He has borne out griefs and carried our sorrows; … the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4, 6).

Now when our Scapegoat approaches in Word and Sacrament, we don’t flee from Him, terrified that He might be bring our sins back to accuse us. We are confident that no sins, no shame, and no blame remain. God has blotted them out to be remembered no more. Christ comes instead to take us unto Himself, to one day bring us to our eternal dwelling place, where we will live in bliss forever.

In the meanwhile, go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11 (Lent 1: Series A) – 1517.org, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-matthew-41-11-lent-1-series-a-2023.

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