Thursday, April 13, 2006

Garth George: You have to admire those bit-players in the gospels

It was Mark Twain who said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't." And when I reread for the hundredth, or perhaps thousandth, time the ageless, exciting, terrifying and engrossing story of the events of the first Easter, I am persuaded he knew what he was talking about.

Every time I read the record left for us in the four gospels - Matthew the eye-witness; Mark the keen young on-the-spot reporter with his crisp, tightly-written account; Luke the perceptive feature writer who came along later; and John the editorialist - it is as fresh and as gripping as the first time I read and understood it in my teens.

But this week I was taken not so much by the awesomeness of the part played by God and his only son, Jesus, but by the sheer humanness of those who might be called the bit-players in the climactic events that make this the greatest story ever told.

I identify with this humanness - the foibles, the failings, the weaknesses - to which mankind has always been, is, and ever will be heir to, Christian or not, and with the despair in the hearts of those who saw their hopes and dreams crashing around them.

There were genuinely evil men, of course, in this cast of thousands - the high priest Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas, the chief priests and their hangers-on, and the contemptible King Herod.

But were they any worse than the benighted ayatollahs and imams of Islam and Christian pastors and priests of today who protect and accumulate more power and wealth by manipulating the ignorant and naive?

Judas the betrayer and Pilate the Roman procurator seem to be seen as the villains of the piece, too - but were they?

I suspect that Judas was just a bit sharper than the rest of the disciples, saw that everything was about to turn to custard and devised a way to secure his future. He wasn't the first and certainly not the last to renege on a contract and leave his boss hanging out to die.

Pilate, for all that he was exposed to Jesus' enormous charisma and convinced of his innocence, in the final analysis saw him as just another Jewish stirrer, something he could well do without with Caesar's beady eye on him.

Pilate was a politician.

And as for the mob. They made it clear they would rather have the terrorist murderer Barabbas set free among them than accede to the claims of Christ - an attitude that echoes down the millenniums even to this day.

So much for the baddies, now what about the goodies? Take Peter, the big, bluff, bombastic bloke who had become a leader among the disciples. On this night all those years ago at the last supper he announced, "Lord with you I am ready to go to prison and to death."

And only a few hours later, after Jesus had been arrested, with curses he was proclaiming to all who would listen that he'd never even met the fellow. Then a cock crowed and the fisherman who saw himself as a hard man "went out and wept bitterly".

Little was he to know that the excruciating humiliation he suffered at that moment - and even today the only way to learn humility is through humiliation - was to be a turning point in a life that was to make his name immortal.

As for the other disciples, who had lived in the warmth of the reflected glory of Jesus the miracle worker, the prophet and teacher, when he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane in the early hours of the first Good Friday, they "left him and fled" - every last one of them.

Including John, who in his record of events is at great pains to tell us - as many times as he can fit it in - that he was the particular disciple "whom Jesus loved".

They weren't the last to desert a cause as soon as the going got rough; and John is certainly not the only one to have claimed a special relationship with Christ which implies preferential treatment.

Unsurprisingly it is the women who attached themselves to Jesus who come out of this whole affair with nothing but credit. They stood by their man right to the end and it was two of them who discovered he had risen from the dead - and believed it.

Not so the disciples who had to see him first before they would believe. And hasn't it been that ever since, women have more readily come to believe than men? Still do.

Then there's Thomas, who wasn't there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples and who refused to believe in his resurrection until he'd seen him for himself. But when he had seen the holes in the hands and the wound in the side, he stammered in awe, "My Lord and my God".

And thus became the first person to realise that Jesus was indeed God incarnate.

We Christians today can, if we choose, this Easter learn much from looking afresh at the people- who were much like us - who took part in the events which were to split mankind's history in two.

As for my favourite character, Peter, let's fast-forward a month or so to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell upon the Twelve and, suddenly, everything made sense.

The chastened Peter stood before the multitude and preached the finest Christian sermon heard, and 3000 souls were baptised in the name of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

And nothing in the world has been the same since.

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