A Wideness in God’s Mercy, VIII: Crimes Beyond Forgiveness
I love the way the Gospels interweave the stories of Judas and Peter in the last hours of Jesus’ life. It’s like watching one of those post-modern, fractured-narrative movies or television shows where the scenes follow first one character and then another as they trace their respective narrative arcs to a shared, jarring collision.
Both friends committed crimes beyond forgiveness. As for Judas Iscariot, he was a passionate zealot who loved Judea more than life itself, a Zionist to end all Zionists. He expected Jesus to defeat and expel the hated Roman occupiers, but that’s not why Jesus has come so Jesus disappoints Judas, and finally Judas just snaps.
He felt that Jesus had betrayed him and so he betrayed in turn. For 30 lousy pieces of silver Judas sold his friend. In today’s terms, about $6,000. What can you buy for $6,000? A 10-year-old Jeep? Would you betray your friend for $6,000?
But Peter was almost as bad, right? Maybe not quite, but almost. First in the upper room Peter swears on his mother's grave that no matter what, no matter what, Peter will be brave and true. "Let them beat me to a bloody pulp. They don't scare me. I'll never abandon you Jesus."
Peter reminds me of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, fearless, intrepid, and gallant—until such time as his courage is actually called into the fray.
At least he follows to the kangaroo court where Jesus will be frauded into conviction. But outside the court, warming his hands at the fire, one of the cleaning ladies notices his accent. “You were with him, weren’t you?” she says.
You see, Galilee is as far from sophisticated Jerusalem as Philadelphia is from Peachtree Avenue in Atlanta. That blunt Philadelphia accent doesn't exactly blend with all those genteel Southern drawls. Peter’s nickname, you will remember, was ‘Rocky,’ and to those big city sophisticates in Jerusalem, Peter sounds just like Rocky—“Yo Adrian!”
Peter tells the cleaning lady she's crazy. This happens two more times, and after the third denial, a cock crows in the grey light of a Good Friday dawn, and Peter goes out to weep bitterly.
Have you ever betrayed or denied a friend? Think about it. Have you ever betrayed a friend? At work a friend with an alarmingly concrete sense of integrity calls upon you to make a stand against some unacceptable injustice and you, thinking it will never come to this, promise to march with her all the way to the unemployment line, but then when it counts, you decide that your job is more important than either your integrity or your friendship.
Have you ever tried to inflate your own importance by dismantling someone's reputation? Have you ever passed along a shabby but unconfirmed rumor about someone you professed to love?
When you read the Gospel portraits of Judas and Peter, do you ever see yourself there reflected? There’s a fearful symmetry here in the Gospel accounts of these two friends—who committed crimes beyond forgiveness.
Did you notice that both rushed into an open grave at the end of the story? Judas puts a rope around his neck and leaps out into thin air, and then they threw his body into a borrowed grave.
Peter ends up rushing into a borrowed grave too, but this one is the grave Jesus borrowed and it is empty. And Peter just keeps on going. In God’s grace there is always another chance.
You know the difference between Judas and Peter? We don't call Peter a saint and Judas a villain because one is better than the other; it's just that Peter stuck around until Easter morning.
That's the only difference. Peter stuck around. He did not allow his sin to overwhelm him and he was the first one into the empty tomb and then became the rock on which the Church is founded.
Peter faces down his despair, and Judas submits to it. Judas thinks his sin is bigger than God, but it’s not. Nothing is bigger than God.
Peter doesn't take himself quite as seriously as Judas does. You know in many ways, Judas is the more impressive character of the two. He keeps company with all the noble tragic heroes of the stage throughout the ages. He has the stature of Oedipus and MacBeth and Hamlet and Othello. He will face with equanimity the consequences of his own actions. He will not shirk his duty.
He is sophisticated; he has dignity. He is a man of action. He is wise as a serpent whereas Peter comes off as dumb as an Irish setter; he could get lost at the end of a leash.
But the thing is, Peter never quits. He waits around to see what might happen and what happens is an empty grave; what happens is another chance; what happens is resurrection; what happens is Easter.
Did you know that it was Victor Hugo who singlehandedly rescued Notre Dame Cathedral from neglect and disrepair? After the French Revolution unseated the royals and emptied the heavens of any gods, that ancient pile of giant stones, already 600 years old, was scorned as the Temple of superstition and unreason. The revolutionaries vandalized much of its sacred iconography.
But then in 1831 Victor Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Parisians fell so hopelessly in love with Quasimodo that they also fell back in love with the heart and soul of their city.
But this evening I’m thinking of another Hugo novel: Les Miserables. Who has read the book or seen the play or one of many filmed versions? Have you ever thought of the novel’s protagonist and antagonist—Valjean and Javert—as a retelling of the story of Peter and Judas?
Both Valjean and Javert have done horrible things in their lives, but their respective responses to their error are diametrically opposed.
At the beginning of the story, Valjean does an evil unkindness and loathes himself for it. Like Peter he goes out and “weeps bitterly.”
And in the musical he sings:
I am reaching, but I fall,
And the night is closing in,
And I stare into the void—
To the whirlpool of my sin.
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean is nothing now.
Another story must begin!
Another story must begin. Jean Valjean reinvents himself and becomes one of the most beautiful heroes in the history of page, stage, and screen. He earns redemption for almost everyone in his little world.
At the end of the story, Javert too wants to escape from the world of Jean Valjean. When Valjean shows him an unmerited grace and frees him from bondage and death, Javert just cannot live in that world of grace and broken rules. His rectitude is just too scrupulous.
And near the end he sings an aria that mirrors Valjean’s:
I am reaching but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold.
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can go
There is no way to go on ...
And then he famously jumps into the River Seine.
It’s Peter and Judas Redux. As far as God is concerned, there are no crimes beyond forgiveness, and life always goes on.
After failure, forgiveness; after defeat, another chance; after the cross, the open tomb, and after death comes life.