Friday, 25 March 2016


We Christians have a knack for giving biblical personalities a bad press, or, at best, distorting their bios to suite our own agendas. We brand God as loving and forgiving while wielding the Scriptures much like the Pharisees who Jesus consistently exhorted us not to emulate. We peg our scapegoats and never let them go. It feeds our smugness.

For example, at this time of the year we contemplate the crucifixion– all too often like voyeurs at a motor accident. Soon after that we focus on Jesus’ re-appearance to his apostles. Pivotal to those narratives are Judas Iscariot (think greedy traitor) and Thomas (think doubter).

Judas has had a particularly bad press but it can be argued that there was much more to that infamous kiss than 30 pieces of silver.

Firstly, as the Jews suffered under Roman oppression their vision of a Messiah had little to do with heaven. The afterlife didn’t feature as powerfully as their worldly hardships and they were anxiously waiting for their very own ‘Che’ Guevara to overthrow their rulers.

Enter Judas who, it seems, was a passionate revolutionary probably growing impatient with Jesus’ dis-inclination to lead a political uprising. Well aware of Jesus’ miraculous powers (as in sticking an ear back after it had been chopped off by a sword), it was highly unlikely that he believed he was sending his leader to his death. His intention was simply to nudge Jesus into action. The man he had watched raise the dead and heal the sick could surely dethrone Herod and zap the Romans?

That kiss was a classic case of a plan gone wrong. Was Judas’ suicide akin to falling on one’s sword in other honour cultures?

There’s yet another factor. By classifying Mr Iscariot as the arch betrayer we paint Jesus as a victim. It’s the ultimate insult or do we find a gentle Jesus, meek and mild, easier to manipulate for our own purposes?

Yet, John’s gospel presents Jesus as being in full control of the situation from the Judas kiss to his last breath on the cross. The reasoning is that Jesus allowed those awful events to flow in order to live out the Messianic prophesy. The proof sits with the resurrection.

I suspect even Donald Trump would agree that power over death far outweighs political power.

On that basis Judas simply served Jesus’ purpose. But do we give him an iota of sympathy? No ways!

We’ve done such a good job of making him synonymous with betrayal that he is linked to one of the most famous rock and roll heckles of all time. It was 1966 at a concert in England that, as Bob Dylan switched to an electronic guitar an outraged member of the audience yelled “Judas!”

Dylan’s love for his new electric instrument was viewed a blasphemous.

That story would not have gone down in the annals of music history if we Christians had been less condemning of  Judas. When he planted a kiss on his rabbi’s cheek after three years of faithful following, he was branded for ever. One can just imagine how quick the other disciples were to condemn, despite their own failings.

No one really knows what drove Judas. But, for sure, we Christians have judged and sentenced him mercilessly to our lectionary of derogatory terms.

Thomas is also much maligned. We’ve made him a synonym for doubt, particularly doubt in God, lack of faith. 

For starters nobody seems to notice that Jesus doesn’t reprimand him for doubting the resurrection. He simply seeks to reassures the disciple by inviting him to check out the crucifixion wounds. (No fuss, no rant. Just as nobody ever seems to notice that Jesus doesn’t criticise the woman at the well for the men in her life. He doesn’t even instruct her to leave the man she is living with.) But we Christians have an awful tendency to look askance at folk who have difficulty believing in God.

For heaven’s sake! Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has shared that sometimes he doubts. I know I do. Many of my Anglican friends grew up confident that God exists, they have absolute confidence that their guardian angel hovers and Jesus loves them. It’s not that easy for me. I have to work at my faith.

Sometimes I have to work extra hard but I do take comfort from Mother Theresa who wrote in her private journals that she lived much of her life not feeling God’s presence.

In fact, I was only ready to place my chips on the roulette wheel of faith when reading Gerard Hughes God of Surprises at the grand age of 50. He helped me understand that I could not intelectualise God, God wouldn’t be God and my best bet was to get on with the game.

My spiritual journey will always involve potholes of doubt. But that’s okay. It’s part of my human condition and its never boring.

Another incredibly valuable lesson I learned for Father Gerry is not to confuse God-incidences with coincidences. As I prepare to launch the first in my Archbishop Shakes mystery series, I’m experiencing a major one. Besides a lot of grind, the book has inched forward against a backdrop of many arrow prayers for help.

In the short cul de sac I live in there is a friend on the opposite side of the road who edits non-fiction books and was an excellent beta reader for the novel. My neighbour on one side is an IT specialist who has helped me set up social media platforms, websites, blogs and all the other stuff one has to do when self-publishing. On the other side is a couple of graphic artists who are designing my cover. A stone’s through down the road is a friend who is a professional editor. Add to that all the other friends who have read the book to check for errors and know that there is one big God-incidence happening.

But, back to Good Friday for a moment. Do you remember the Mel Gibson movie called The Passion of the Christ? It grossed millions of dollars. Christians across the globe packed cinemas. Gibson, a conservative Catholic, brought home the sheer brutality of what Jesus went through.

Even now, 12 years later, if I meditate on the gruesome events, scenes from the movie spring to mind. The blood, the cruelty, the suffering. It worries me that too many of our Good Friday services assume a morbid overtone that isn’t healthy. I think we work too hard at blocking out the joy and promise of the resurrection. It’s too much like self-flagellation. I don’t think Jesus went through that ordeal for us to beat ourselves up about it, surely the whole point was to draw us into a joyous mystery?

Another lasting impression I got from the movie was of the fine donkeys. (Not sure if they were Hollywood manicured and blow dried or the genuine Jerusalem breed.)

I’d always imagined Jesus riding into the Holy City on the kind of asses we see in the rural areas of South Africa. But the animals that starred in The Passion, especially around Herod’s court, were truly impressive. 

I tried to source photos from Google by typing in ‘donkeys, Mel Gibson movie’ nothing came up so I tried ‘asses, Mel Gibson movie.’ Guess what it gave me? On second thoughts, let’s not go there.

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