The Cassandra Complex

I first mentioned Cassandra in a February 11, 2013 blog. In Greek mythology, she is given the power of prophesy by Apollo to win her love. When she cheats him, he turns this gift into a curse by causing her always to be right but disbelieved (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 211). This curse of Cassandra sums up the ministry the Lord gave Isaiah. “And He said, ‘Go, and tell this people: “Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand”’” (6:9). This is the ministry of everyone in the office to some extent, and it is a burden that can lead to a sore than can lead to an abscess of the mind.

This can be seen in a tale of a man not in the office. In late 1840s Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noted that women giving birth using a doctor in a Vienna hospital died of “’childbed fever’” at 4x’s the rate of those at the same hospital using a midwife. He found that doctors were working with cadavers and not washing their hands before they went to deliver babies. He instituted handwashing and the death rate plummeted. In 15 months it went from 12% to 1.2%.

After participating in a poltical demonstration, he was fired in 1848 from the hospital. The man who followed him stopped “the silly requirement of handwashing” and the death rate rose to 15%. Despite Semmelweis presenting evidence proving the connection between the lack of handwashing and the death rate, he wasn’t believed. Hands were not washed again until the 1880s.

But the story doesn’t end here, and from here it becomes a cautionary tale for clergy. Semmelweis lost his sanity. He started accosting people on the streets warning them away from doctors who didn’t clean their hands. He died in a mental institution in 1865 (House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, 77-8).

Think confessional Lutheran pastors couldn’t get this bad? Think again. In the 1990s a newly-minted seminary grad told me on the Sunday after he attended his first Southern District Convention, he was physically grabbing hold of people in his congregation warning them to stay away from the district president because he was a wolf.

As pastors, we don’t know what will happen. Oh we know that the wages of sin is death and that sin always pays it’s wages. But we don’t know what will happen to that young person who walks away, that woman who goes through adult confirmation and disappears, that college student who is educated out of his faith.

We aren’t to preach and teach on the basis of what we don’t know but what we do. In season and out, we are to make known that God sent His only beloved Son into our flesh and blood to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

Yes, we know what will happen to those who ultimately reject this message, but we don’t live there; we can’t live there. It will drive us nuts. And God doesn’t burden us with this knowledge. Unlike Apollos, He didn’t win our love by giving us the gift of prophesy but by giving us His own Son.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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