Of all the babies I've baptized since I've been in ministry, I have yet to baptize one named Judas. I have yet to meet a human being named Judas, although I suspect there must be some around the world somewhere. I think it is safe to say, however, that nobody....Christian or non...wants to be saddled with the name of arguably the most famous traitor of all time.
And yet we are drawn to him. The figure of Judas both attracts and repels us. We hate what he did, but we always come back to him wondering...why? It is the same sort of thing we see in the trial of Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her children. The act is so repulsive we can hardly think of it, and yet we are pulled back to her as we try to understand why.
Knowing why is terribly important to us...and not just because we have a morbid curiosity, although that might be part of it. But on a deeper level, until we can know why, we cannot be sure that we will not do it ourselves. And so we dance with Judas with a deep anxiety. Is he some monstrous beast that I could never be? If so, I will push him away. Is he some sort of ill-fated puppet, selected from before time for God's dirty work? If so, I must rise and defend him. Is he someone like me who made a terrible mistake? If so, I must find the possibility for forgiveness for him or risk being condemned myself.
The Bible does not have a clear answer to the question of why Judas chose to betray Jesus. The Gospel of John says that Satan entered into him and, with a sideways swipe at Judas for stealing money from their treasury, he seems to point to monetary greed as a motivation. For John, the devil dangled thirty pieces of silver in front of Judas's nose, and Judas took the bait. John is the harshest on Judas, which is understandable. John was one of the closest friends of Jesus. John is the only disciple to show up at the Cross, and John is the one to whom Jesus entrusts the care of his mother, Mary, after his death. As one of the twelve disciples, Judas was also a companion and perhaps friend of John's. I would guess that of the twelve, John took the betrayal the hardest. It shows in his Gospel.
But I still can't believe that John's explanation completes the picture, because Judas does not end up satisfied with his ill-gotten gain. He returns the money...not grudgingly...he throws it back at them and then goes out and kills himself. Whatever Judas thought he was doing in handing Jesus' over to the authorities, he certainly was not planning on Jesus' condemnation and death. Judas is so distraught over the results of his actions that he cannot go on living and he hangs himself in agony. It is clear to me that Judas did not consider that 30 pieces of silver was worth more than the life of Jesus.
Well, what was he thinking? We can't know for sure, but I will tell you which of the many theories about this that I believe. The name Judas was not always repulsive.. At the time Judas was born, it was one of the most honored names to have. Judas was named for a Jewish hero named Judas Maccabeus, who, in the 2nd century BC, led the armies of Israel to defeat Syria's oppressive rule of Palestine and establish a period of self-rule for Israel. That self-rule was short-lived and by the time of Jesus, Palestine was under foreign control once again...this time from Rome.
It makes perfect sense to me that someone who bore the name Judas and who found himself chosen to be part of the Messiah's inner circle might come to think he had some sort of parallel destiny to that first Judas. Remember, too, that the common expectation of the Messiah in Jesus' day was that the Messiah would be a political and military hero that, like Moses of old, would physically save the Hebrew people from captivity. What I see in Judas Iscariot is a man of action, passionate for his country, who is frustrated at Jesus' inaction. He believes, I think, that a revolt similar to the Maccabean revolt is just around the corner and that Jesus and the twelve disciples will be the heroes that rid Israel of Rome. There are indications that at least some of the other disciples had similar thoughts.
I agree with those who have suggested that what Judas was doing was trying to force Jesus' hand. Judas had seen the miracles. Tensions in the group were rising. Jesus seemed to be preparing the Twelve for something momentous as they came to the capital city of Jerusalem. And yet Jesus is holding back. In this scenario, Judas alerts the authorities to Jesus' whereabouts so that Jesus will be forced to take the action Judas knew he must have been planning all along.
But something goes terribly wrong. Jesus does not stand up to the soldiers and lead a revolt. When one of the disciples pulls out a sword to begin the battle, Jesus does not lead the charge, but tells him to put his sword away. If I had to guess, I would say that Judas' horror and remorse began with that command. "Put away your sword." Judas knew in that moment he had misjudged. Jesus was not what Judas had thought...he was not the Messiah after all. He was simply a kind man, a prophet perhaps, a friend that now Judas had sent to his death. That was too much to bear.
Compounding the first mistake with another, Judas did not wait to see if Messiah might mean something different. Forgetting all he had seen Jesus do in the previous three years, he could not conceive that there might be forgiveness for him. Unable to face the reversal of his name from hero to traitor, unable to face the other disciples, unable to watch the consequences of his actions unfold, Judas hangs himself before Pilate has even made his decision.
