A slippery slope

Oh! What a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!
— Sir Walter Scott, Marmion

The phrase is well-known even if the poem is not, because it resonates with a common human experience: lies can take on a life of their own, dragging us into ever deeper levels of deceit. The first fib seems simple enough, and we rationalize it away. It’s just a little lie, and it’s for a good reason. Nobody will notice. I’ll just cross my fingers behind my back and it’ll all be okay. But then we have to tell another lie to cover the first, then another…and soon we feel we’ve lost control of the situation.

All four gospels tell the story of the apostle Peter being caught in a series of lies: three times, he denied being a disciple of Jesus, just as Jesus himself predicted he would. After Jesus was arrested and led away to the high priest, Peter followed at a safe distance, presumably out of loyalty to his master and to see what would happen next. He entered the courtyard of the high priest and tried in vain to remain inconspicuous.

That’s when the trouble began.

The details of the four accounts, though, differ somewhat. Only John, as we’ve seen, tells us about two interrogations, one before Annas, and one before Caiaphas. And only John mentions the presence of another disciple, who lets Peter into the courtyard in the first place. Many believe this other disciple to be John himself, but this seems unlikely. The disciple would have to have been on good enough terms with the high priest to be able to enter the courtyard with Jesus without any fuss, and to have the authority to tell the servant girl to let Peter in. That hardly seems to describe John the fisherman. Other candidates have been suggested, but the identity of this second disciple remains a mystery.

Once Peter is let in, the lies begin — and the first one is so easy:

Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” (John 18:16-17, NRSV)

The phrasing of the question is important. It would be one thing if Peter had been confronted by an official who demanded, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” But instead he was quizzed by a servant girl, and the form of her question suggests that she expected him to say no. After all, why would she expect a close disciple of Jesus to be following him into the lion’s den? Something piqued her curiosity, and she asked. There’s something odd about you. But, hey, surely you’re not one of his disciples! Are you?  She never expected him to say yes.

You know how that is, don’t you? Imagine yourself in Peter’s place. It’s not really a lie, it’s playing along. It’s telling people what you know they want to hear. It’s expediency.

But Peter had set foot on the slippery slope, as we’ll see in Sunday’s post.