It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” Mark 14:1-2
As I think about an idea of “the bad guys” that I’ve been taught since early childhood, villains aren’t always portrayed as the brightest bunch. I grew up with the likes of the Transformers, GI Joe, Ninja Turtles, Inspector Gadget, Care Bears (that’s right), and other such 80s hits. The line between good guy and bad guy was crystal clear: the good guys’ guns would fire green or blue colored lasers, and the bad guys always had red (duh). The bad guys had perma-frowns, or twisty moustaches, or sharp teeth, or freaky voices (Cobra commander, yeesh); the good guys were the opposite. And, above all, the #1 rule was that the bad guys lost, all the time. I mean, there may have been like two episodes ever that saw the conclusion go in the favor of the bad guys, and that was only if it was “To be continued…” because good had to win, week after week.
Part of the way that happened, was that the bad guys would often sabotage themselves, or make terrible and even utterly idiotic decisions. Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies makes it very clear. I was going to show the clip but it gets vulgar so let me describe it. Dr. Evil has captured his good guy nemesis, Austin Powers, and is sitting him down to a fancy dinner as he gloats in triumph. Well, the doc’s son, Scott, walks in. Scott Evil is a recent addition to the picture, and Dr. Evil seems never too impressed with his teenaged boy. Doc Evil is always trying to teach Scott the ways of the villain. So Dr. Evil tells Scott, “Let me introduce you to my arch-enemy Mr. Austin Powers.” But Scott can’t believe his dad is treating his prisoner this way, and responds, “…you’re FEEDING him? Why don’t you just kill him? I’ve got a gun in my room right now; I go get it, RIGHT NOW, and come back, and shoot this guy. Done. It’s all over.” But Dr. Evil tries to explain that a super-villain must put off killing the good guy, take time to enjoy the moment, and even tell the good guy his whole evil plan before leaving him in the hands of some bumbling evil side-kick. And, duh, that’s how the good guy always finds time to make an escape, foil the plan, and come out on top.
Super-villains never seemed to understand how to win, and that’s the story I grew up with. Episode after episode. But we know, like Scott Evil, that reality can be different; and human reality usually is. True villains, terrorist leaders, dictators, etc., are notorious for how practical and wily and treacherous they truly are. And many of them become famous not for failure but for success, even against a superior opponent; and many of them are notoriously hard to trace, arrest, or catch. In many cases, real world villains are incredibly intelligent and charismatic. And they have a great grasp on politics and how to manipulate other humans. That’s how they come to power, and keep it. I wanted to make that contrast, between 80s cartoon fantasy and reality, because even in Scripture we see that just because someone is “good” or on God’s side, doesn’t mean there is justice for the, or guaranteed victory over the evildoers. More often than not, on occasion, evil wins.
In the story that leads to Jesus on the cross, some dastardly and cowardly bad guys know what they’re doing. They were especially “bad” because they had convinced themselves they were actually especially good. They were sure they were God’s chosen leaders, from God’s chosen people. The Jewish priests, pharisees, and teachers of the law. The ones who were so keen on staying in wealth/power, and keeping the religion the way they understood it, and controlling the common person, that they literally thought Jesus was from the devil for challenging them. They thought that for God’s sake they had to kill him. And they proved to be incredibly intelligent in terms of politics and power.
They were in a special position with regard to Rome; they were representatives of the people and could influence the Romans that way. They were representatives of the government and God, so they could manipulate the people that way. But when an authoritative leader came along in Jesus, who was appealing to the masses of the poor and sick and everyday people, they had more sense than to just walk out and call him “evil” and have him killed. They got close to trying that on a few occasions, and it would back-fire, or Jesus would somehow evade them. They tried to trap him in his words, undermine his popularity, or isolate him. And when they finally had him in Jerusalem and were ready to take him out, they knew it would have to be as quiet as possible so the people wouldn’t riot.
Smart, sneaky, cowardly, cut-throat guys. The bad guys. Whom most of the average people saw as “good.” Reality is far trickier than an 80s action cartoon. It takes far more discernment out of us who are striving to uphold the good. We might think we’re in just the right spot, or on just the right side, but it might not always be so. We might even be like the average person back then who, assuming Jesus was impervious and all-powerful, didn’t think to watch his back or challenge the establishment that was out to get him. Why is it that the stinking villains are constantly plotting and planning and putting out great energy to get what they want — Jesus dead — while Jesus’ strongest supporters just seem to dawdle along after him, waiting for the next thing he’ll do to amaze them, barely even understanding his message sometimes? Why do the bad guys seem to work so much harder at their game? Maybe that’s not totally true, but what if was?
What if it’s true for some of us today? Are we as involved, committed, and pro-active as the enemies of the kingdom of God? Do we have as much influence on the people around us, or do we invest as much as our opponents, for God’s sake? Why is it culture seems to be the all-powerful force of this age, and certainly among our young people? Why do we clam up, when sometimes we need to be speaking up? And so on. Think about what motivates the forces of selfishness, pride, evil, and manipulation. Usually it’s things like money and greed, profit. Or the pursuit of the things that feel good, comfort. Or a desire for power and popularity and fame. Okay. On the other hand, think about what is supposed to motivate God’s people. A heart for God’s honor, God’s goodness, and God’s fairness; a ridiculous gratitude for the mercy we ourselves have undeservedly received, and the hope of the mercy so many more can receive — the Gospel of Christ Jesus that promises life and freedom and love for every human being on earth and a restoration of all Creation.
So how is it that those who run after evil (including ourselves plenty of the time) appear sometimes to be more driven by their motivations than the forces of good? Compare the two. What on earth?
For me today, the Scripture reading isn’t about a “what if” for the disciples. Like, “what if” they had been more prepared or involved, could they have triumphed over the priests. Or “if” they had been more careful and courageous, the cross could’ve been avoided. Jesus was clear that the crucifixion was coming. But I do wonder if we recognize how very motivated and dastardly evil can be, and how that led to the worst event perpetrated by the human race, AGAINST the human race — the murder of the Messiah. I wonder if we can do better for Jesus’ sake now, if we work at what God calls us to as the “good guys” and “good gals.”
Thanks be to God that what evil intended for its victory was actually the tool of the Mighty One to set us all free. That’s ultimately what happens for the good guys, because God is not going to be bested. But at the same time, God deserves our best, and our brightest. So let’s just get on it. The enemy is at least as vigilant as we are. So let’s get on it. Let’s pray and plot and scheme, pool our efforts, spend wakeful nights, enlist the help of others, utilize our resources and wealth, and more, for the cause of goodness. And may God indeed prove strong in our weakness.