O What a Tangled Web we Weave When First we Practice to Deceive

By Peter Robinson
Jesus's betrayal led to his crucifixion on the cross.


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“O what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” This, one of the most famous lines of poetry, and comes from the poem “Marmion,” penned by Sir Walter Scot. It relates the story of two English nobles—Lord Marmion and Sir Ralph De Wilton, who both wanted to marry Clara de Clare, an heiress of the Earl of Gloucester. While De Wilton loved Clara, Marmion simply coveted her property. Marmion used forged letters to bring a charge of high treason against De Wilton. De Wilton, seeing no other recourse, challenged him to a duel. He lost the duel, and although he was not killed, he left England in disgrace. Clara however did not want to marry Marmion and fled to a covenant where she entered the novitiate. Marmion didn’t give up but attempted to have Clara poisoned. The plot was discovered to Marmion’s shame. But before De Wilton could reclaim his honor, Marmion died on the battlefield in the war against France: deceit, betrayal, and suffering. 

“O what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” The poem describes a pattern that we are all too familiar with—one lie or deceit builds on another until it becomes very difficult to get to the truth. It happens in our relationships with others, in our work life and, all too often, in politics. It is also a repeated theme in the Biblical narrative from Abraham, to Jacob, to Ananias and Sapphira. This Holy Week we hear again the narratives of the Passion, which are (among other things) sobering portrayals of how easily self-justification leads all too quickly to a complex web of deceit.  

Pilate sentenced Jesus to death not because he believed Jesus was guilty, but because he was worried about his position. He made several half-hearted attempts to stop the process because he could see that it was a setup. But he wasn’t willing to risk his own station or position. Despite these maneuvers, his legacy is now as the archetype of corrupt authority. Rather than acting with integrity, he put his own interests first.

When the chief priests and elders convicted Jesus, they approved the use of coerced, false testimony to establish Jesus’ guilt. They were more concerned about the threat Jesus posed than the truth, and they told themselves that they were acting for the common good. It is sobering that many were willing to bear false witness. Even their lies were proven to be empty since their testimony did not agree. Although we are not told who these witnesses were, some of them may have been part of the crowd who had followed Jesus, shouting, “Hosanna!” as he rode into Jerusalem. Deceit and betrayal. How quickly we turn against one another, and through disappointment, anger, and frustration we set out to tear one another down—or tear one another apart.

It would have been bad enough if it had simply been the political and legal authorities who, through betrayal and deceit, wrongly convicted Jesus. His friends and followers did much the same thing: Betrayed him or deserted him. Jesus predicts that Judas will betray him: “Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” Judas has already gone to the chief priests and was waiting for an opportunity to betray Jesus. Jesus’s warning offers Judas an opportunity to repent, but instead he continues what he is doing. It is hard to put words to Judas’s intentional betrayal of this man who had called him a friend. Judas is often held up as the worst kind of betrayer, exchanging a kiss for cash. A sign of affection and respect turns into a mark of betrayal.

Peter’s betrayal, if anything cuts the deepest of all. After protesting his fidelity, his denials are more fervent each time he is asked. This is one of the most poignant moments in the whole story. We would hope that at least one person would stand by Jesus in his hour of need. Surely Peter, the man who has sworn he would never betray him, will be that person. But no: even Peter now swears that he does not know him. 

In short, the passion narratives are a long descent into complete betrayal and abandonment. Jesus was betrayed on every side and in every way possible: By his opponents who saw him as a threat to their power; by others who feared what he might do; by the political and legal authorities, who were more concerned about political leverage than real leadership; by the faithful religious leaders, who were shown to be far more faithful to themselves than to the God they were supposed to worship.  Finally, Jesus is betrayed by his friends and followers: By those who had sworn never to desert him.  And thus, we see him standing there, utterly alone, at the worst moment of his life.

“O what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Humanity’s first conceit is to believe that we would have behaved differently. The second is to try and identify who was most at fault. This dark moment in history exposes once and for all the truth: That no one was willing to stand with Jesus; that in one way or another, everyone denied him.

To drive the knife in further, we realize Jesus anticipated what was about to happen. He foresaw Judas’s complicity. He foresaw Peter’s fear overruling his passion. He foresaw the fear of his other followers who would not remain faithful when the going got tough—no matter how strong their intentions were. He foresaw the hearts of the religious leaders who had turned against him almost from the beginning. He foresaw that Pilate’s fear of losing his authority would matter more to him than truth. All the pretence, all the niceties of civilization are thus peeled away, and the naked truth of our complicity in humanity’s deceit is exposed.

Jesus was under no delusions as to the truth of our deceit, and yet he did not walk away. The darkness of our failure is met by the unbreakable and indestructible grace and love of God. Seeing our impatience, our anger, our fear, our failure— knowing us well enough to know that we would all betray him—he did not respond in kind.  He did not deny or betray us, and he did not deny or betray his Father: Abba, father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what want.”