Maundy Thursday — The Mystery of Good and Evil


A sermon preached on Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019 based on Luke’s account of the passion story.

In this great story we will listen to once more this night, we are invited to contemplate the mystery of good and evil. 

As we live our ordinary lives far removed from the atrocities that are common in other places in this world, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that evil is real and goodness is real, and that there is an ongoing struggle between the two, and that this struggle takes place in the hearts of each one of us. 

Inside all of us there is the capacity for profound good and profound evil, and there is a certain mystery regarding which will ultimately triumph.

People who have had all the benefits of what is commonly thought of as a good and fortunate upbringing can end up somehow entrapped in evil.  And there are people who grow up without all these advantages, in depravation, in the midst of cruelty and yet who somehow come in the course of their lives to shine a great light in this world.

In the story we will hear tonight there is mention of a poor widow making her offering in the temple – alone, barely surviving – a woman Jesus sees but others overlook.  Jesus calls attention to her profound capacity for self-offering in the midst of extraordinary depravation.   

We will hear of two thieves.  In their dying breaths, one turns towards God and the other turns away from God. Why these different choices?

We will hear of twelve disciples – all of whom have been keeping the company of Jesus for a long time now.  One succumbs to evil.  Why this one, and not the others? 

How it is that evil prevails in some lives, while goodness in others? 

Jesus shows us the nature of true goodness; but this goodness we see in him is safeguarded only by his own inward vigilance.  That is what the story of the temptations of the devil with which we began Lent are about.  Jesus going apart by himself to examine his heart – taking note of the desires inside him that would make him susceptible to the temptations of evil — the temptation to make his ministry ultimately all about himself rather than about God’s love. 

In Luke’s Gospel — the one we will hear read tonight — we heard how at the end of the Temptation story the “devil departed until an opportune time.” 

Here now as Jesus reaches the end of his earthly journey, the devil reappears. 

“Then Satan entered into Judas…” is how Luke puts it, at which point Judas goes and sells Jesus out to the High Priests – promising to take their guards to the secret place at night where they can arrest Jesus, unseen by the multitudes of adoring crowds. 

How is it that a point is reached in a person’s life in which, essentially evil prevails – takes possession?

Although there can be, as there appears to have been with Judas, a precise moment in which a person “goes over to the dark side,” the ground work is laid in the choices made over a long period of time that precede that moment. 

Choices to harden one’s heart. 

To hold onto resentments, to nurture jealousy and greed. 

To turn away from a loving connection towards others – to go it alone.

The Gospels don’t explain Judas’ action to us, but we can assume that his ego felt like it wasn’t getting its just due – that things weren’t turning out the way he would have them go – that he was losing control. 

Judas is there, remarkably at the last supper, sharing the broken bread, the cup of wine with Jesus and the others.  When Jesus tells the disciples that one of them will betray him – they immediately begin to ask one another who it could be.  Although Jesus knows of whom he is speaking, strikingly the other eleven disciples are clueless. 

Which raises a question for me:  how could they have spent all this time in Judas’ company and be so oblivious to the severity of the struggle taking place in Judas’ soul? 

It is a testimony to how caught up in themselves the other disciples also are – they, too are struggling between the poles of good and evil.

Strikingly, the discussion that follows Jesus’ announcement that one of them will betray him that night leads directly into an argument regarding which of them is the greatest.  They have just shared in the bread and the cup – his body and blood – the sign of Jesus willingness to lay down his life – surrender his ego – but immediately their egos rise up to assert dominance.  As they argue over who the betrayer could be – they show themselves as being betrayers of the example Jesus is setting for them.

They too are susceptible to the temptations of evil. 

“Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,” Jesus says. 

At this point in the story, Simon Peter takes center stage – the representative disciple with whom we are invited to identify.  Simon reveals the death grip hold his pride has on his life when he declares that although these others might fall away – he is ready to follow Jesus to prison and to death. 

Peter has no clue.  He will be broken this night. 

When the meal ends, they leave the upper room and go out into the darkness. Quietly, Judas slips away without the others noticing and heads off to meet up with the High Priests.  Jesus leads the others back to the Mount of Olives, their home base throughout the past week.  

There Jesus goes apart from the others to pour out his heart to God, struggling with what lies before him, but not before first saying to his disciples, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

He says the same thing again at the end of his prayer, just before Judas and the soldiers arrive:  “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

This is addressed in the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus commands us to pray:   “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We pray not to be led into temptation because there is a frailty to us.  We cannot say with total confidence what we would do if certain seductive choices were presented to us.  Each of us has a capacity for self-deceit and are practiced in justifying our actions.   

So we need to pray:  to be in the habit of going to God in order remember our utter dependence upon God – the deep truth of “there but for the grace of God go I.” 

Our natural inclination is to deny our frailty.  Simon Peter is the primary example of this.    He imagines himself capable of enduring the time of trial.  But he fails utterly. 

He is brought to his knees. Life will do that.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Back in the upper room, Jesus had spoken directly to Simon Peter:  “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ 

After his three denials, Simon Peter is brought to his knees.  In a black hole of despair and self-contempt – one he never would have been able to escape on his own — the risen Christ comes to him in the deep darkness and awakens him to the extraordinary presence of grace. 

And so, as Jesus said, Simon Peter was able to turn back and strengthen his brothers in their time of trial, because he had been in the deep darkness himself. 

Our own stumblings in the darkness are not the end of the story. 

Our stumblings become humblings that open us up to be vessels of God’s love. ce-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: false, “sts_observed”: 1554868080.474975 }, “9m4aZKy5xIrxF0wRMtMrb21JPlhUaqY/NgOEx//5sm0=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1582430158.299567, “mode”: “force-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: true, “sts_observed”: 1550894158.299572 }, “A/h6iygayJtDCS0CrW9U1ylK0CK8Y1vEI+Asw2kuSnE=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1586404015.657353, “mode”: “force-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: false, “sts_observed”: 1554868015.657358 }, “A0iNdMo0+cUo2tKUaF+cir0lPSmrKF6UvilKk3plekg=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1575240052.874037, “mode”: “force-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: true, “sts_observed”: 1543704052.874045 }, “A2t1Fh4MgpwdDdjL6LRW+GBLuPOAO9zzCx/EuZ5lpzk=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1578006584.998112, “mode”: “force-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: true, “sts_observed”: 1546470584.998119 }, “A5fp636IoeB4Culsmigo0Z5AvVXUX3BFz2K94Hg+FZk=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1574614183.886621, “mode”: “force-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: true, “sts_observed”: 1543078183.886627 }, “ACzhP8SCX/Ycsupie1JkTIb9aP22XsadPb/ZqmnojBw=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1578071427.688048, “mode”: “force-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: false, “sts_observed”: 1546535427.688052 }, “AKhmgL+M9Yw43w4TOHrDmu2xCtzkMG4dIQ8UhWiM4K0=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1568899838.883007, “mode”: “force-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: false, “sts_observed”: 1553131838.883012 }, “AVsuOZgBg0wdpKMoxm8zihjqET8kI4Xl8bCSMk28RsE=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1585778330.165446, “mode”: “force-https”, “pkp_include_subdomains”: false, “pkp_observed”: 0.0, “sts_include_subdomains”: false, “sts_observed”: 1554242330.16545 }, “AZibE6NIqL5pTBrmUWxDk2Kt28YyIHpQPQpDB9bhrGM=”: { “dynamic_spki_hashes_expiry”: 0.0, “expiry”: 1579733623.009918, “m+