When public figures do or say very wrong things, sometimes I am initially repulsed. But when dire consequences result in their lives, while many others escape notice and punishment, it appears that they’re being used as scapegoats. So it slows me down to ponder that age-old question: “What would Jesus do?”
Scapegoat literally means “the goat that departs.” In Old Testament times, on a day of atonement, the custom was to drive a goat “out into the wilderness laden with the sins of the people” (“The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,” Vol. 1, p. 310). This symbolically removed the sins and reconciled the people to God. Such acts were later decried by the prophets as devoid of sincere repentance – an actual change of thought and behavior.
In the New Testament, gospel records tell us that Christ Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, “but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). He saved people by pointing out the wrong, but also by awakening them in some degree to their pure, God-given individuality. Their willingness to let go of the wrong, as well as their new-found spiritual glimpse of who they really were as a son or daughter of God, freed them from the sins that were shackling them – people such as the woman caught in the act of adultery, who was about to be stoned (see John 8:1-11), and Zacchaeus, the rich, corrupt tax collector, who climbed a tree to see Jesus walk by (see Luke 19:1-10).
Jesus, surrounded by a crowd, called Zacchaeus to come down, then invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. Zacchaeus must have felt the spiritual light and love in which Jesus saw him. The result was that the tax collector turned his life around. He even promised to give half his wealth to the poor and to make restitution to those he had cheated. In fact, he pledged to give back four times what he owed.
Sin always involves a sense of separation from God and thus a mistaken sense of who and what we really are. It’s a material, distorted perception of our individuality, worth, and goodness – our value and purpose in life. Salvation involves the recognition of our true identity as spiritual, good, and innocent, as the very image, or expression, of God. If God is Spirit and entirely good, then all of us, created in His image, must be entirely spiritual and good.
Jesus came as the Savior to present the reconciling truth of individuals’ inseparability from the divine source of all being and our true Parent, the all-loving God. Jesus, knowing that this reconciliation was available for all, went after the so-called goats – the ones driven to the wilderness by their own or another’s sins.
Speaking of God as all-loving, as divine Love itself, Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered and founded Christian Science, writes, “Love is impartial and universal in its adaptation and bestowals” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 13). As the spiritual creation of God, Love, we are each the expression of that divine Love which is impartial and universal. Claiming this spiritual identity as our own enables us to include everyone in our love and to see all as made in God’s image.
Praying to view others in this way, I’ve begun to feel compassion for those who have become scapegoats. The inclination toward wrongdoing is not part of the true identity of any of God’s creation. And I’ve come to see that understanding that fact is part of my commitment to loving my neighbor.
The week that one of the scandals hit the news, I brought my seed of compassion toward the "scapegoat" to a spiritual discussion group. We all wrestled with it. Eventually we decided to pray, and I prayed to lift up my thought to see more clearly the true man of God’s creating. As we prayed quietly together, I felt a powerful surge of mercy. Mercy for another, as I want it for myself. Mercy that doesn’t distinguish between haves and have-nots, but rains on all. This indescribable feeling healed me of a thoughtless pattern of judgment against the rich and powerful.
Racism, fraud, corruption, are serious wrongs. But the removal of these sins from society requires more than scapegoating. It requires self-examination and spiritual regeneration. Then, with hearts filled with the recognition of everyone’s true, spiritual individuality, we can follow Jesus in expressing compassion, mercy, and forbearance. As we look up in the trees for the heart that’s receptive to salvation, as Zaccheaus’ was – to reconciliation with God and freedom to be the true individual of God’s creating – we contribute to universal salvation for the whole human family.