As we come before the cross today, we inevitably ask “Why did Jesus have to die like this?” Yes, the incarnation, accepting human life, brought with it the inevitability of some kind of death. But did it have to be the kind of death portrayed all too vividly in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ?
Our founding myth tells of the first death, the murder of Abel, at the hands of his brother Cain, and its message is remarkable. Both brothers had offered sacrifices to God.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
History, they say, is only told by the victors. They make excuses to prove their own goodness. They affirm the righteousness of their cause in destroying those who opposed them.
But the Bible starts on the other foot. There is, of course Cain’s excuse that his resentment has made him think that God regards his brother’s sacrifice more highly than his own. But it is clear in the telling that he is only trying to justify his own envy. God’s judgement is that he is called to overcome temptation and not yield to the sin he has in mind.
Scripture reveals that murderous envy is the founding sin of humanity. It is this which will bring about the death of God’s Son. It is so universal that it is central to every tragedy, from Greek myth to Italian opera. It has been present in every good night out at the theatre for millennia. And because the tale is so well told, it seduces us into believing that this is how life should be.
The tragedy opens with the introduction of a great hero. But quickly, the person most to be admired, the person everyone would like to be, becomes the person most envied. And the tragedy provides an outlet for the envy felt by the audience. We know that the hero will die. A fatal flaw is discovered in the hero’s character.
We could turn the biblical story into a classical tragedy, starting with the line
the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
In a Greek drama we could explain the murder by playing on the capricious favouritism shown by the gods. But the Hebrew scripture, more faithfully to God’s eternal plan, simply reports the sin.
Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
In the universal human tragedy, the envious must have their revenge. Shakespeare’s famous line from Julius Caesar “et tu, Brute” reveals that the closest of friends shares in both the murderous envy and the violence.
As the Psalmist says
Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.
Once the sin of envy takes hold, everyone in the theatre, whether Greek, Shakespearean, the New York Met or the courtyard of Pilate’s house joins the mob baying for blood. They know how tragedy ends, and even the disciples cannot resist. The Roman governor who correctly deduces that Jesus has been handed over because of envy has to go along with the wishes of the mob, because their lust for blood is getting out of hand. If they are refused their victim, they might turn on Pilate himself. They have come to see a tragedy. Caiaphas the high priest had predicted “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
It still happens. In the wake of 9-11 the President of the United States found himself at the head of a nation demanding retribution. Like Pilate, he knew that he had to find a victim, or he would be driven out of office. His victim, the man he envied, was in Iraq. Saddam remained confidently in place years after George Bush senior had been consigned to history. Bush envied his long term hold on power, he envied the oil revenues, he envied the richness of this culture which so evidently despised the West and he envied the loyalty of the Iraqi army to their leader. As in all tragedies, Bush would start a lying rumour about the man he envied — links to terrorists, weapons of mass destruction — it didn’t matter what. So long as people would join him, then the victors would be able to write their own history afterwards, a history in which they would declare that God was on their side. Blair and Aznar were willing members of the cast of America’s tragedy.
But violence breeds more violence. Iraq has no government. It is on the verge of civil war. It has been bombed into third world status. The liberators have been revealed as persecutors. And for Bush, the impresario of the theatre of death, the only remedy is seen as inviting the world to watch another tragedy, this time with Iran as the envied hero who has to be murdered. Where will it end?
We should have learned from the tale of Cain and Abel. The writing was on the wall from the first murder in scriptural history. We should have learned that envious murder is a sin. Envious murder is not an art form to be celebrated, or a way for people and nations to relate to each other. The foundation of every tragedy is a lie. Surely, when we see what art is displayed in the cause of tragedy, Satan’s greatest victory is the lie that the mob is right in murdering the person they envy.
So the eternal Word of God, through whom all things came into being, came in person, in the hope that even though those who claimed to be his own people might reject him, some of them might actually perceive that there was a different way. Life, not tragic death, was its foundation.
Even his disciples couldn’t believe he was serious about the consequences of his mission. They couldn’t see that his goodness would arouse such envy. All too soon they found themselves sucked into it. But on the way they discovered just enough to be able to recognise a different way, and that when sin has done its worst, God’s plan of love and justice is ultimately accomplished for all humanity from Abel onwards, in the resurrection of the dead.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”