Texts:: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 26:14-25
If you were to randomly walk into our house anytime in the last four or five months, odds are pretty good you’d hear a certain Broadway musical playing at high volume. A little before Christmas, Hamilton took our household by storm. It’s still a favorite, although not quite as intense now as it was for a while. It’s been such a constant at our house it’s nearly miraculous this is the first time it’s come up in a sermon.
For the uninitiated, Hamilton is the true story of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan who became a Revolutionary War leader and the first US Treasury Secretary ; George Washington’s right hand man. And it’s all set to hip hop. As the opening number says, he was
“The ten dollar founding father without a father
got a lot farther
by working a lot harder
by being a lot smarter
by being a self starter.”
Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant to New York from the Caribbean and is played by the musical’s writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, himself the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York. In the original cast, George Washington is black, and Thomas Jefferson has dreads. Along with being lyrically brilliant, thoroughly educational, and impossibly catchy, another reason for its popularity in our house is that the female leads are the Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza, who marries Alexander, and Peggy. Three sisters. The Miller sisters quickly adopted and perfected their part.
Another feature is that the story is largely told through the eyes of Aaron Burr. Burr and Hamilton shared much in common, but had very different ways of pursuing their aspirations. In case we had forgotten or slept through high school US history, Burr tells us right away that he’s the fool who shot and killed Hamilton, in a dual. So one of the threads throughout the musical is seeing how these two friends and collaborators eventually have their falling out.
When asked about his inspirations for writing Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda included the 70’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. That musical tells the story of Jesus, largely from the perspective of Judas, who, in case you had forgotton or slept through Sunday school – every year – eventually betrays Jesus, aiding in his crucifixion. That musical takes a lot of liberty with the psychology of Judas and Jesus, but it’s a powerful method: to hear a familiar story from the perspective of the “villain,” and thus see it in a new way. As Aaron Burr sings, after he and Eliza are by Hamilton’s side as he dies from the gunshot wound: “Now I’m the villain in your history. I was too young and blind to see. I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”
Today is Palm Sunday, and the lectionary gives two options for the gospel reading. There is the standard reading of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He parades into the city in street theater fashion, met by cheering crowds and a road covered with cloaks and palms. Greeted with shouts of joy: “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Less than a week later, he’ll be dead.
The other gospel reading, which we chose, features Judas. It’s four days after that dramatic entry into Jerusalem. Jesus is gathered for supper with twelve of his closest companions, Judas among them. As they eat, Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him. All the disciples deny it, but we, the reader, have already been told that Judas had met with the chief priests. He’d offered to betray Jesus, for a price. The reading ends unresolved, the tension thick in the air. Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” And Jesus replies, “You said it.”
Every story needs a villain, and here we have our man. The one so close to Jesus that they would dip their bread in the same bowl, becomes the betrayer, the Judas, the villain.
If you need a villain, someone to blame for the death of Jesus, Judas is definitely in the running.
But let’s consider the possibility that the gospels are doing something far more interesting than giving us a story with a hero and a villain. Something much bigger and ultimately far more revolutionary. Something that calls into question the whole framework for how we tell our stories.
Rene Girard was a literary critic who did extensive research into how the scapegoating mechanism has worked throughout human societies. Because groups are inherently unstable, with desire and conflict threatening cohesion, we need a way to keep ourselves together. The scapegoating mechanism provides a powerful means to do this. We may not be able to agree on everything, but if we can, at key times, agree that this particular person, or this particular group of people, are what is causing our problems, and if we can direct all of our energy toward casting out, eliminating, defeating, executing this person or group, we will achieve a remarkable unity. It will hold us together, for a while longer. The unity will inevitably start to weaken as the energy from the scapegoating event dissipates, and so eventually another scapegoat is needed.
Girard proposed that human sacrifice began as a way of regularly ritualizing the scapegoating act. Sacrifice obviously pleased the gods because it brought the powerful blessing of group cohesion. It was a miracle every time. By directing the anxiety and anger and scattered energy of the group all in one direction, all laid upon that sacrificial victim, the group managed to both restored their unity and affirm their own goodness. They have cast out of their presence the cause of all their strife. This is the right and righteous thing to do for the security of the group. And it’s self-evidently true that the sacrificial victim was the cause of the strife because it’s such a unifying act to cast them out. The priest who carries out the sacrifice mediates the gift of the gods to the people. The victim is declared guilty and offered up, and the crowd, the congregation, is redeemed and declared innocent, born again as a people.
Even though we don’t do human sacrifice, or animal sacrifice in the same way these days, the scapegoating mechanism persists. The more anxious the society, the more passionate and urgent the scapegoating. It doesn’t matter who the current scapegoats are – the communists, the terrorists, the Jews, the gays, the immigrants. What matters is that there is a space that must be occupied by some small group in order to keep the larger group together. This can also happen on a very small and mostly harmless scale. Parents eventually figure out that one way for their fighting kids to get along is to get them mad at you. It’s a desperation move, but sometimes making yourself the scapegoat temporarily can create a miraculous harmony for everyone else. It can shift the dynamics in a snap. So I’ve heard.
