My friend Peter Gomes used to say that an excess of virtue is worse than an excess of vice because there are no constraints on virtue.
An excess of virtue is worse than an excess of vice because there are no restraints on virtue. When I first head Peter say that I was taken aback. How could virtue be worse than vice? Surely we all needed and wanted to become more and more virtuous.
Now, however, I think that he was on to something. So much mischief can be done by those who THINK they are virtuous and are determined to make us just as virtuous as they are.
I served on the board of examining chaplains in the Diocese of Alabama. That means that once or twice a year two other priests and I sat down with candidates for ordination and talked with them about their academic preparation for the priesthood. One year we met with a young man about to be ordained to the transitional diaconate. We liked him and gave him our blessing but he had written an exceptionally bad essay about the Puritan movement in 17th century England. He wrote that King Charles I tried to reintroduce Roman Catholicism – WRONG! That Charles had been exiled – WRONG. Charles had been executed. And that Alexander Cromwell had stepped in and led England – WRONG. It was Oliver Cromwell, not Alexander.
It reminded me of the man who was speaking to a civic group. The person introducing him said that he had made a million dollars in the oil business in Texas. The man got up to speak and said that his introduction had only been partly correct: he was from Idaho, not Texas. He was in the potato business, not oil. And he had not made a million dollars; he had lost a million dollars.
But what happened to poor King Charles I is a good illustration of the point that an excess of virtue is worse than an excess of vice. The English Puritans believed that the Church of England was insufficiently reformed and that Charles was impeding reform. So they rose in revolt and Charles lost his head.
During the French Revolution, the revolutionary leader Maximilian Robespierre argued that the revolution was sustained by the virtue of its citizens. Thus, to be insufficiently virtuous was to be an enemy of the revolution. Robespierre launched the Reign of Terror, a period in which guillotines were set up in every town square in France and thousands of ordinary citizens were executed. One of the last to be executed was Robespierre himself when his fellow revolutionary leaders realized that no one could be virtuous enough to satisfy Robespierre and they themselves might be his next victims.
The story is told that on the eve of the Russian Revolution two Bolsheviks were meeting. One said to the other, “Comrade, when the revolution comes you will have all the peaches you can eat.” The other Bolshevik replied, “But comrade, I don’t like peaches.” After a pause, the first one replied, “When the Revolution comes, not only will you eat peaches but you will also LIKE them.”
What does all this have to do with the Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday? Surely, on this day and in the story of Jesus’ suffering and death there are good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. Jesus is good and Pilate and the religious leaders who put him to death are bad. And that’s the problem. Jesus was not put to death by bad people doing bad things. He was put to death by good people who were doing their best, by people who were doing their duty as well as they could understand it and were able to do it.
When the Jewish leaders looked at Jesus they saw a dangerously deluded man, a man who believed he was the Messiah, God’s anointed, the one sent by God to bring in an age of peace and overthrow the Roman oppressors. Jesus might even believe he was God’s son. Clearly, he must be a blasphemer and heretic and the punishment for that was death.
Pilate looked at Jesus and saw a potential revolutionary. The words that the crowd shouted reinforced Pilate’s convictions. “Hosanna to the son of David.” The son of David would be a king as David had been a king. Pilate’s only choice was to execute Jesus on the charge of treason.
One of the most important messages of this day and the week that follows is that sometimes when we think we are at our best, we are actually at our worst.
It is usually easy to recognize evil. Hitler was evil. Stalin was evil. But 150 years ago this country was in the midst of a terrible civil war that began when seven states seceded from the Union. They claimed to be motivated by high ideals: Freedom honor, perpetuation of their culture, and so on. But at the heart of their culture was the institution of slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, the trafficking in human beings as property.
In 1963, seven Birmingham religious leaders, including the Episcopal bishop of Alabama – Charles Carpenter- and his assistant – George Murray -wrote an open letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., urging him not to lead a series of demonstrations during Holy Week intended to end the segregation of public accommodations in Birmingham. Years ago I met and talked with one of the signers of that letter, Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanu-El. Rabbi Grafman came and talked to my students and gave a perfectly reasonable explanation of why he urged Dr. King not to demonstrate.
One of King’s demands was that the down town department stores hire black sales clerks. Many of the owners of those stores were members of Temple Emanu-El. Grafman explained that if they had hired black sales clerks, the insurance companies would have cancelled their insurance for fear that the KKK would have fire bombed their stores.
After Grafman had talked to my students and left, I asked them who had been right: Dr. King or Rabbi Grafman. They were all white middle class kids and they all said that King had been right and Grafman had been wrong. If King had waited, they said, segregation would have continued.
They were right. Sometimes the right thing, the conventional thing, the thing that we have always done, is absolutely the wrong thing.
The religious leaders who executed Jesus did the expected thing, the conventional thing, the thing that their moral and religious training taught them to do, and they executed the Son of God. Pilate did exactly what he had to do under Roman law and he has been vilified from that day to this for putting to death not just an innocent man but a man who embodied innocence and goodness.
Palm Sunday and Holy Week remind us that all too often it is when we are at our best that we do the worst things. This week and its events remind us that we are saved by grace because our good works are never good enough. Too often we choose the status quo, the conventionally good thing over the unexpected better thing. Too often our ideas of right and wrong are shaped by our self interest. They are a product of a social system that exists to preserve and protect our economic and political well being.
An excess of virtue is more dangerous than an excess of vice because there are no restraints on virtue. This day and this week we are invited to walk the way of the Cross with Jesus. To put our self interest to death, perhaps even to put to death our conventional ideas of virtue, and to begin to see through our own blindness and prejudice.
When Christ was lifted on the cross,
His arms stretched out above
Through every culture, every birth,
To draw an answering love.
Still east and west his love extends
And always near or far,
He calls and claims us as his friends
And loves us as we are.
Where generation, class, or race
divide us to our shame
He sees not labels but a face
A person, and a name.
Thus freely loved, though fully known,
May I in Christ be free
To welcome and accept his own
As Christ accepted me.