Lent Day 33 – The Scapegoat

by Bishop Robert Barron

I recently mourned the death of French philosopher René Girard, whose insights on group psychology and the scapegoating mechanism were very influential in my life. He says that a kind of community is formed precisely when a variety of people, who would otherwise rather dislike one another, come together in a common hatred of someone else.

We can see this, Girard tells us, at all levels, from the most personal to the most collective, from families to nation-states. How often there is a “black sheep” in a family? He or she plays an important role in family stability and identity.

What is the only thing that two scholars can agree on? How poor the work of a third scholar is! Likewise, what is the only thing two musicians can agree upon? How awful another musician’s composition is.

This dynamic is in effect in one of the most beautifully crafted stories in the New Testament: the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), which we hear today at Mass. The text tells us “They caught her in the very act of adultery.”

The first thing we wonder is, where were they situated in order to catch her in the very act? The voyeurism and perversion of these men is shocking.

Then they come en masse, in the terrible enthusiasm of a mob, and they present the case to Jesus.

Now what does Jesus do in the face of this violent mob that is seeking release from its tension? First, he bends down and writes on the ground. Sometimes silence, a refusal to co-operate is the best opening move. But the mysterious writing might indicate something else: the writing down of the sins of each person in the group, as some of the Church Fathers surmised.

Then Jesus says “let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” He forces them to turn their accusing glance inward, where it belongs. Instead of projecting their violence outward on a scapegoat, they should honestly name and confront the dysfunction within them. This story, like all the stories in the Gospels, is a foreshadowing of the great story toward which we are tending. Jesus will be put to death by a mob bent on scapegoating violence. Yet in sacrificing himself, he will ultimately absorb the violence and defuse it.


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  • concerned citizen

    We should remember that whenever we point a finger accusing someone of committing a sin, there are three fingers pointing to us. It is not rare that when we talk badly of a certain person, it is because we see ourselves in this person. This why thieves hate their fellow thieves. And liars hate their fellow liars. Backbiters hate their fellow backbiters and so on.

    • ber

      Concerned I thought about what you said thieves hate other thieves ect I don’t see it so and I went back to the cross for this the good thief decried his brother thief because he refused to see or acknowledge his wrong doing nowhere does it say he hated him and not for what he did rather because he had no shame before god is it not that made the good thief good just a little thought

      • concerned citizen

        Ber, you could say the good thief had repented and therefore was not a thief anymore. An example of thieves hating other thieves would be the corrupt politicians in Congress who castigate during a public hearing government officials who are accused of malversation of funds.

        • ber

          Thank you I see now what you mean I never seen that with the good thief before great point

        • Barbara Ann Baugh

          Good Point

    • Nancy Rynders

      Good point – when we judge others, it may be because we subconsciously are aware that we are guilty of whatever it was we judged them on. It’s like the stereotypical bully – he/she bullies because he/she has no self-esteem.

  • D Blyth

    During our homily today, Fr Sam our Nigerian pastor told us of a case in the Central African Republic where a community was in the process of hanging a witch. Fr Sam asked who had identified her as a witch. He then told the community that it took a witch to identify another.
    Those who are accused are generally those who have no voice and the accusers those who have public authority or regard.
    We should look inside ourselves and also be the voice for the voiceless.

  • Marthe Lépine

    There is another thing that rarely seems to be noticed in the story, although it should also be obvious. When the woman was caught in the very act of adultery, she could not possibly have been alone… So, where is the man (or other woman?) involved? Why is he not also accused?

    • Rev. Juanita Cordero

      I wonder what would have happened if all the women in the village came forward and stood around her. So many women today are being abused, falsely accused and yet we remain silent. I ask myself, how can I stand up and witness to the women in our church which feel they have no voice and still remain non violent and compassionate.

      • ThirstforTruth

        What you are suggesting ( asking the women of the village to support this fallen woman) could not and would not
        ever happen, even in our own times. ( women then would have been prevented culturally of even thinking outside
        the box…and women today, who have truly reached a point of self identification will refuse to be herded into group think).
        Your view is truthfully anti-truth and thereby anti-feminist where division is encouraged against men. This is no better a situation than when men culturally dominate women. You ask why we women don’t stand up for those who have no voice? Because in today’s world it usually is still self-serving and divisive. When all stand up for all…then we will have justice for all! When women and men both stand together against abuse and injustice everywhere, even for the most voiceless, the child in the womb, then we can talk about being compassionate and non-violent. We are human beings who should be complementary to each other and not standing as one half against the other. We should join as two equal halves that make the circle of life whole again.

