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Cheaters Sometimes Win

Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”

And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?”So they cried out again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas.” Now Barabbas was a robber.

- John 18:37-40

If your childhood was like mine, you’ll remember the common parental maxim: “Cheaters never win.” It was a recurring lesson in honesty and integrity, a reminder that principles and morality eventually triumphed over lying and cheating. Playing dominoes with family and friends recently, on the next to last play of the game, I pulled a domino played earlier, replaced it with the domino I preferred, and then proceeded to play two more. Technically speaking, I should have won the game. I had the best score. My sister was appalled. She tried to laugh about it, but she couldn't believe I’d just blatantly cheated at the end of the game that she refused to let me win. Right on the spot, she disqualified me and named the second-best score the winning one. Apparently, my family is quite serious (or unserious, as the case may be) about our domino games. Our mother tries to cheat regularly, just as conspicuously and ineffectually as I. I learned it from her. To my knowledge, my sister never cheats. I thought she might break out chanting, “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater” there for a minute.

We want life to be fair, and we want the good and the right to win. In fact, we expect good to prevail over evil, truth to overcome lies, and justice to defeat injustice. Thus, when we do not see that happening, we are offended and angered. Sometimes, we are even scared. Life is not a game played in affectionate competition between siblings. Rather, we live life subject to a great many forces beyond our control – from wars and disasters on an indiscriminate grand scale to the deeply personal failure of those we love and the profound suffering of diseases and death. When we stop and think about it, there are a great many things over which we have no control at all.

As we approach Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we are invited to enter again into the injustice and humiliation of Jesus Christ in the last days of His life. Because we know the end of the story, so to speak, we are inclined simply to remember and to be thankful without a great deal of thought regarding the connection to our own lives. If we were to look at the myriad sins around the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Christ, I suspect we would find a great many of the same sins are present among us today. That’s worth recalling because people were there who never intended to crucify Jesus but became accomplices. The crowd comes to mind. The feverish mindlessness of provoked crowds is something we have all seen this year, the willingness of decent people caught in the frenzied mob rage to do harm and to destroy.

The arrogance of Herod runs through centuries of self-important leaders who rise to power, and our generation is no different. The utter certainty of the right to rule however desired and at whatever cost is visible across the political spectrum without any pretense of humility. And Judas… Judas, who had followed Jesus so closely, tried to force Jesus into the mold of his own plans and wishes. St. John especially emphasizes that Judas was influenced by the evil one, and of that, I have no doubt. Yet, the evil one has access to our soul and our will only when we allow that through our disobedience and faithlessness. My guess? Judas wanted Jesus to hurry up and defeat the Romans, reestablishing Jewish rule in Jerusalem. Every last one of us struggles with obedience and conformity to the ways and thoughts of a God Whose wisdom exceeds the limits of our imagination. The list goes on. Pontius Pilate. The Roman soldiers. The members of the Sanhedrin. Peter. Indeed, the remaining nine disciples who cowered at a distance… Only John stayed close enough to Jesus to receive His instruction from the Cross. Because he was so young, John would not have been seen as a threat to the Romans.

According to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, Annas lived to the impressive age of 87, although he had been deposed as the official High Priest. At the time of Jesus’ trial, his son-in-law Caiaphas was High Priest over the Sanhedrin, and he remained so until his death in AD 37. Not a great deal is known about Barabbas, but we know he lived while Jesus died an horrific death by crucifixion. In the end, following an illegal trial, the Son of God was crucified. It is hard to see how that is just or fair or right, nearly impossible to interpret as the triumph of good over evil. The bad guys won. Jesus hung on the Cross and died. We forget the magnitude of the injustice, the sheer wrongness, the offense of the Cross.

In recent weeks and months, a flurry of questions about God’s activity in the middle of American life – His purposes, His plan, His intent, His will – have come my way, and let me be the first to say, I don’t know. I have no idea what purpose and work God is unfolding, but I do not doubt that He is present and active in our midst. In fact, I am certain He is the single, most important Actor on the world stage – right now and always, and His interest is not limited to America. But what He intends to accomplish and what state of affairs He is bringing about…? I would not hazard a guess. God allows human freedom to limit what He does, at least in the short-term, and if we choose not to be serious about our discipleship and in our obedience, then we confine what God can do in some manner.

Here is what I do know: the triumph of good over evil, of right over wrong, of truth over lies, depends entirely upon how one defines victory. Every person, for good or for evil, surrounding Jesus during that last week has returned to dust and ashes, but Jesus lives. Caiaphas’ grave holds the decaying bones of a long-dead man, memorable only for his blind and arrogant religiosity, instead of humble faith and obedience. Every other body of that time is likewise buried, but the tomb of Jesus is empty.

Whatever else is going on in our world today, Christians are called to remember that our victory is not found here, on this mortal plane. Certainly, we can and should do all the good we can, but each generation can bring truth, justice, and good only for that generation. While the ripples of our actions go far beyond anything we guess, they are still just ripples. Every generation of Christians must filled with the Spirit to seek the truth, struggle to be fair and just, and strive for virtue and holiness, for we have only the present in which to live the Gospel and to bring life to a dying world. Until Christ returns, evil continues to roam our world, seeking people to devour. Many a person has been devoured by evil while being convinced of his or her own triumph. Cheaters sometimes win, but it’s a brief and hollow victory.

Christian, let us never forget: a resurrection is coming. May we all have the faith and trust, the humility and obedience, to hold tightly to that victory, regardless of what we can see, because that victory is the only one that matters in the end.

In Christ –

Rev. Elizabeth Moreau

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