The Seduction of Evil — Maundy Thursday


As we listen this evening to the old, old story as told by Luke, there are some things for which I would invite you to listen. First, at the very outset the presence of evil is mentioned. Luke succinctly tells us:  “Then Satan entered into Judas…”  Evil took possession of Judas.

Evil is real, and it is powerful, and all of us are susceptible to the seduction of evil’s power.   To think that we are not susceptible is a very dangerous thing indeed.  “Good” people, can do very evil things, and we are particularly vulnerable to evil’s seduction when we are convinced that we can’t do evil because we are one of the “good guys.” 

I read an interview in the New York Times Science Section this past Tuesday with a social psychologist named Philip Zimbardo who has written a book entitled:  “The Lucifer Effect:  Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”.  Back in 1971, Dr. Zimbardo ran an experiment with college students in which 23 male volunteers were randomly divided into two groups:  half were assigned the role of “guards” and the other half the role of  “prisoners.” 

On the second day of the experiment, the “guards” came to the doctor and said, “the prisoners are rebelling; what should we do?“  Dr. Zimbardo answered:  “It’s your prison, short of physical violence, do what you want.” 

Dr. Zimbardo described what then took place:  “In the ensuing days, the guards became every more sadistic, denying the prisoners food, water and sleep, shooting them with fire extinguisher spray, throwing their blankets into dirt, stripping them naked and dragging rebels across the yard.”

 This little experiment of playing “prison” was supposed to go on for two weeks, but after five days a female graduate assistant came by to see how things were going.  She was horrified by what she saw happening to the “prisoners.”  She “witnessed the guards putting bags over their heads, chain their legs and march them around.”  The graduate assistant burst into tears, ran to Dr. Zimbardo, and said,
“I’m not sure I want to have anything more to do with you, if this is the sort of person you are.  It’s terrible what you’re doing to those boys.”

Dr. Zimbardo’s reaction was, “Oh my God, she’s right.”  He suddenly realized that in eerie way his administration of the experiment mirrored the very cruelties the guards were perpetrating on the prisoners. 

He abruptly ended the experiment.  Dr. Zimbardo says he has no idea how much worse things might have gotten if he had allowed the experiment to go the full fourteen days.  The conclusion the experiment lead him to was that, given the right circumstances, we’re all capable of evil. 

There are obvious correlations between what Dr. Zimbardo saw happen in his experiment, and the atrocities we heard about in the prison in Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers oversaw Iraqi prisoners.  When the story first broke, the Pentagon tried to blame the whole thing on “a few bad apples”.  Dr. Zimbardo said that this didn‘t adequately explain what happened in Abu Grahib. “I knew from our experiment,” he said,
“if you put good apples in a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.”

When Jesus taught us to pray, he included  these words:  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We pray not to be lead into temptation, because we know we are weak, and the lure of evil is strong.
It doesn’t take much:  some old resentments that we haven’t dealt with; a bit of fatigue, some subtle enticements to our ego. 

The second thing I would call your attention to in the passion story is that evil most often does its work in secret.  Judas had a secret meeting with the Temple police, and the Temple police looked for a time when they could arrest Jesus in secret, when the crowd wasn’t present to witness what they did. 

It’s the stuff we do in secret, when nobody is watching, that gets us into trouble.  If the American soldiers serving as guards at Abu Ghraib had known that mom, dad and everybody else back home were watching them, well, they would never had down what they did.  But under the severe stress of their situation, and the lack of clarity in their orders, they committed acts of cruelty that otherwise they would not have committeed in part because it was hidden away from view. 

The third I would have you listen for as you listen to Luke tell the story is the ambiguous way Jesus announces the betrayal:

“‘The one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table…’ 
Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.” 

Unlike other Gospel writers — John in particular — Luke doesn’t put it all on Judas.  The question of which one of them could be the betrayer is left an open question — hanging in the air.  The implication is that all of the disciples share to some degree in the betrayal. 

To drive home this point Luke immediately goes on to tell us of a dispute that breaks out among the disciples over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  Matthew and Mark both place this dispute much earlier, well before they ever reach Jerusalem.   By placing the dispute here, Luke calls attention to the great irony:   at the very moment in which Jesus, in great humility,  offers his life up in confrontation of the powers that oppress — the conspiracy between the Romans and the Jewish elite who defending their place atop of the power chain) himself as a sacrifice for all people —  at this very moment we find the disciples consumed with their own status and recognition — their own place in the pecking order.    They too are unable to shed themselves of the old wretched dynamic that Jesus has come to Jerusalem to challenge.

And so the point is made clearly:  The problem isn’t just out there, in the Romans and the temple authorities;  nor is the problem just in Judas.  The problem is also inside the very ones who imagine themselves providing the solution to the problem.  

(Human history records an endless cycle in which would-be reformers come sweeping into power to throw out the corrupt oppressors, and before long, they have become themselves corrupt oppressors, because there is something about possessing power that tends to corrupt us.) 

Fourth, listen again for the old story of Peter and his betrayal.  There aren’t many stories that all four Gospels include:  Simon Peter’s three time denial of Jesus is told in every one of them.  Something very important is at stake here:  that this central disciple, the one we are invited to identify with — the one who will become the first Pope, the rock, upon which the church is built  — this same Peter,  when push comes to shove, denies his Lord and runs for cover. 

There is something extraordinarily humbling about this story.  Just because we bear the name of Jesus doesn’t mean we won’t betray him. 

Luke adds some words addressed to Peter that are not found in the other Gospels:  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”  Satan, the evil one, is intent on having Peter’s soul.  Jesus, however is praying for him, that his faith may not fail.

This is curious, if you think about it.  We might say:  Jesus’ prayers didn’t work so well, did they?  Peter’s faith did fail, didn’t it?  He succumbed to his fear and ran and hid.  But maybe there is a more “human” view of what faith involves is being offered here:  Having faith doesn’t mean never stumbling, nor does it mean never experiencing doubt or fear.  Rather, it is faith that allows us to get back up after we have fallen. 

And those who have first hand experience of falling can better serve others who likewise will stumble and will need help rising again. 

And finally, it is Luke who records these words on Jesus’ lips as he hangs on the cross, dying:  “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

How deceptive is the power of evil.  Many people are conspiring here to commit evil, but they do not know they are committing evil.  They think they are simply doing something expedient:  putting this one man to death, this troublemaker, lest he stir up the people into rebellion and cause the death of thousands others.

It leads us to wonder:  what evil might we be committing, unknowingly? 

 Let us pray this night to be delivered from evil.

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