So it is that by the alteration of one word St Matthew gives himself away. For when St Mark (vi,5) records Jesus's visit to his home district he says roundly, 'He could do no mighty works there . . .'. But when St Matthew (xiii,58), using St Mark's earlier narrative, records the same event, he changes the verb and comments. 'He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.'
It is clear enough. For St Mark Jesus was simply unable to act as he wished in Nazareth. St Matthew, writing perhaps 10 years later, changes the verb, and thus gives a wholly different picture of Jesus. He cannot bear the thought that Jesus - the powerful Son of God - should be thwarted by the lack of human faith. Surely, if he really is God he can do anything, whether or not you and I allow him to do so.
It is that picture of God, able to do exactly as He pleases, which lies behind so many of our prayers, assumptions, and disillusionments. We look at the world around us and see selfishness, lust, cruelty, injustice and violence. Or we look closer at hand and see someone we love dying of a ghastly wasting disease. Is God helpless to prevent it? Surely that cannot be true. God is God and can do anything. So we react in anger or perplexity and ask, 'Why does God allow it? Does He not care?'
But, says St Mark's version of events, God does care, but we will not let Him] With the hindsight of the Cross, Christians will want to say that God does care, and all the time He is sorrowing over our unhappy world with a human heart, which feels the pain of what is happening far more keenly than our hearts can do. In his moving dialect poem 'The Sorrow of God' Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (Woodbine Willie, the priest-poet of the First World War) sets out the dilemma as his soldier looks out at the devastation in the trenches:
And the lovin' God 'E looks down on it all, On the blood, the mud and the smell. O God, if it's true, 'ow I pities you, For ye must be livin' i' 'ell. You must be livin' i' 'ell all day, And livin' i' 'ell all night. I'd rather be dead, wiv a 'ole through my 'ead, I would, by a damn long sight, Than be livin' wi' you on your 'eavenly throne . . . Why ever should God be suffering so And man be sinning still? Why don't ye make your voice ring out, And drown these cursed guns? Why don't ye stand with outstretched 'and, Out there 'twixt us and the 'Uns? Why don't ye force us to end the war And fix up a lasting peace? Well, maybe that's 'ow it is wi' God, 'Is sons 'ave got to be free; Their wills are their own, and their lives are their own, And that's 'ow it 'as to be. So the Father God goes sorrowing still For 'Is world what 'as gone to sea . . .
The conclusion of the soldier is that God is helpless to prevent the suffering because His hands are tied by love. He is determined to let us be free slowly and painfully to grow up and to make good. If He were to manipulate the world, He would not love and we should not be human.
The helplessness of God may well be in our minds this week as we come to reflect on the betrayal of Jesus and to celebrate the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday. Judas Iscariot, on whom Jesus had lavished so much love and trust, was going to betray him; and Jesus was helpless to prevent it, for he was among us not as Lord and Ruler, but as one who serves (Luke xxii,24-27).
The sorrow of God for the sin of the world] The sorrow of God for what is happening at this very moment in Palestine, in Bosnia, on the streets of our cities, in the homes along our road. Everywhere there is suffering caused by human sin. And what can we do in the face of it? A clue lies in other events of Maundy Thursday.
How utterly extraordinary that Jesus should wash the feet of his followers, and how even more extraordinary that he should wash the feet of Judas. We are always so ready to look for what we can do for God - it may well boost our sense of importance - when what Jesus wants is that we shall accept the service of his forgiveness from him. We must learn to let him love us, to accept his love in such a way that it destroys our pride and self-love. 'If I do not wash you,' says Jesus, 'you have no part in me' (John xiii,8).
That means a willingness to acknowledge our own weakness and sinfulness. The ancient liturgy for Maundy Thursday included a prayer which drew together two unlikely colleagues:
O God, who gave to Judas the punishment of his sin and to the thief the reward of his confession; in Your mercy change us by Your reconciling love, that, as in the suffering and dying of our Lord Jesus Christ each received his due recompense, we may be freed from our old ways and be enriched with the grace of his rising; for with You and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, now and for ever.
Our struggles for justice and peace are a Christian duty, to be sure. But God seems to choose to change people rather than things. The world is changed when people are changed. And people are changed only when they begin by acknowledging their weakness and sinfulness, and allowing God to love and forgive them. Judas is God's lost cause; the penitent thief is a divine victory.
Why did Judas betray Jesus? Was it that he was trying to force Jesus's hand to declare himself and to bring in his kingdom, or was he disillusioned by the clear message of Jesus's humble entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, or was he just a thief trying to hide his unfaithfulness? And did he die unrepentant and in despair, or was his suicide a sign of his repentance and an attempt to make amends?
At the supper Jesus said to Judas, 'What you are going to do, do quickly'(John xiii,27). Judas alone grasped the meaning of his words, and may have detected the anguish beneath them. Did he know at that moment, when it was too late, that Jesus could have washed him within as well as his feet? We do not know the answers, and may never do so, but we do know that Jesus knew that he was losing Judas for ever. He was a lost cause. 'He immediately went out; and it was night' (John xiii,30).
And what of us? Are we to make it possible for God to tackle the problem of human pain and suffering? Then we shall have to learn to be penitent, and to allow God to love us and forgive us. We may well then pray with Eric Milner-White:
O God, who through the only Saviour hast made us Thy sons; Suffer us not to conspire against our high calling in Thee, lest we pass with Iscariot into the endless night.