October 14, 2003, game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins: the Cubs held a three games to two lead in the best-of-seven series, and they were ahead in this game 3-0. But then in the 8th inning, Moises Alou was trying to catch a foul ball, when a spectator (Steve Bartman) reached for the ball and deflected it, disrupting the potential catch. Had Alou caught the ball, it would have been the Cubs’ second out in the inning and they would have been just four outs away from their first National League pennant since 1945. But instead, things went downhill from there, and they ended up losing the game to the Marlins, and then were eliminated during the 7th game.
The crowd hurled abuse at Bartman, screaming at him, swearing at him, throwing things at him; someone even dumped a beer on him. He had to be escorted out of the park by security for his own protection. The scene was replayed again and again on TV. Shortly after the game, his home address was published on the MLB website. Apparently he ended up having to move, although rumors that he went into a witness protection program are apparently untrue (although the governor of Illinois at the time suggested it). However, he has never been back to Wrigley Field and has kept a low profile ever since, never accepting interviews or endorsements. His life was forever changed from this one incident. But, it was not really his fault that the Cubs ended up losing either that game or the next one. And, of course they did finally win the World Series 13 years later. But Steve Bartman took the blame for the Cubs’ losses that night and for losing out on a chance to win the World Series in 2003.
Scapegoating: that’s what happened to Bartman. Blaming someone else. Pointing the finger at someone else: “He did it!” Probably all of us have done it at one time or another, and no doubt many times. And we learn to do it early on. And scapegoating goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, as we heard in our first reading today. After Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree that God had forbidden them to eat, what do they immediately begin to do? Blame someone else. Eve says, “The serpent tricked me into eating it,” and it’s true, the serpent did tempt her. And Adam says, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me the fruit, so I ate it.” Notice that, even though they are technically telling the truth, neither one takes responsibility for what they’ve done and simply asks forgiveness for their disobedience.
This is what happens again and again in human history. What happens when anything goes wrong? People start pointing fingers. Think about all of the ills that face our society – we are always looking for who is responsible. Right now the economy in the US is booming, but whenever the economy goes bust, we immediately start looking for someone to blame. It’s the immigrants – they’re taking all our jobs. It’s the rich – they’re too greedy. It’s the poor – they keep sponging off the economy. That’s not to say there’s never any truth in any of these arguments; sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t, most of the time there are many factors. And no, we should not just forget about justice. Justice is necessary in order to right wrongs. However, that’s not the point I’m trying to make.
Rather, the point I’m trying to make is that, when things go wrong, when there are problems in the world, in society, in life, it’s all too easy to point fingers, at anyone and everyone. But it’s much harder to admit our own responsibility, to recognize our own faults. It’s much harder to examine our own conscience, our own actions, to see if perhaps we might be at fault. And I think we often are quick to blame others because it can help deflect attention from ourselves. It can help deflect the attention of others, and it can help deflect our own attention away from the uncomfortable process of examining our own hearts.
However, as difficult as it is, it is necessary for us to examine our own hearts and our consciences. It’s necessary for at least a few reasons. One, because it’s the only way we can bring about change in ourselves. If we don’t recognize the need for change, we’re not going to change. We’re not going to grow; we’re not going to develop. Take addiction for example. What’s the first step in overcoming the addiction? Recognizing that you have an addiction. We all know that. But, that’s also the hardest step.
Second, it’s necessary to examine our own actions because it’s often the only way we can bring about any change in the world. Think again for a moment about some of our society’s ills: depression and mental illness are on the rise, as are suicides and fatal drug overdoses. All this in one of the wealthiest countries, not only in the world but in the history of the world! I guess it’s true, money does not bring happiness. But in the face of these big societal forces, it’s easy to feel helpless: what can I do to change anything? We have to start with ourselves. How can we live our lives differently in a way that will have a positive impact on the people around us? I don’t mean to imply that we should all feel responsible for all of society’s ills; but rather to look at how our actions or attitudes may in some small way contribute to the darkness in the world, and then to look at what we can change in ourselves to bring light instead. This can be hard to do; it’s true. It can be uncomfortable and even painful. But it’s necessary.
And finally, we ought to examine our lives and the areas where we need to change because it’s only be recognizing that we do in fact sin that we can be forgiven. Here’s a simple flow chart of how this works: I recognize I’m a sinner and that I need God’s forgiveness – I ask God to forgive me – then God forgives me. If we don’t recognize our need for forgiveness, how can we receive God’s forgiveness? This is the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit that Jesus talks about in the Gospel. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is saying that God can’t forgive me because I have no need to be forgiven. That was the great sin of the scribes and Pharisees who were always after Jesus. It wasn’t that they were trying to follow the Jewish Law that the Lord had given them; it was rather that they felt they had no need of God’s mercy because they believed they never did anything wrong in the first place.
In this whole dynamic of blame and scapegoating that human beings play and have played all the way back to Adam and Eve, it all stops with Jesus Christ. Jesus, the one who was truly innocent, the one without sin, the one who truly could point the finger at others and be completely right, chose not to do so. Instead, he chose to take upon himself all the sins of humanity and offer his life in atonement for them. In doing so, he conquered the devil; he crushed the head of the serpent; he bound the strong man and plundered his house.
God’s mercy is a gift freely given. He has chosen to give us this mercy in the sacrament of confession. Let’s take advantage of this sacrament and receive the gift the Lord desires so much to give us.