        • Elizabeth

          So well said. They will know we are Christian by our love, by our love…

        • Barbara Ann Baugh

          I have volunteered my free hours at a Center for Victims of sexual assault. Although most of the individuals at the center were women, many were men (it was a small most) The thought at the center was that men are more ashamed than women to report abuse. I had a friend who revealed to me that he was abused and badly beaten by two women. Abuse has no gender

        • Gary

          You have to understand that this was a trap set for Jesus. That is why he did not answer. He knew what their scheme was and avoided it because it was not yet his time to endure the cross. This incidence was a prelude of how a vicious crowd would later call for his death. Did Jesus discriminate? Remember he was sin free.

          • ThirstforTruth

            You are right about this scene involving Jesus but I was not addressing
            that specifically but rather Rev. Juanita Codera’s concern. I certainly did not mean to imply Jesus’ was discriminating but rather incriminating the men who, as you said, intended entrapment.

          • Gary

            Sorry this was supposed to be a reply to Rev. Cordero. I totally agree with you.

          • Gary

            Sorry, my reply was meant for Rev. Cordero. I fully agree with you.

      • Elizabeth

        The Blessed Virgin Mary is the model for those persecuted and abused as she is for all women. past, present and future. She pondered in her heart all that went on in her life. How she demonstrated faith in action through her love for her Son and Savior. Jesus is our model as well. It is not so much to want to “Go after those who abuse” but to educate those who are being abused – educate them of their self-worth because they are the children of God. Then, they in turn can learn not to accept abuse. We have to strengthen those who truly believe in Jesus’ message, mercy and love. In turn, we who are strengthened in faith to help those who suffer, emotionally, physically and spiritually. This is how we end abuse. Have you seen the new law trying to be passed in Congress, to criminalize pornography. It encompasses young male children as well as women. So both genders are recognized as having abuses.

      • Gary

        I think Jesus’ message would be the same. Stones are stones whether a man or a women held them. Jesus’ message in the dirt, what ever it was, would not have changed. Please do not miss the message of forgiveness. Obedience to the Church Doctrine can sometimes be very frustrating. If you want things to change, I suggest prayer. If it is GOD’S will your prayer will be answered, however if is your will…

    • Antoinette Porczak Shilling

      That has always been my question too. Thank you for pointing this out.

  • ber

    What can I say I was a pious young woman what happens can’t answer that except to say I was grieving not a human cost but a spiritual one how however that said I have to say now I have more of a compassionate approach to sinners like myself and I see it as a good thing not a bad thing the person who has never fallen can never truley know what it is to revive mercy undeserved Jesus came to call sinners
    Don’t get me wrong doing something wrong is never right but even when someone who has fallen especially if previous they were pious their is always someone who wil gladly remind them of their fall and by doing so may stop them from rising and givig that situation may have done it themselves noons knows the state of someone. else’s soul .me I’m with the sinners and probably will stay there
    So today to anyone I have hurt by my behavior I apologize and can only pray to the lord to heal your pain
    Blessings on your day a sinner

    • Nancy MacAfee

      Ber, I’ve felt like that too. Only another sinner who has begged and pleaded for Christ’s mercy, confessed and received Sacramental absolution can really understand what Divine Mercy is like….It is Amazing Grace! How else could you go from feeling like nothing, to being filled with the gifts and inherent graces of the Holy Spirit? The love, joy and peace that come from trusting in the Mercy of Jesus are just a start to the fruits of a life of service offered through Mary to Jesus for the salvation of souls. I wonder if a person must be or become a great sinner before she can become a saint??. God only knows. Caution:I am not recommending that you become a great sinner thinking it to be a shortcut to sainthood!

      • ber

        Thank you Nancy yes I feel very blessed to experience gods mercy it confirmed his love for me and I too would not recommend committing sin gods mercy is in our lives in many ways it’s also a sign of his mercy that others have not falling into great sin from which they may not have returned to grace does a great sinner make a great saint not sure but the lives of the saints are anything to go by they stand a good chance blessings Bernie I use ber because when I was setting g up I pressed the wrong button and couldnt correct it

  • Patricia Robertson

    Bishop Barron, I had high hopes that you had abandoned the use of the meaningless catch-all term “dysfunction,” but–alas–here it is again. As I read it in this case what you intend to say is “sin”–why not say that? http://pdrobertson.com/2015/08/30/charleston-and-roanoke-we-have-met-the-enemy/. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    • Elizabeth

      sad to say, in our society today the word “sin” is meaningless. The “Me” attitude, I can do no wrong. But use the word dysfunction and ears perk up!

