Article | May 14, 2023
Sermon: Jesus and the Iliad
Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
View the sermon on YouTube.
Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (Jn. 14).
Anthropologists estimate that on average over the last five thousand years, during any hundred year period, in about ninety-six of those years men fought wars somewhere in the world.1 Despite this, across the centuries Peter speaks to us. He whispers in our ear, “do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3).
1. How will we defend our hope in this violent and broken world? A couple of people have asked me why we read Caroline Alexander’s translation of the entire text (15,693 lines) of Homer’s Iliad all day yesterday here at the Cathedral. This epic poem was composed in one of the earliest examples of phonetic Greek some time between 750-700 BC. Homer relied on storytelling traditions about the real Trojan War which scholars estimate was fought in 1250 BC.2
The Iliad does not describe the abduction (or seduction) of Helen which started the war. It does not tell the story of how Greek soldiers gained entrance through the gates hidden inside a giant wooden horse or about how the city was sacked. Instead Homer writes about the events of a roughly two week period in the tenth and final year of the stalemated siege of Troy. It is a war that no one seems to want to fight anymore. Why does the war persist? For three reasons: pride, fate and fury.
Achilles, the greatest warrior, whose mother is Thetis goddess of the sea, refuses to fight after his slave girl Briseïs is taken by his inept, whining commander Agamemnon. Agamemnon justifies his action complaining, “[D]o you intend – while you yourself have a prize – that I should just sit here without one?”3 If these embarrassing comparisons of status could have been avoided the war would easily have been won.
Again later the war seems about to conclude, to be satisfied by a duel between Menelaus and Paris, but in the last second Paris is rescued by the goddess Aphrodite, and the hostilities continue. Homer writes, “So spoke (Zeus) the son of Kronos and woke
the incessant battle, and the gods went down to enter the fighting, with purposes opposed.”4 Fate expressed by the god’s intervention makes the conflict intractable.
Finally, Achilles does not respect his commander and questions the very reasons for fighting. Like the boxer Muhamad Ali in his comment about the Vietcong, Achilles says, “the Trojan spearmen… to me have done nothing.”5 He knows that he will be killed if he goes to war, but gets drawn into battle out of rage when his dear friend Patroclus is killed. Priam the father of his adversary foresees his grandchild being thrown from the walls, his daughters sent into slavery and his own death. He begs his son not to fight, “Come then inside the wall my child… oh take pity on me…”6
Both Achilles and Hector know that they will be killed if they go to battle. They understand that the war is not worth their lives and yet they persist. Wrath is the first word in this ancient epic and it is foolish pride, capricious chance and pure anger that drive the forces of war.
This is remarkable. The book uses the conventions of heroic epic to undermine the very idea that wars should be fought at all. It raises universal questions: is a warrior ever justified in defying his commander? How do wars start and why do they continue even when all the combatants want them to end? Can giving one’s life for country sometimes be a betrayal of one’s family? Is dying gloriously and being remembered worth it?7
Achilles says, “ I wish that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and gall which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind, that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than dripping honey.”8
After killing his enemy Menelaus observes, “There is satiety in all things, in sleep, and love-making, in the loveliness of singing and the innocent dance…” but in war the Trojans cannot be satisfied.9
Why did we gather here through the dark night to study this ancient epic? We read The Iliad yesterday to deepen our connection to each other and to all humans throughout history. Together we studied the human heart. We tried to honestly face the pride, pettiness, accident and anger that prevent us from living at peace with each other in this beautiful world.
2. You may be wondering what this has to do with the way of Jesus. The apostle Paul explains this after he escaped a mob that was trying to kill him in Thessalonica and arrives in Athens. He debates Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, two Greek schools of
thought concerned with how we should live. He meets people who, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17). And he gives an accounting of the hope that is within him. Let me briefly explain what these philosophers believed.
Epicurus moved to Athens in 341 BC. Epicureans philosophers believed that the goal of human life is happiness, the avoidance of physical pain and peace of mind.10 They thought that fear of death and punishment are the primary cause of the anxiety that distorts our inner life and gives rise to irrational desires. They believed that we could become happy by changing our habits of thought. To do this they recommended avoiding politics and religion (because they thought that the gods do not care about us). They regarded sex and marriage as unimportant, but friendship as everything.
