Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 27:15-31) transports me to the old Globe Theatre on the south bank of London’s river Thames. Given that we are now full into the 12 days of Christmas, you might think Twelfth Night would be the play to watch this season. We certainly have taken advantage of the play’s subtitle, What You Will, and have, as if we were the play’s drunken fools, transformed Christmas into a commercial comedy of errors. Were those first shepherds to suddenly be transported into our world, they might quote a line from the play: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. But, given that I’m following the passages through on a weekly basis, and the journey finds me at the end of Matthew’s gospel now, not the beginning, I find myself viewing another stage, where the bard’s Scottish play dramatizes the tragedy of ambition gone wild. Shakespeare gives us some of his most quote-able lines in Macbeth, not least of which is in Act V, scene 1, where Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking and talking of the murder of King Duncan. She rubs her hands as if washing them, saying out damned spot, trying to get the stain of innocent blood off of her hands. I can’t help but think that Shakespeare got this image from reading today’s Passage, with Pontius Pilate symbolically washing his hands of Jesus’ blood after the crowd chooses to free the guerrilla terrorist Barabbus instead of the itinerant preacher.
Pilate’s wife, unlike Macbeth’s wife, wanted no part in this unjust execution. Her sleep had been troubled with haunting images of Jesus, and she interpreted the disturbing dream to mean they would be continue to be haunted if they complied with the plan to crucify the innocent man. Pilate, much like Macbeth, was not wired to act with bravery and exercise his authority. I can almost hear his wife quoting Lady Macbeth’s line to her husband: screw your courage to the sticking place. His courage did not find a sticking place, and he abdicated his responsibility, giving the mob the final say in who lived and who died. They cried out for him to free the notorious criminal, and do what Herod had tried to do 33 years earlier: slaughter the one known as the King of the Jews. Pilate tried to lay all responsibility on their shoulders, washing his hands as a sign that he was innocent of the blood to be shed. But, I suspect he would find the same trouble as the Lady: Who would have thought the man to have had so much blood in him? There was, as the early story-tellers told it, enough blood to cover every sin ever committed, every slaughter of innocents, every conspiracy, every mob madness, every ambition to absolute power, every display of cowardice, every attempt to shirk responsibility. The same blood had the power to wash what Pilate could not wash himself, the stains of his complicity in injustice and murder.
I wonder if our society’s hand-sanitizing obsession, necessitating antibacterial wipes in every pocket and liquid pumps on the wall around every corner, has some connection to our need to wash away our failures, our shortcomings, our lack of courage, our responsibility for wrong in the world. If all the world’s a stage, how often do we sleepwalk through a scene, rubbing our hands together in a futile attempt to cleanse our guilt? Is this a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, or is it a tale told by the incarnation of Truth, full of mystery and meaning, signifying grace and mercy and hope? This is the question we answer every day, as we strut and fret our hour upon the stage. While strutting, we can imagine this play as a musical, and sing with a young Aretha, There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains. Or, if you want a more contemporary soundtrack, you can sing with Kutless, We turn our eyes from evil things, we cast down our idols, so give us clean hands, give us pure hearts. . .
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.