by Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
Tuesday in Easter 5 (Year Two)
6 May 2010
In the First Lesson at Morning Prayer on May 4 we read: “When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgression, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:20-22).
My first encounter with this selection of holy Scripture was not in church or in Sunday School; it was in a Shakespeare class when the play discussed was The Merchant of Venice. The professor’s object in introducing us to the Biblical source for scapegoats was to say that Shakespeare’s intention was to make of Shylock a scapegoat on whose head had been placed “all the iniquities of the people” of Venice before he was banished to compulsory baptism. For many reasons, the professor said, this intended effect did not “work”: “all the iniquities” of the Venetians did not fit or properly belong on his head, and we, probably like the Elizabethans, have a question or two when the subject turns to baptism against one’s will.
Over the years when I have read this chapter from Leviticus, I have understood that in the confession of iniquities upon the scapegoat and its banishment to the wilderness we have a ritual, a formal action, established to remove sins. And less formally we have pointing the finger, a fairly common human behavior or defense. We sinful human beings like to evade the responsibility of our words and actions. And in evading them, we put them on the head of someone else before sending her or him to the wilderness. We feel better when we do this; our suffering for a time is alleviated; and we believe that we are better for having discharged our iniquities.
The bond (truly a “collateralized debt obligation”) that Shylock accepts from Antonio provides the money Bassanio needs to woo and to win Portia. And when Antonio’s ventures fail to pay the debt obligation, Shylock calls for the collateral, a pound of Antonio’s flesh. While an exigent demand, it fairly expresses the term of the bond and it hardly answers or measures “all of the iniquities” of Venice. If the Venetians feel better, or, rather, if onstage they appear to feel better for pointing the finger at Shylock, should they feel better? Do they have cause to feel better? Do we ever have cause to feel better for transferring our responsibility, our debt service, if you will, to someone else?
As I write, we have a disastrous oil spill gushing uncontrollably in the Gulf of Mexico and an economy sputtering to recover from the sale of bonds written upon the collateral of disastrous subprime mortgages. We may very well feel better for pointing the finger at petroleum companies, drilling rigs, investment bankers, and bond traders, but should we feel better for this exercise? I am doubtful, for the Community we belong to begins not with them but with us. Let’s discharge our own iniquities before we demand they discharge theirs. If change is necessary, let’s begin it with someone whom we know we can change.