Honour and Shame iii – Scapegoat and Son

23 09 2010

In this third of four posts I intend to briefly explore two passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example.

The Scapegoat

‘Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.’ (Leviticus 16:9-10)

Leviticus 16 tells the story of two goats, one of whom is killed on behalf of the people as a means of paying the penalty for their sin (guilt), whilst the second is sent off into the desert, carrying their shame with him. The second goat, the scapegoat, is driven outside the camp, separated from the community. It is symbolic of the penalty of sin; shameful separation. [1]

Removal of guilt is not the only thing God is concerned with. He is concerned with the feelings of shame and the social and relational ramifications of sin. His scapegoat is the means of removing that shame, and Jesus, who was sent outside the camp, ridiculed, naked and bearing our shame, fulfilled both the role of the sin offering and scapegoat in one fell swoop.

The Prodigal Son

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:21-24)

The story of the Prodigal Son is a brilliant example of how the gospel is relevant to the honour/shame culture. In fact, there is little in it to appease those of us entrenched in a guilt culture, such is the emphasis on the restoration of relationship. The following elements are of particular note:

  • The younger son brings shame upon himself by wishing his father were dead, thus enabling him to have the inheritance (15:12)
  • He brings shame upon the father by squandering his hard earned wealth (15:13)
  • He gets a job tending swine, which is immeasurably shameful for a Jew (15:15) and he even contemplates eating the swine food (15:16)
  • He is in such dire need that he considers going back to his father, begging him and offering to become a hired hand – to give himself in slavery to his father and giving up his title as son (15:19)
  • But the father himself takes the bold move of running, undignified, towards his returning prodigal son (15:19) rather than rejecting him.
  • Even more amazing, he refuses to allow his son to be a slave, but blesses him. He doesn’t even allow him to return and carry on as if nothing had happened, but he showers honour upon him, with a robe, a ring and a feast (15:22-23)

This story paints the picture of a God who won’t abandon you to shameful separation, even when that’s what logic and society deem appropriate. He will step out and come running toward you, eager to restore you to a place of honour. I think it is telling that the Father takes a potentially shameful step, putting his reputation at stake by running (an action not befitting of an older gentleman!) and accepting a clearly sinful man back into your family. It beautifully makes sense of the God who was willing to endure the shame of the cross to take away the shame of humanity.

There is a great significance in the character of the older brother as well. He reproves his father, a clear advocate of the honour/shame mindset; “This son has dishonoured you, I have only brought honour to you, it is dishonourable for you to accept him back!” But God defies the logic of those who are bemused by his lavish grace. The cross is foolishness…


[1] It is worth noting that death would have been the fate of both goats. The scapegoat didn’t simply wander off to live a long, albeit lonely, life. In fact the Rabbis indicate that they went to extreme lengths to ensure the goat didn’t return, bringing the shame back into the camp. They established ten booths along the way towards a large ravine in the wilderness. At these booths, a man whose job it was to lead the goat could stop for water, food and rest. When the man reached the ravine he would push the goat into it, ensuring it died. He would then wave a towel so that the people at the last booth could see the goat was dead. This was communicated from booth to booth all the way back to the camp, where the people would rejoice that their shame was gone, no more to return. Thus it was essential that Jesus not only bore our shame and went outside the camp, but that he died too, thus putting an end to our shame once and for all. He will never return to us with our shame. Our shame is in the grave, and now the risen Christ is clothed in only glory!




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