  • Alicia

    Wow, this Bishop Barron has flooded my memory I’m sure with only a portion of situations where I was targeted a scapegoat, accused with anger, scapegoats, until, like the woman who stood alone with Christ, to be granted His forgiveness and reassurance of His Divine Love for me.

    It’s definitely easier to point the finger then to look inward at my part in situations within family, community, country, or globally.
    Christ asks me to pray for everyone who has hurt me. And in the beginning I would say to Jesus, Lord this goes against my natural instinct, I don’t want to do this, but I will do as you ask. And with teeth clenched I would ask God to bestow all His Blessings on those people in my life who have hurt me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Eventually, as I persevered Peace flooded my heart and I truly wish them happiness. I asked God for forgiveness to whom I had done the same.

    So ultimately, I stand as the woman who has sinned, point my finger inward, try to judge no more, will try to sin no more..
    .But Pray…..
    “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins…
    Save us from the fires of Hell
    Lead All Souls to Heaven
    Especially, those in most need of Thy Mercy……”
    “Jesus God have Mercy on me a sinner”

    • Elizabeth

      Sometimes, as a Christian, our part in a family situation can be because we did not admonish someone when they should have been admonished because we wanted peace and it turned out peace at all costs. Assertiveness needs to be learned by Christians, knowing when and how to be assertive.

    • rodica maria scarlatti

      Thank you. May the Good Shepherd carry you to light and forgiveness all the days of your life. Thank you for sharing from your heart.

  • Nancy Rynders

    I’ve always loved this Gospel…..Jesus does not condemn, but forgives. He also peacefully forces the woman’s accusers to look at their own sin. They did, and they left her alone. Let’s pray that we can help others in sin, to turn toward the Lord, and to look at our own sin before we judge others.

  • Jackie

    and one mustn’t forget there was another adulterer caught in that same act, who was not brought forth to be stoned with the adulteress.

    • Athene Aberdeen

      Thank you for that insight Jackie. I have not checked it yet but my Parish priest observed this morning in his sermon that in Deuteronomy and Leviticus punishment for adultery was meted out both to the man and the woman. Why? Mainly because such behaviour threatened the fabric of the Hebrew family. Jesus was therefore quite right in not getting involved in this kind of violence by writing on the ground. The sinfulness of the mob was not a simple one. And only forgiveness engendered from first looking inward at one’s own limitations can help restore the balance needed in such situations. A worthy lesson to be imitated at all times I should think.

      • Jackie

        Yes, many scriptural quotes come to mind in these kinds of situations. “An eye for an eye”. “Do not judge lest you be judged” “Take the beam out of your own eye”. One never knows when one will be confronted with these same temptations. Better to be aware of one’s own tendencies than to ignore the possibilities that this could be “you” in the same situation.

  • anonymous

    In addition to reflecting inward, i think Bishop Barron says it all in the last line. “Yet in sacrificing himself, he will ultimately absorb the violence and defuse it.” Remaining silent, not passing it on, absorb and defuse. That’s life as a Christian accepting his/her cross. Bishop Barron you’re the best ~

  • Barbara Ann Baugh

    In our society gossip is one of the worst kinds of scapegoating. We do not realize how it hurts the one we gossip about. I have often refused to listen to gossip or pass it on. But I have often failed to have the courage to support that person.

  • Màire Ní Bhroin

    That is radical LOVE…Jesus’s rescue of this fallen woman at the very point of her death under Judaic law. Everyone there knew Moses was compelled to stone adulterers and they thought it their duty to follow Moses.Yet, here is Jesus contradicting past tradition and risking His own life. One powerful sentence from Jesus gave this woman a reprieve & a fresh beginning. This mob of stoners was totally changed by His power to forgive. What a paradigm shift from old to new testament. “Love one another” being Jesus’s prime commandment and forgiveness the key.God is Awesome!

