Good Friday 2nd April 2021
I’m told that in Ancient Greece there was a cruel tradition known as ‘pharmakos.’ Once a year, a selection of slaves, foreigners, criminals, people with disabilities and others who were in some way ‘different’ were rounded up. For a while they were well-treated, then at a festival they would be paraded around the city. The conflicts and difficulties of the community were symbolically placed on them, and then they were killed. Their bodies would be burned and the ashes thrown into the sea or river.
As I say, the name for this procedure was ‘pharmakos’– maybe best translated for us as ‘scapegoating.’ If ‘ pharmakos’ sounds very much like the word ‘pharmacy’, it is: both words come from a common root. Both pharmakos and pharmacy were thought to bring healing to the community. Unfortunately, scapegoating has not been confined to the time of the ancient Greeks. Even in the 20th-century, if not the 21st, sections of society in different places have been made scapegoats, whether this has been explicit or not. You don’t need me to spell out all the examples. The Jewish people, of course: not just under Nazi tyranny, but at many other times before and since, including our own. Gypsies or travellers have suffered from constant scapegoating. Various examples of so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ have been a regular feature of conflicts over the past decades. (Note that term ‘cleansing’ again, suggesting a parallel with healing). In our own country, asylum seekers or economic migrants are often blamed for much, not least the way in which they are reckoned to deprive others of employment or use up resources to which they are not entitled, as some would say. Compassion for their plight can quickly be overtaken by uncharitable feelings when they might threaten our well-being in some way.
The contemporary Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that when human nature is seeking power , it wants either to play the victim or create victims of others. The second follows from the first: once we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we will soon find someone else to blame, accuse or attack. And the philosopher Rene Girard (1923-2015) identifies this sequence; We compare, we copy, we compete, we conflict, we conspire, we condemn, and we crucify. Richard Rohr goes on to point out, very sadly, that the most persistence violence in human history has been ‘sacralized violence’– that is, fearing or hating on behalf of something holy and noble: God, religion, truth, morality, or love of country. It takes away all guilt, he says, and one can even think of oneself as representing the moral high ground in doing it. So some of the charges laid against Jesus were that he blasphemed and made himself God. But earlier he had enraged the religious authorities by healing on the Sabbath, and proclaiming forgiveness of sins. The authorities’ objection could therefore be ‘legitimised’ by claiming their action against Jesus was protecting their religion; their God.
You will remember, I expect, that the idea of the scapegoat in the bible comes from Leviticus. We read that the sins of the people of Israel were put onto a goat on the Day of Atonement. The goat was then thrust out into the wilderness, apparently taking the people’s sins with it. Out of sight, out of mind. And so the cycle of avoiding responsibility for our own failings starts. If we can pin the blame onto someone else, or something else, we can forget about our own shortcomings, and continue to live in the way we wish, keeping all the blemishes, and prejudices, and injustices conveniently camouflaged. The ‘blame culture’ is still very prevalent in our own time, partly because litigation is often threatened after anything goes wrong.
Occasionally, though, something happens to stop this unfruitful cycle. Perhaps you know the story of Telemachus. He lived at the time when gladiatorial combats were daily occurrences in the Colosseum of Rome. Wild beasts would fight men to the death, and men would fight men. Human life was cheap, but the Roman people gloated over this bloodshed.
One day, as a gladiatorial fight was about to begin, a small and frail old man called Telemachus got into the arena, and stood between the lines of advancing gladiators. He held up his arms and shouted, “Hold, in the name of Christ.” The gladiators stopped for a moment, completely baffled by this intrusion. But the spectators were incensed that their entertainment should have been interrupted, and the soldiers, sensing the crowd’s ugly mood, quickly put Telemachus to death.
A hush swept across the amphitheatre. At last one spectator got up and walked out, followed by another, then another. Soon the huge Colosseum was empty. Rome was disgusted with itself, and gladiatorial combat was soon a thing of the past. One of the passion accounts tells us that at the death of Jesus, many of the spectators went home, beating their breasts. “What have we done?”
Just occasionally today, something so awful happens to make society as a whole stop and ask ‘What have we done?’’ or ‘How could things have got to this dreadful stage?’
Maybe some of the crowd present that first Good Friday had recognised Jesus as truly being the Messiah. The twelve disciples had been coming to that conclusion over the three years that Jesus was with them, and you will remember that one of the disciples Jesus met on the road to Emmaus had said, “We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel.”