Stoic philosophy began to develop around the year 300 BC.11 They offered a far more developed picture of God as a physical entity. For them God is eternal reason, the intelligence bringing forth creation, the life force that animates all beings. This God is not like the unpredictable, capricious Greek gods, but orderly, rational and providential.
On the Areopagus, the hill dedicated to Ares the Greek god of war, Paul addresses students of Homer, philosophers and everyone else. He refers to finding an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god,” and promises to tell them about the real God who they do not yet know. He explains that God is not an idol or a physical object in the world. God creates and also sets limits to everything. Our existence, our breath, the space we take up and everything we have comes from God. And yet God is also personal. We have a longing for God, and so we search and perhaps even find God, because God is “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17).
On this Mother’s Day we hear how Jesus mothers his friends even as they gather for the last time. He teaches exactly this, that our relation to God is a personal one. Jesus exclaims I will not leave you orphaned, isolated by yourself. But the paraclete (which means the one who goes beside you), the spirit of truth, will be with you. Jesus says, you will be in me and I will be in you. This presence of God will help us to keep God’s commandments. This is important. We are not rewarded for keeping commandments by God’s intimacy. God’s presence makes it possible for us to be agents of peace.
The genius of Christianity is that it recognizes that pride, competition, fury and pettiness put us in impossible conflict but that God sustains us even through the worst forms of suffering. In fact, the suffering of God helps to make our pain bearable.
3. This week with a group I listened to a friend, who I will call Ben, read his memoirs.12 Ben described going out to the movies in Southern California in the 1970’s with his wife and five year old son, seeing a pay phone with a large phonebook hanging on a chain. On a whim he called the Steins, the family that used to share a duplex with he and his mother back in Philadelphia. Growing up the other family seemed to have everything: a television, a car and a dad who was part of that boy’s life.
There was often conflict between the boys. One day as children, Ben thought that his neighbor had told the teacher about him swearing on the playground. And so later Ben secretly threw away his book bag and did not say anything as the boy’s mother beat him. Years later Ben goes and visits that boy’s parents in Los Angeles with his own wife and son. The mother says she always thought he would grow up to be a murderer. Her own son had joined the army, been sent to Vietnam and become addicted to drugs. He could never really get a career going.
Ben called the now grown up neighbor. The two had a superficial conversation, until the neighbor expressed his surprise that Ben had not apologized for his behavior when they were children. The neighbor hung up and they never spoke again. Ben did not show any remorse about what happened in the past, but he seems to be still carrying this burden for harming his friend. After his story our group of friends talked about why some people succeed and others do not. But the real question is how are we to live with each other and our past.
In The Iliad’s world all we have is our ego and it is in competition with every other ego, and there is nothing to temper our fury. The bickering and unreliable gods of the Epicureans and the nameless impersonal power of the Stoic’s God cannot help. But my friends every person you meet shines with the light of God. Being together each week we are learning to nourish the hope within us. This is the hope that we can seek and find God, that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, that through the turmoil and enmity of this world, God is directing us. God is loving us and mothering us.
“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is within you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3).
1 “If we took any period of a hundred years in the last five thousand, it has been calculated, we could expect, on average, ninety-four of these years to be occupied with large-scale conflicts in one or more parts of the world.” Paraphrase from Tevor Bryce, Life and Society in the Hittite World (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004) 98, by Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War (NY: Penguin Books, 2009) xi.
2 Homer, The Iliad tr. Caroline Alexander (NY:Harper Collins, 2015) xxx.
3 Ibid., 5.
4 Homer, The Iliad tr. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 405 (Book Twenty, line 30).
5 Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War (NY: Penguin Books, 2009) 20.
6 Homer, The Iliad tr. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 436.
7 Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War (NY: Penguin Books, 2009) 14-15.
8 Ibid., 378.
9 Homer, The Iliad tr. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 288. Homer, The Iliad tr. Caroline Alexander (NY:Harper Collins, 2015) 282.
10 Konstan, David, “Epicurus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/epicurus/>.
11 The stoa is the porch were classes met. Durand, Marion, Simon Shogry, and Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2023/entries/stoicism/>.
12 Tuesday 9 May 2023 at 7:30 p.m.