Last weekend I joined the throngs – not in welcoming the Messiah to Jerusalem – but in watching the new hit movie, The Hunger Games – based on the first part of the popular trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. The action takes place in a future post-apocalyptic north America, where all that is left after the unnamed devastation are the capital (somewhere deep in the Rockies) and twelve districts. The heroes come from District 12, where the main industry is coal-mining. We discover that to ‘celebrate’ the quashing of the uprising that had happened 74 years earlier, when there was a 13th district that led the rebellion [apparently no longer in existence] a contest is held to choose two delegates from each of the districts – one boy and one girl aged between 12 and 18 to compete in the so-called Hunger Games. The object of the games is to fight to the death so that of the 24 competitors that enter the arena, only one is allowed to survive – and all of this is captured by hundreds of cameras and broadcast as compulsory viewing to the whole nation. Charming!As I watched the movie (and then read the book this week), I was struck by how often stories and movies set in some distant future are so dark – the world and its peoples are scratching to survive in an environment marked by violence, warfare and hatred. Dozens of examples come to mind. So this scenario – as horrible as it is – only joins a very long list from human history or societies and cultures that have demanded no less than mortal combat and human sacrifice either as entertainment or as an attempt to deal with the angst that we have felt and continue to experience. The Capital here needs a scapegoat to remind the citizens in these far-flung districts that it is in charge.

When we gather today to remember the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, welcomed by hundreds of pilgrims from equally far-flung regions of the Jewish diaspora – perhaps many of them from Galilee and other northern districts, it seems that the liturgy barely allows us to catch our breath before the action moves to the final anointing of Jesus, the last supper, the garden, betrayal and arrest, trial and then the crucifixion. The need for a scapegoat – seemingly so strong in the human psyche – is answered in Judaism by the annual remembrance of the Day of Atonement, where a goat is brought through the crowd of pilgrims and then banished as a way of acknowledging the seriousness of our sin and dysfunction.

But the goat is not enough. To only allow another to take on our sins is not enough if we know that we have to turn around and repeat all this again next year. The difference that Jesus brings to this reality is that he is not only a scapegoat – he becomes something unique in human history, because he is able to make this offering once and for all. He is not only one like us, but he is also God. So when he offers himself for our sins in our place, this sacrifice radically subverts the standard model because he freely offers himself in our place. He is not the scapegoat for he offers himself – not as something that has to be repeated each year – but as the once and only sacrifice that we have the wondrous privilege of remembering so powerfully each year.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (4’45”)
L6B; Palm/Passion Sunday, Year B.