Scapegoating is a gift from the gods.
Unless the story starts to get told from the perspective of the sacrificial victim, the designated villian. From the perspective of the crowd, the ritual and mechanism is the truest and best thing they’ve been given. It’s what holds them together. It’s what renews and redeems creation. It’s what brings safety and security, and purity. But when the story starts to get told from the perspective of the scapegoat, it starts to crack. It starts to be revealed as a lie. It starts to be revealed for what it is. A lynching. A murder. A form of unity based entirely on the power of violence and death.
Girard was a secular philosopher and literary critic and came to believe that the difference between good literature and bad literature was that bad literature covered over the scapegoating mechanism, and good literature revealed it. In the latter part of his career he focused much of his attention on the literature of the Bible and came to see it as a document filled with standard examples of cultural and religious ritual around the scapegoating mechanism. Except that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are ultimately concerned with revealing and exposing and doing away with scapegoating. It’s the story of empire told from the perspective of the Hebrew slaves who get blamed by Pharaoh as the cause of all his ills. It’s the story of a nation told from the perspective of the prophets, who defend the most vulnerable in the public square. It’s the story of conquest from the perspective of the exiles and the occupied, who refuse to assimilate into the dominant society. As is echoes in so many of the Psalms and the Isaiah reading today, the God of the Bible takes up the defense of the one surrounded by the accusing crowd.
And it’s the story of a Messiah who refuses to play the role of Messiah. It’s customary to comment this time of year how strange it is that the crowds who one day are cheering and Hosanna-ing Jesus into Jerusalem, turn around so quickly and shout “crucify him, crucify him.” But this is exactly how the whole thing works. This is standard procedure for human culture. The Messiah, the king, the president, the quarterback is either the savior or the villain. The dynamics can shift in a snap. We either demand that they fix everything, or demand that they be crucified so we can move on to the next potential Messiah. Either way, we are innocent of this man’s blood.
One of the reasons I loved the story from Mark’s sermon last week was that it captured the exact moment when the hero was about to become the villain. The guy who fixed everything was about to lose favor with the crowd, and he was pondering at the edge of the cliff whether he should just save them the trouble and do to himself what the crowd was about to do to him anyway.
How strange and terrible are the events of Holy Week. That Jesus would knowingly walk into that space occupied by the scapegoat. That space that has taken a thousand forms and faces throughout human history. Jesus will occupy that space not because scapegoating saves us, and certainly not because God demands a human sacrifice in order to forgive us. But because scapegoating kills us. We are the ones who demand a human sacrifice. It’s just what we do. We demand someone else pay for our sins, so that we can remain convinced of our own innocence and righteousness, assured once again that god is on our side.
Crucify him, Crucify him, shout the crowds. It’s such a powerful force that even Pilate, the Roman governor, is like putty in its hands. It’s what the crowd demands. It’s what will pacify anxiety. It’s what will keep the peace and restore order. It’s what will confirm what we whisper to ourselves. That this man deserves every bit of it, and we are innocent.
Jesus occupies the space of the scapegoat, and thus exposes it. Exposes it as violence – and not just violence against another human being. But violence against God. Jesus, the god-man, occupied the vulnerable space of the scapegoat, and so everyone who has been in that same place becomes the image of Christ among us. This is why James Cone would declare with authority that Christ is black. Jesus assumes the place of the scapegoat. Exposes the lie, breaks the spell that entranced us, and blinded us.
The writer of Colossians says that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities by making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them on the cross” (Col 2:15). The scapegoating mechanism has been disarmed and need not hold any power over us any more. God redeems freely and abundantly, and Jesus, by refusing to be the Messiah, becomes the Messiah, who saves us from our perpetual need for victims. Jesus overcomes sin by becoming the sinful one, the scapegoat, and offers a new way of being human. A way that has no need of victims. A community made up of victims, and perpetrators, who recognize their own complicity, who live into the gift of grace, who give themselves over to being a community of love and repentance and reparation.
Christianity has often fallen right back into the old pattern. God becomes the ultimate demander of sacrifice with Jesus on the cross, the Jews get blamed for it, and Judas embodies the villain. But Christianity at its best has offered to the world a peaceful and redemptive form of community. We are all complicit, which strangely frees us up to become something else. The world is wide enough for us all and there need be no more scapegoats. It is our gospel, good news, message.
As Aaron Burr sings in one of his many fabulous numbers: “Love doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” (“Wait for it“)
During this Holy Week may you know the gift of Christ who gave of himself so that we can be free from the powers of death and participate in the parade of life.