“O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)
It so happens that Juliet was mistaken about the duplicity of Romeo, and that the lovely lad was not altogether rotten at his core. As a sketch of our species, however, the young girl’s philippic is not overdrawn. It is certainly far closer to orthodox Christian anthropology than anything one is nowadays likely to hear from preacher or priest. “Infinite dignity,” forsooth! Intermittent dignity, mostly negligible, with long caesuras of degradation, depravity and deceit. A menagerie, regrettably uncaged, of crooks, cowards and clowns.
“Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O, that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace.”
Let us peep inside this morocco-covered book. Let us take tea with the inhabitant of this gorgeous palace. Let us smell the breath of the dragon in this fair cave.
To appreciate the grubby, greasy soul of man, we should observe his conduct immediately after the Son of God decided to go through with the plan to save him from universal damnation. I mean his conduct on the morning of Good Friday. That conduct, you recall, was appalling. I don’t think man could have shown himself less deserving of salvation. I don’t think man could have more impressively exposed himself as an amalgam of crook, coward and clown.
This begins with a stunning display of cowardice and inconstancy, as the disciples take to their heels and vanish into the night. Peter, who only hours before had boasted of his stalwart fidelity, is revealed as a shifty liar quaking under the gaze of a scullery maid. He was not, like his companions, hiding under a bed or hightailing it back to Galilee in false whiskers, but when put to the test the “rock” crumbled like shale.
The cowardice of Peter is followed by the qualms of Judas. The corrupt conscience of Judas could swallow a bribe but it balked at “blood money.” Thirty pieces of silver would have sufficiently compensated Judas for the thought that he had betrayed Jesus to flogging, or prison, or public disgrace. But his corrupt conscience drew the line when he discovered he was going to be complicit in a judicial murder. And the utterly cynical Sanhedrim laughed at the shoddy scruples of this grubby little man.
The Sanhedrim are themselves exemplars of grubby sanctimony and deceit. They convicted Jesus of blasphemy in a show trial, swallowed the camel of paying blood money and then strained at the gnat of using it, and then changed the indictment from blasphemy to political insurrection when they brought Jesus before Pilate. The Sanhedrim are deceit dwelling in a gorgeous palace, a dragon coiled in a fair cave. They are the type of every conspiracy of pious rogues and virtue-signaling villains that has ever polluted the earth with its sanctified atrocities.
Pilate is a greasy manager whose only aim is to make this problem go away without a troublesome riot. Pilate’s motto in the “justice seat” is not justice. It is expedience, and he believes expedience is the motto of Jesus and the Sanhedrim as well. This is why Pilate thinks he can cut a deal that will allow everyone to walk away from a Mexican standoff without losing face. This is why he tells his hysterical wife to can all her talk about dreams and let the big boys work something out. Barabbas is his face-saving deal because Pilate assumes that pardoning Barabbas would be much more horrible than pardoning Jesus, and that offering the choice of Barabbas or Jesus therefore gives the Sanhedrim a way to back down without losing face. This greasy graft fails because the Sanhedrim are pious rogues, not greasy grafters, and because this is not a Mexican standoff.
Imagine thinking that you are about to die for this menagerie of crooks, cowards, and clowns. That image is the seed of Christian gratitude, because this menagerie of crooks, cowards and clowns is a perfect likeness of man. It is not overdrawn. In today’s parlance, it is “who we are.”
Far from being creatures of “infinite dignity,” men and women are corrupted cowards, pious rogues and greasy grafters. This is the meaning of the words in that morocco-covered book. This is the taste of the tea in that gorgeous palace. This is the sour smell of that cave-dwelling dragon’s breath.