Cheating the Oracle

One of the most popular sorts of story in the world is the “Cheat the Oracle” story. The idea is that Heaven decrees the hero’s fate and nothing can change it. The hero (or perhaps the hero’s parents or guardians if the hero is an infant) then attempts to cheat the oracle by hiding the hero in a distant land or selling him into slavery or something. In so doing, this sets in motion the fulfillment of the prophecy. And so, in ancient Greece, Oedipus is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. In ancient Israel, Joseph is fated to rule over his brothers and father. Oedipus’ guardians and Joseph’s brothers labor to thwart their respective oracles, but every step they take is just one step closer to their fruition.

Notably, it is the pagan story which describes heaven in sinister conspiracy against man. The gods pull what amounts to a sick practical joke on Oedipus. In contrast, the story of Joseph is, if anything, merry. God has been “conspiring” to rescue everybody from starvation by His choice of Joseph. It is Joseph’s brothers who connive and plot. God simply takes all the plotting and “dooms” everybody to reconciliation and joy that makes for perhaps the sweetest ending to a story in all of pre-Christian antiquity.

This notion of the “positive cheat the oracle story” is very present to Luke as he tells the story of Palm Sunday. The story begins the Passion Narrative in exactly the way the Entrance Processional begins the Mass–and for the same reason. It is the reminder that all the anguish and sacrifice that is about to ensue is not the end of the story, but ultimately part of a celebration in the throne room of heaven. But the anguish will be real and it will be caused by real human hatred and the desire to cheat the very oracles of God.

Thus, the Pharisees complain to Jesus as His disciples cry “Hosanna”: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” But the Oracle speaks: “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” The entire rest of the Passion Narrative will record what happens as the enemies of Jesus attempt to cheat that oracle–an oracle which, as the rest of the Palm Sunday readings show, is rooted in many dark and eerie words from Israel’s Tradition. The Church, in addition to the joy She wants us to experience in Her “Hosannas”, wants also for us to feel the full weight of the “hour” that is about to fall with hammer blows on Jesus. And so we read Psalm 22, which still inspires chills, as it prophesies the doom of Messiah–“They have pierced my hands and my feet, I can count all my bones.” This is the moment that all of human history has been leading up to, a moment of betrayal, conspiracy, impenetrable blackness and death. All the hitherto conflicting forces in the world–Powers and Principalities in the Heavenlies, Religious Establishment, State, Mob, Traitorous Friends, Cowardly Followers–unite in this one frozen instant to try to cheat the oracle.

The Sanhedrin has the most blunt approach to cheating the oracle: kill the oracle. But others try to cheat the oracle as well. Peter defies the oracle when He prophesies Peter’s denial–and goes on to fulfill the words. Pilate (whose wife had a prophetic dream of warning about Jesus) tries to hand Him off to Herod; and Pilate too finds the oracle is not so easily cheated. Indeed, of all the characters in this agonizing story, only one has understood the truth about trying to cheat the oracle. He prays: “Father, not my will, but yours be done.” In so doing, He transforms the “doom” into blessing. As Isaiah prophesied of Him, He did not rebel, did not turn back. He gave His back to those who beat Him, His cheeks to those who plucked His beard. Jesus did not try to cheat the oracles of Israel, but instead, as Paul says, “humbled Himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” And so, when his enemies had sprung all their ingenious traps, outwitted Heaven, cheated the oracles and sealed the “Deceiver” into a tomb, they could finally rejoice that his disciples were silent in grief and shock.

Until, three days later, when the great stone that sealed His tomb was rolled away and began to cry out, as the oracle had foretold. It cries out still.


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