by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

August, 2006

Two months ago, our family attended the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s performance of Julius Caesar. Afterward, our thirteen-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Monica, asked me whether I sided with Brutus or Marc Antony. I said Marc Antony while she said she preferred Brutus. She asked me why I chose Marc Antony and I told her it was because Brutus betrayed his friend, Caesar. She, on the other hand, said I was wrong because Brutus was trying to save Rome from the tyranny of a dictator. Our argument isn’t a new one. Michelangelo thought of Brutus as a defender of liberty, while Dante’s Inferno has him in the deepest circle of hell.

Cassius and his fellow conspirators thought Caesar was becoming too powerful and that killing him would be for the good of Rome. But at the same time, they were also protecting their own hold on power. They may have had noble motives in one sense but those motives were far from pure. Brutus was initially skeptical but was then swayed by forged letters that Cassius and Cinna arranged for him to find. Surely, we would think, if their position had been just, the truth would have spoken clearly enough. Ironically, the civil war that followed the assassination of Caesar led to the demise of the Senate and the ascension of Marc Antony’s heir Octavius as the emperor Augustus. The conspirators brought about the thing they most wanted to avoid.

Today, political figures tell us they have our best interests and those of our country at heart, that the things they do are motivated by love for America. But, at times, their methods lead us to question their true motives. It seems as if they are more concerned with love for themselves and with serving their own power and interests.

In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas has only the noblest motives for stopping Jesus. He fears Jesus has gone too far and that he and the rest of the disciples will be killed as a result. But his actions, betraying a friend, give the lie to his apparent motivations. It seems more likely that Judas couldn’t tolerate the world view Jesus represented. His own desire for power, for influence, was at odds with Jesus’ pronouncements about “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40b, 45b) and that “. . . many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matt. 19:30 NIV). “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:16 NIV). Like most of us, Judas didn’t like the idea of being “least” or “last.” But Jesus had very clear ideas about what it meant to follow him: “‘He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.’” (Matt. 12:30 NIV).

As in the conspiracy against Caesar, it’s ironic that Judas brought about the very thing he sought to prevent. His betrayal of Christ led directly to the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus recognized the necessity of his betrayal (Matt. 26:24). If he had not been crucified, it’s likely his “movement” would have died with him. He knew that “‘. . . unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’” (John 12:24b NIV). Through the resurrection, he gave new life to all believers, for all time.

Every day, we make decisions, both minor and major. Our choices are shaped by our values. Ideally, they should be shaped by our commitment to Christ and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We choose whether we are with Christ or against him. We choose whether to be his followers or his betrayers. Paul warned the Christians in Rome, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Rom. 2:7-8 NIV).

When others see the choices we make, they will question our motivations for those decisions. If our choices are motivated by self-interest, that’s what they will see. If our choices are motivated by love for Christ and by the Holy Spirit, they will see that too.

“‘This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.’” (Deut. 30:19-20a NIV.)

Copyright © 2006 by David Phelps