Leviticus 16 tells the tale of two goats, who play a crucial role in a ritual of national healing and reconciliation.
The two goats are, together, taken for a sin offering. ‘Sin’ refers to all that divides us from one another; a ‘sin offering’ refers to a symbolic act of reconciliation.
The first goat is slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled in the tent that symbolised God living with his people. The reason you slaughter a goat is to extend hospitality, to serve up a meal for someone who has come to you, someone who by definition is ‘other’ in relation to you. This act is not done to appease God, but to honour God. It is done as a reminder of God’s mercy in choosing to remain with this people, even though they are totally undeserving, even though their habitual actions would give reasonable grounds to leave.
The second goat gets to live. This is the goat known as the scapegoat. The priest is instructed to lay both hands on the head of the goat and to confess over it the sins of the people, all of the ways in which they have offended against one another. Then the goat is led out into the wilderness and set free.
This is the exact opposite to how scapegoat is used today. Today we look for a ‘scapegoat,’ for someone other than ourselves, who is in no way to blame for our woes, and blame them. But that is not what a scapegoat is. The goat was not blamed for the sins of the people. The scapegoat was a symbolic mechanism by which the people owned their own sin, their own falling-short in their dealings with one another, and then let it go. Letting it go is not saying that it does not matter (if it did not matter, there would be no need for this ritual), but symbolically freeing one another from the relational debts we have incurred.
This morning I wake up in a nation that is bitterly divided. We desperately need the goat of hospitality extended to those who live in the same community but are distinctly ‘other’ to us, allowing hospitality to cross the divide. And we desperately need a scapegoat: a public acknowledgement of the ways in which we have hurt one another; and a public commitment to forgive those who have sinned against us, even as we ask them to forgive us for the ways we have sinned against them.