An interfaith discussion group has met alternately at Providence College and Temple Emmanuel for a number of years. I have been pleased to be among the Catholic laity and clergy along with professors from Providence College who discuss Biblical matters with Jewish rabbis and lay persons perhaps four times a year. The college also sponsors a couple of scholarly lectures on Catholic-Jewish faith topics during the year.
At a recent gathering the selected topic was chapter 53 of Isaiah’s lengthy Old Testament writings. A portion of that prophetic chapter is the first reading at Mass this coming Sunday. Much of chapter 53 reads like a pamphlet on the Stations of the Cross: “Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth. Seized and condemned, he was taken away. Who would have thought any more of his destiny? For he was cut off from the land of the living, struck for the sins of his people. He was given a grave among the wicked, a burial place with evildoers, Though he had done no wrong, nor was deceit found in his mouth.” Although Jewish tradition sometimes sees Israel or Moses or Isaiah himself as the suffering servant of chapter 53, the passage is so suggestive of the passion of Jesus Christ that one rabbi at the recent meeting remarked that he had anticipated two hours of talking about Isaiah’s uncanny insights into Jesus’ tragic demise.
Yet it was not Christ the Lamb of God who absorbed the participants’ attention that afternoon. Another unfortunate victim, the Old Testament’s scapegoat, became the topic for discussion. At the annual observance of Yom Kippur, this animal on which the sins of the Jewish people were symbolically imposed was sent out into the wilderness to an uncertain fate. And this was the hitch that some at the discussion table observed. Clearly Jesus Christ was put to death; he was indeed “the lamb led to the slaughter.” But the scapegoat was not put to death; the animal was sent, willy-nilly, out into the wilderness. Its destiny was undetermined. There would seem to be a disconnect between the clearly slaughtered Jesus and the ritually abandoned goat. Or perhaps the scapegoat’s fate was not so uncertain.
No less an authority than St. Alphonsus Liguori makes an insightful observation on the Bible’s hapless scapegoat: “The sacrifices of expiation were established to obtain the pardon of sin. This kind of sacrifice was specially represented in the Feast of the Expiation (Yom Kippur) by the emissary-goat, which, having been laden with all the sins of the people, was led forth out of the camp of the Hebrews, and afterwards abandoned in the desert to be there devoured by ferocious beasts. This sacrifice was the most expressive figure of the sacrifice of the cross. Jesus Christ was laden with all the sins of men, as Isaias had foretold: “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” He was afterwards ignominiously led forth from Jerusalem, whither the Apostle invites us to follow him by sharing in his opprobrium: “Let us go forth therefore with him outside the camp, bearing his reproach.” Christ too was abandoned to ferocious beasts; that is to say, to the Gentiles, who crucified him.” St. Alphonsus’ introduction of the “ferocious beasts,” be they wild animals or cruel Gentiles, indeed links the fate of Christ with the fate of the scapegoat. Both suffered and died, one immediately, the other eventually, to relieve their respective communities of sin. Both died “for the sins of his people.”
The second reading at Mass this Sunday further emphasizes how integral Christ’s sufferings are to the redemptive process: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” And the Gospel passage also alludes to the saving sufferings of Jesus Christ as well as the certain sufferings of his followers: “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And clearly Jesus understands his suffering and death to be a sacrificial act that would garner salvation for the masses: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The sufferings of Jesus were uniquely redemptive. All the credit for the salvation of the world belongs solely to him. Still, both Testaments employ daily human suffering and sacrifices as emblems and even vehicles of commitment. The naïve optimism of the modern world curdles in the face of suffering. But the heroes of Judaism and the heroes of Christianity clung unflinchingly to the revealed plan of God, to Divine Truth, especially when turning from that truth and succumbing to personal satisfactions would have been much less complicated. Suffering and sacrifice indeed challenge a believer’s faith but they also deepen that faith, powerfully drawing the believer’s attention away from earthly satisfactions toward the Divine plan and eternal truths.