The character of Judas is both tragic and frightening. In three years with Jesus' he was never able to see with God's eyes. He never really "got it." His own agenda was so firmly entrenched, that he could not hear anything else...even when God stood beside him in the flesh telling him about it. If Judas could only have really heard Jesus say, "The one who seeks to save his life will lose it," then perhaps things might have turned out differently. If only he could have understood that in the Kingdom of God the one who would be the greatest must become the least and the one who wants to lead must become a servant. But he never did get it.
That tragic story is frightening, because much of the time we don't get it either. Judas is not some hideous monster...a human aberration that could never be us. Judas is every one of us, until we are willing to open our eyes and recognize that our agenda is not necessarily God's agenda, and until we are willing to put God's agenda before our own. All the disciples knew that was possible, as we see in the scene from the Last Supper.
Jesus announces that one of the Twelve will betray him, and the answer was not obvious to the disciples. They don't automatically figure that it will be Judas. In fact, they don't start thinking of others at all. The question that moves all around the table is not, "Is it him?" but rather, "Is it I?" That is the question that frightens us. What Judas did is, I believe, the stuff of every betrayal everywhere. It could be any of us, even God's nearest and dearest...as the disciples around the table well knew. When we put our own agendas ahead of God's, we have all that we need to betray someone.
When our agenda for physical intimacy is put before God's agenda for faithfulness, we commit adultery. When our agenda for power and control is put before God's agenda for service and love, we abuse others. When our agenda for wealth is put before God's agenda for stewardship, we embezzle, we sue, we steal, we enslave. When our agenda for self-enhancement is put before God's agenda for self-giving, our lives are disordered, our families are dysfunctional, and our world becomes a fragmented chaos of warlords, each grasping all they can for themselves and killing all who stand in the way. The way of Judas is the way of the world, and the frightening thing to me is that he lived with Jesus so closely for three entire years and never could see that Jesus was teaching a different way.
But Judas was not the only one to be blind and to fail Jesus. Judas isolated himself almost as soon as the deed was done. He didn't know that as he was out finding some sturdy rope and a high tree, Peter, the one Jesus called the rock, was in a courtyard saying over and over again that he didn't know anybody named Jesus. From where Judas was preparing his own death, he could not hear the bitter weeping of Peter as Peter realized his own betrayal.
This to me is the most tragic part of the Judas story. Peter, too, betrayed his Lord, and I don't believe that a betrayal is less sinful just because the consequences are less concrete. If I had to guess, I would say that Peter's denial caused Jesus more pain than the nails. Peter, also, had misunderstood what Jesus was doing, but there was a critical part of Jesus' teaching that Peter had understood but Judas had not. Peter didn't yet understand that you have to die to live or that you have to be a servant in order to lead. But he did understand that God is love.
Peter had seen Jesus stop the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, offering forgiveness instead of death. He had seen Jesus volunteer to chum around with hated tax collectors, who betrayed their own people day in and day out, seeming to ignore all they had ever done as he called them to a better life. Peter knew that even the sin of betrayal could not end God's love for him, and Peter knew that if his own agenda seemed to be dying on a Cross that God must have something else in mind. Peter at least had learned enough to see beyond himself, and he went back to fishing, waiting for God's next move. Judas imagined that his own agenda was so perfect that there could not be another and that his sin was so great that God could not forgive it. If the outside world could not be saved, then he could not either, and in despair Judas took his life.
As we live through Lent, that 40 days before Easter where we search our souls, Judas is before us...a grisly sight, hanging dead from a tree. He shows us the alternative to Easter. Easter proclaims that if we are willing to give ourselves up...if we are willing to let even our physical lives be given over to a cause beyond ourselves, there is a glorious resurrection waiting for us. That message is both a spiritual reality in the here and now and a physical reality for the life to come. We must die to live, we must let go and give away in order to receive. That is the Kingdom way.
Judas presents us with the alternative, where we push forward our own agendas, steamrolling over the will and the wisdom of others, the will and wisdom even of God, so bent on having our way that we would rather be dead than wrong. The alternative of Judas is the way of pride, the pride that insists on our own wisdom and the pride that thinks we can commit a sin so great that God cannot reach down as far as we have fallen. The Judas in us fails to hear God nudging us toward a better way, and then shuts out God's offer of forgiveness. The Judas in us would rather die than look at the Cross.
During Lent we have two ugly pictures in front of us. There is a man hanging from a tree by his neck, overcome by the magnitude of his own sin. There is another man hanging from a tree by the nails in his hands and feet, so that the magnitude of all sins might be overcome and so that the despair of all might be turned to hope. Two men, on two trees. One offers the fullness of self, which turns to despair. The other offers the fullness of God's love for each of us, which ends Easter morning in life. Which one will you choose to look at? Which way will guide your life?
Christian doctrine teaches that between the time of Jesus' death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell and preached the good news to the dead. I like to think that the first of all of those that Jesus went to find, was Judas.
© 2002, Anne Robertson
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