Fr. Rick’s Homily – 1st Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent “B” – Fr. Rick Sherman

Gn 9:8-15; Ps 25:4-9; 1 Pt 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15

February 21, 2021

It seems a bit curious that the SPIRIT drove Jesus into the desert in order to be tempted by Satan.  We might think that the Spirit would want Jesus to avoid the devil and temptation. And perhaps to avoid suffering all together.  But Jesus, being fully God but also fully human, was setting the new human precedent and capacity for sharing in God’s power over the devil. If one human could resist the devil, all humans could do it…provided we stay open to the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s why we have Lent, because it’s really easy to just drift along in the day-to-day world without recognizing the spiritual war that is going on around us.  We must set aside time every year to refocus on the need to be strengthened for the battle.  We need this and our children need this.

Most of us probably still don’t like to talk much in our daily lives about the devil.  It can sound a bit antiquated or even childish, but I think there are plenty of examples of evil and malevolence that are going on in the world.  It’s rather apparent that many people are confused and even willfully destructive in any number of ways.  If there’s really not a devil (and the Church teaches that there is) perhaps we could at least concede that there is some kind of diabolical presence that exists in the world and it manifests itself in humans and human behavior.

The real point I want to emphasize today is part of the symbolism and theological meaning about Jesus being driven into the desert.  I was recently reminded of a scholarly interpretation which stated that the Greek word from which ‘driven’ was translated was more precisely, ‘thrown’.  Jesus was thrown into the desert.  Or ‘thrown out’ into the desert.  Who or what else would have been thrown out into the desert?  Thrown out of the community into the desert?  Hmmm?  The scapegoat of course.

Chapter 16 of the book of Leviticus tells us that…..

The confessing of the sins of the whole nation was part of the cleansing of the people before their celebration and feast.  The Jewish Feast of Yom Kippur is the annual Day of Atonement.

So it’s easy to see the parallel between the scapegoat and Jesus who was also sent into the desert to die for everyone’s sins, individually and collectively as a nation.  Of course in a Godless nation or people there is not much significance in this ancient ritual, any more than there is significance in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  In a culture where sin cannot be easily defined because there is no agreed upon authority or criteria for sin, how could we be cleansed of what is not even acknowledged?  In modern parlance, ‘sin aint even a thing’.

In our culture there are simply different perspectives and different choices.

Scapegoats and Lenten ritual cleansings are merely cultural references which have lost their biblical meaning.  We can describe chocolate as ‘sinfully’ rich.  Mmmmmm.  Sin means gooooood.  It’s like Noah’s ark from the first reading; at most it’s a little bedtime story for kids, but few people equate the story for the need of a massive cleansing of the people.  Most people would not associate this cute little story of a 40-day deluge of rain with the need for a national day of atonement or the 40-day season of Lent.

Interestingly though, the term scapegoat still has much of its original meaning even if the biblical reference to the Book of Leviticus is largely unknown.  Scapegoat is still an important idea to be aware of because of the cruelty it usually represents.  Scapegoating is much more common than we might like to admit.

If we take a moment or two to reflect, I’ll bet that most of us can remember going back to grade school when a certain child or family or group of kids just became the arbitrary scapegoat.  It could have been their haircut, their food at lunch, their accent, maybe their body shape.  Maybe we were part of the jeering mob or maybe we were the ones being jeered at?  At this point it’s almost equally painful to reflect on our role, whatever it was.

Scapegoating doesn’t stop in grade school.  It can happen in the workplace, in the government, in the churches, even in the global community.  In some countries of the world the United States is considered the Great Satan.  The Catholic Church in some ages has been referred to as the Whore of Babylon.  It’s hard to believe we could be the source of all evil, although we can take our share of the blame in the history of human confusion.

Undocumented people in the United States are considered by some to be the source of our social problems even though we could not even produce our own food without them, nor could we properly serve the leisure set.

People of color make up the largest percentage of people in jail and in prison.  Are they really THEE problem?  Are police officers, especially white police officers, the cause of racism in the US?  It’s much easier to ‘scapegoat’ a certain group then actually do a serious day or season of national atonement or cleansing.

White people, especially white men, are more and more perceived as the root of all prejudice and racism in our country and maybe the world. Especially if you listen to certain types of biased media, even though inter-tribal violence has been part of the human species since the beginning of time.  Down here in Kane County most of us know that the source of all evil is the liberals. However, if you live in Salt Lake County you might just as easily believe that the conservatives are the great Satan.

Again, defining a scapegoat or defining the enemy is much easier than a sincere day or week of atonement.  Looking at the United States in particular, where there is a rapidly diminishing religious influence in day-to-day and governing affairs, how could we ever atone for the sins of a nation if there is no real agreed upon concept of sin? 

Admittedly I have blurred the idea of scapegoat a bit in this homily.  Technically, the scapegoat is innocent… like Jesus or the poor sin-bearing goat who lost the ‘coin toss’ and was sent into the wilderness to die.  Once we get past grade school, it’s probably pretty hard to find a genuinely innocent person, but scapegoats are inevitably among the most vulnerable.  That’s why a genuine day of national atonement is so critical.  Life is very complex and we can’t let too many years pass without a significant agreement about right and wrong … and how to proceed in a peaceful and orderly way.

This week it could be a good Lenten reflection to consider when we have experienced being the scapegoat.  Which angels came to protect us?  (Recall from the gospel today that the angels came to minister to Jesus when he was among the wild beasts).

When were we part of the jeering mob?  How did that affect our maturity?  At what point did we actually acknowledge our role in the persecution of another.  When and how did we atone?

Once we have seen our own place in the scapegoat scenario, then it’s much easier to empathize with the innocent victims and to challenge the oppressors.