  • Vilma

    Well said! I like to say “look in the mirror” when I feel tempted to judge or criticize another! Most of the time I’m guilty of the same thing I’m judging or criticizing. Then mercy reigns! http://www.shepherdoffaith.com

  • Dude_Abides

    “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”” (Mark 15:39; RSVCE)

    “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things.” (Luke 23:47-49; RSVCE)

    The two accounts from the Gospels of Mark & Luke about that fateful day at Golgotha (Calvary).
    BB: “Jesus will be put to death by a mob bent on scapegoating violence. Yet in sacrificing himself, he will ultimately absorb the violence and defuse it.”
    The ultimate rule of the day was ROMAN. The verdict rendered was from Rome’s jurisdiction. And yet immediately after Jesus’ last breath was taken this most powerful of authorities, represented by “the centurion” understood the gravity of its error!

  • Dude_Abides

    Thank you again BB for this morning’s meditation. I learn so much from your posting’s and the comments from the other followers, er’ may I say your fans ;-).
    I had never heard of this French philosopher René Girard and wanted to learn more about him so I did an internet search and came upon a link on the Canadian Radio; http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ –> 3 part interview with Girard back in 2010.
    I listened to the 3rd part this morning before heading to mass. It is about an hour long (the links to the other two parts; pts 1 & 2 are on/at the bottom of the page)
    The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 3 ; http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-scapegoat-the-ideas-of-ren%C3%A9-girard-part-3-1.3483382
    Very interesting. I will carve out some time today or tomorrow and listen to the other two parts.
    I also added two new words to my lexicon – mimesis & scandalon (Greek derived and means stumbling block). I will comment further on a future post.
    peace & God’s blessings to you all

  • Elizabeth

    Bishop Robert Barron, Patricia Robertson brought up a concern utilizing the word dysfunction in place of “Sin” I in turn looked to see the difference and found the following:


  • Mary Jane Madeline

    Thank you Bishop Barron for an interesting philosophy on scapegoating. Following His Father’s Will, Jesus showed compassion, mercy and forgiveness in the midst of the crowd. It does take courage to defend the underdog. Thanks be to God for sending His Son to show us the Way, the Truth and the Life.

  • Marilynn Pavlov

    This says so much about us as humans. We have to be ever vigilant not to succumb to the “mob” mentality and beware to not be a cause of scapegoating of someone else.

  • Dolores Pinzon-Caldwell

    I am the black sheep of my family…it use to bother but not any more…being the black sheep makes it easier for Jesus to find me!

  • rtclovesmac

    I remember a comedian named Flip Wilson whose favorite saying when caught in some transgression was
    “The devil made me do it.”

    Here is another saying “my enemies enemy is my friend.”

    Integrity is what causes us to persue the truth insipite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    Trusting in Christ sustains us.

  • Linda Dokey


  • kayeloney@cox.net

    I believe their has always been a double standard, in the time of Jesus I have be told in our Scripture study class. That women and children really had no say on anything. If they with were caught doing something out of line they could easily be charge and put to death. Jesus was the new standard of Love, that was never understood.

  • Barb McSweeney

    Thank you, Father…AWARENESS of His PRESENCE in our own DAILYNESS is God’s GIFT to us, a gift that so often is revealed to us through another of His GIFTS – PRIESTHOOD. PLEASE pray for our PRIESTS…..

  • Joseph Pasquino

    What amazes me about this Gospel is not only how Jesus shows His mercy toward this adulterer, but puts all her sins aside and accepts her for the person she truly is. As long as she sins no more; He accepts her shame as a penance,a perfect gift of Love for this forsaken soul.
    Maybe because He knew his own fate and how He would become the one who would stand accused, not too far in the offing. It also calls to mind the affinity He displayed for the good thief; who was gifted with a very share in Christ’s Eternal Life. Neither sinner really displayed sorrow for their sin; but more of an understanding for their particular transgressions. How kind and loving Our God is toward sinners.
    Ultimately It was That Love He sacrificed for all sinners through His torture and death on the Cross!!! If anyone has any doubts about God’s Love for us; they should call to mind, how He emptied himself out for all of us. That was the Day that Love died and rose again in all Glory and Honor for all mankind throughout eternity.

  • GV

    This mentality is so prevalent today. May our Merciful God help me/us, in Bishop Barron’s words, to ‘turn our accusing glance inwards, where it belongs’.

  • Victoria Ryan

    But what about the man the woman was in the “act of adultery” with?! I get that in that culture women were like animals, but animals weren’t shamed. What about commentary on the fact that men were not blamed for doing the very thing women were doing? I like to think that Jesus wrote in the same: “What about your sins, starting with the guy in the house.”