The suffering of our Lord had been pre-figured, centuries before, in the person of the so-called ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isaiah. Here was a figure who took upon himself the sufferings of the whole people: he who least deserved it. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…He was wounded for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities….By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” Bishop John Pritchard says “We’re in the realm here of spiritual poetry, metaphors that carry a huge punch but mustn’t be tested to destruction. More important is to stop and wonder.”
And yet, even in this distant prophecy, there is a phrase that separates Jesus from the many other scapegoats we have been thinking about. The prophet affirms, “Upon him was the punishment that makes us whole.” Ethnic cleansing, as it is mistakenly called, has made no-one whole. The punishment of a police officer ill-treating a black protester doesn’t make society whole or end racism. The tradition of ‘pharmakos’ in ancient Greece made nobody whole. The persecution of the Jews has made nobody whole. But Good Friday is ‘good’ because in an unbelievable and wonderful way, the passion and death of Jesus does offer us wholeness, and the forgiveness of sins, and new life.
Earlier we heard from the Epistle to the Hebrews. It looks at the redemption we have in Christ from the standpoint of those familiar with the old Jewish world of covenant and ritual sacrifice. In the passage preceding the one we just heard, the writer says that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. But now, he says “there is a new and living way opened for us” to reach God, and to have fellowship with him– through the blood of Jesus. The old covenant between God and his chosen people is replaced by a new one forged through the righteous deeds of one man, the very Son of God. The barriers between God and humanity are taken away, symbolised in the Easter story by the curtain of the Temple being torn apart at the time of the death of Jesus. With this covenant comes the forgiveness of sins, and the writer of Hebrews notes that where there is forgiveness of sins, there is no longer any offering for sin. So no need for a scapegoat to be sent out into the wilderness.
Those Jewish customs took place annually, but what Jesus has done he did, as the hymn says “Once, only once, and once for all”– that ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction’ talked about in the Prayer Book Communion service. In normal times we may be saddened that so few people seem to take notice of Good Friday – at least in terms of church attendance. But I’m sure there are plenty of people who make the connection between undeserved suffering in the world, and the undeserved suffering of Jesus. Look at the tradition of American spiritual songs like ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ – a subjugated and persecuted people identifying with the sufferings of Jesus.
You may think this address has not centred so much on the events of Good Friday and the horrible suffering Jesus experienced. It’s been pointed out that the gospels stay largely silent about the physical suffering, the degradation, the agony of our Lord. They tell us the story and the things Jesus was reported to have said at the time, but they don’t record the horror in graphic detail.
Though we shouldn’t anaesthetise ourselves from what Jesus went through, I don’t believe we’re intended to wallow in the graphic details of it. But we are meant to be thankful; thankful that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son– so simply put in the most-quoted verse of the bible: John 3.16. The late Professor John MacQuarrie said, “This is the absolute paradox – that this humble crucified man is also the eternal Word of God.”
Our keeping of the passion centres on this paradox: a story of human suffering bringing salvation to the world. Other human suffering, like the sort of scapegoating we’ve been thinking about, and similar ruthless treatment of humans by others– doesn’t bring salvation to the world, although good things may come from that suffering. But the suffering of Jesus – a once, only once and once-for-all event, does bring salvation, redemption and healing to the world.
Perhaps the task of the Church today is to proclaim this mystery to a world where this significance is not always grasped. Maybe in our dealings with others, we can try to show that through Jesus’ suffering, all human suffering can have purpose: that God through Jesus knows what it is to suffer, and that God’s good intentions for the world are not thwarted by suffering, or the evil that often produces it.
Rather, through the supreme self-giving of Jesus on the cross, all humanity can be redeemed and brought closer to his great heart of love. And for us, who have accepted some of all this, what should our response be? Certainly today is a day to be thankful, a day to take to heart that we have been redeemed– brought back to the state we should be in, and bought back: saved. But it is also a day to acknowledge that only by seeking forgiveness and healing for ourselves can we deal with the real meaning of evil and sin. It is a day to avoid any temptation to blame others, or to project our fears or insecurities or anger onto ‘them’ whoever ‘they’ might be. Rather it is a day to contemplate the cross, and recognize our own complicity in the sin of the world, and all those evils we imagine others are responsible for. Above all, it is a day to commit to Jesus Christ being at the centre of our lives, not just at the edge. Isaac Watts put it as well as anyone – “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
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