Tuesday, September 23, 2008

....Paved With Good Intentions I

A couple of seeming completely unrelated topics this week lead me to comment upon the idea of “good intentions.” It’s important to recall that the Fall of Adam and Eve was not that they ate of the fruit of the “tree of sin”. Genesis (NIV) version clearly states the fruit was “the knowledge of goodness and evil.” I think that this is an important distinction, because it means that humans, as morally sentimental beings (as Adam Smith might say) get into a lot of trouble because we do think that we know the difference between goodness and evil, and I believe that it is, paradoxically, our reliance on our own good intentions that form a basic part of our sinfulness. I want to discuss this in two parts. This part will look at individual good intentions; Part II, to follow in a couple of days, will look a community of good intentions, and how group “good intentions” were an integral part of the dramatic troubles in our financial system, through the so-called “subprime mortgage” market meltdown.

The point I wish to make today is not proven Biblically. I think it is consistent with the Biblical text, but it depends on my own interpretations. What I wish to argue is that Judas did not become evil in the sense of waking up one day and saying, “Gee, I’d really like to sell Jesus to the authorities so that I can have 30 pieces of silver and buy that vacation house on the Mediterranean that I’ve always wanted.” Instead, I believe that Judas’ sin was in pursuing his own agenda of goodness and evil. I’ve had this idea for a long time, and I was interested that a recent episode of the “Naked Archaeologist” told pretty much the same story.*

Judas was one of the Twelve, called by Jesus, and participating with as part of his inner circle. There is a debate whether the name “Iscariot” refers to a place or perhaps to an association with radical anti-Roman sects. So put yourself into Judas’ shoes. Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Soon, he fires up the population with the “cleansing of the temple.” If you were interested in Jesus as a temporal, political Messiah who was going to led a real-time uprising against the Romans and the upper-class collaborators, wouldn’t this be the time to strike? Instead, “they went out of the city” (Mark 11:19), returning to Jerusalem only for Jesus to engage in less political but more spiritual teachings and debates in the temple area. For example, in Mark it is in one of these teachings that Jesus issues his “Render to Caesar…” reply, which is hardly the way to get the populace stirred up for the revolution. Can’t you just imagine Judas saying to himself: “Jesus had the city in the palm of his hand, and he’s missing a golden opportunity?” After all, this would be about the zillionth time that one of the disciples misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ ministry and calling. How natural, how much sense it might have made to Judas to say, “If Jesus isn’t willing to bring things to a head, I’ll give him some help. If I send the guards to arrest him, then he’ll have no choice but to launch the revolution.” Of course, Judas was completely mistaken about Jesus task on earth. On a more mundane level, the “Naked Archaeologist” pointed out that by betraying Jesus to the religious authorities, Judas would have had every expectation that being held by the religious council would be the extent of Jesus’ troubles --- a jailed Jesus being the perfect spark for starting a revolt. Instead the religious leaders double-crossed Judas by handing Jesus over to Pilate on sedition charges, leading to His torture and crucifixion. Thus, the motive for Judas’ suicide is obvious.

I’m interested in this not just as a theological puzzle, but rather as part of a broader picture of our own moral sentiments. As mentioned above, I believe that when we substitute our own models of right and wrong for those of God it is in our misguided “good intentions” that we are capable of doing incalculable wrong.

* And if you want a retro source of a similar narrative, read the text of the songs in “Jesus Christ, Superstar”.

No comments: