The Passion account of St Matthew presents us with a series of failures, which in one sense are a reflection of our own lives and in another offer us some helpful lessons on how to do better. The first one is not really a failure—in fact it turns out to be quite the success—but it does set the stage for the severe crisis that precipitates all the other failures. This one belongs to Jesus Himself.
It happened in the Garden. Some time previously, and on three separate occasions, Jesus had predicted his suffering and death, and his rising from the dead—evidently with a certain amount of confidence. But when He went to Gethsemane, what happened? “He began to be sorrowful and troubled.” This was the first indication that Jesus was not going to glide majestically through his Passion. He said that his soul was “sorrowful unto death,” a phrase which does not exude unflappable self-confidence. Then, after his whole public ministry had inexorably led Him to this moment, a moment which inaugurated the climax of his whole life and mission on earth, He prayed: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” We can’t even begin to imagine the crushing weight of the sin and suffering of the world that was upon Him at that moment, one so horrifying that He could seek to be delivered from that which was the reason He was sent in the first place. We see something we thought we’d never see: a conflict between Jesus’ will and that of his Father. But here’s the success: “Nevertheless, not as I will but as You will.” That was surely the most courageous act ever placed in the history of mankind.
This teaches us something important. It’s not necessarily wrong to have an honest disagreement with the will of God. Even his own Son did, once anyway. But the crucial thing is that we must choose to accept the will of God whether we like it or not, whether we think we have a better idea or not. The grace is in the “yes,” and it makes all the difference between success and failure.
The other failures are just plain failures, though one of them did have some redeeming value. Peter and the other disciples are the ones we’ll look at first. Peter was somewhat indignant that Jesus would burst his boast about never falling away from Him by predicting a three-fold denial. Let us look here at what Peter and the other disciples said, and what actually happened. The ellipsis in the quote covers about an hour of time: “Peter said to him, ‘Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples… Then all the disciples forsook him and fled” (Mt. 26:35, 56). They all insisted they would stand by Him; then almost immediately they all abandoned Him. There’s a text in one of our Holy Week services that expresses Peter’s failure about as clearly and concisely as possible. In it he says: “I said I would keep the faith but I have not kept it.” Is this not our own life story, at least to some extent? Despite our good intentions, and perhaps even confident protestations, we just don’t come through. We say one thing and do another. We fail. For some reason, if I’m tempted to judge or look down on someone else’s foibles or failures, sometimes this line from the old Beatles’ song, Nowhere Man, enters my mind: “Isn’t he a bit like you and me…”
Peter at least knew what to do with his failure: turn back to God with it and weep in repentance. Thus he was eventually restored. Judas did not fare so well, and his failure, as least as far as human observation can discern, was absolute. He didn’t merely lose his nerve and abandon Christ to avoid incrimination or bodily harm. He planned his betrayal and accepted money for it. It was premeditated, not motivated by the self-preservation instinct. It is true that Judas, like Peter, later recognized his sin and felt remorse over it. But he didn’t give the Lord a chance to forgive him for it. He became his own judge and executioner. Thus leaving God out of it, he came to the worst possible end. We need to learn to let the Judge be the judge, for it is likely that we are harsher than He ever would be. He forgives our crimes more easily than we do. Repentance is always preferable to despair. Again, it is the difference between success and failure.
There were other failures. The chief priests and elders—and the other “witnesses” who accused Jesus falsely—failed en masse, both to recognize their Messiah and to treat Him fairly even though they disagreed with Him. Their failure left blood on their hands. A similar thing could be said for Pilate, who tried unsuccessfully to wash his hands of that Righteous Man’s blood. Pilate failed in a different way, though. He had no argument with a Jewish Messiah; he couldn’t care less. But he failed in courage and justice. He became a coward, a crowd-pleaser, someone who was willing to sacrifice an innocent life just to calm the hot tempers of a people he didn’t feel like dealing with anyway. Many of the individual and collective failures of today’s society are not essentially different from those who condemned Jesus and those who ratified the condemnation and put Him to death.
Jesus’ ultimate “failure”—the end of his ministry, the scattering of his followers, the shameful execution as if He were a criminal—became his ultimate success: the bearing of the sin of the world and the re-opening of the gates of Paradise, so that the Holy Spirit could descend and the eventual multitude of believers could ascend.
Some failures are obvious, some only apparent. All can be turned to the good through faith, hope, love, and repentance. We have to be honest and take our place in the ranks of those who failed to stand by the Lord and keep his word. But we can also stand in the ranks of the repentant; we can choose to accept the will of the Father even when we’d rather run from it. We can take up our crosses and follow Jesus, failures and sad-sacks in the eyes of the world, but secretly laughing all the way to Paradise. Perhaps we couldn’t fully savor success if we hadn’t first tasted the bitterness of failure. We’re all sinners, so we all know failure. But turning the page of the Passion account we find the Resurrection. Lo, He is with us always, so that our sorrow can be turned into joy, our failure into success, for the Risen Christ is the One who makes all things new.