Thursday, March 14, 2013

People of the Passion: Judas

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 22:1-6, 14-16, 21-23, 47-53:

In one of the most dramatic scenes in theater, Julius Caesar is attacked by those conspiring against him, including his beloved friend Brutus, and Caesar utters the words that have echoed down to us since the day that Shakespeare first wrote them, “et tu, Brute?”  Then Caesar says words that are just as important, but not as well known, “the fall Caesar.”  That might be one of the most famous scenes of betrayal in history, except of course for the one we just read between Jesus and Judas, but I have to be honest and say that I think that Judas might be the most tragic and misunderstood characters of history, but what do we really know about Judas?

Often in the New Testament, people’s names will tell us something about who they are.  While there are several Judases in the gospels, including another disciple, the Judas we are focusing on is always referred to as Judas Iscariot, not only so we can tell him apart from the other Judases, but also to give us some information, but the problem is we don’t really know what that means.  The answer you are most likely to find is that Iscariot may mean he was from the town of Kerioth, a town recorded in the book of Joshua as being in southern Israel, but there are some problems with this identification.  The first is that there is no indication that the town of Kerioth still existed 1200 years after Joshua mentions it, as there is no record of it during the time of Jesus, the other problem is that all of the other disciples’ were from Galilee, where Jesus is from, so what would someone from southern Judea be doing up in Galilee.  Does that mean it’s impossible, of course not, and if it was true, it would mean that Judas has been separate and different from the very beginning.

Some scholars have speculated that it may mean that Judas was a member of a group of  zealots called the sicarrii.  We know that at least one other disciple, Simon, but not Simon Peter, was called a zealot, but the sicarrii were a special group who assassinated other Jews whom they saw as collaborators with the Romans.  Another option is that it comes from an Aramaic word meaning “red color,” so maybe Judas was a red head, and we all know about red heads.  The gospel of John says that Iscariot relates not to him, but to his father Simon Iscariot, but in the end where most scholars who have worked on this have come to is that we simply don’t know what the term means and it may even be that 40 plus years after the facts that even the writers of the gospels no longer knew what it meant either.

We do know that Judas was one of the 12. We also know Judas was the person who carried the communal purse, or money, for the disciples.  John tells us that Judas did this because he was greedy, and he stole money from the purse, and that Judas then ultimately betrays Jesus because of greed.  Matthew makes a somewhat similar claim by saying that Judas went to the chief priests to say what they would give him to betray him.  Now this has always struck me as being a little incongruent with things, because it seems to me that you don’t give your communities money to someone you don’t trust, or someone you think is greedy.  Instead, you give it to the person you trust the most.

In addition, Jesus seems to be a pretty good judge of character, so if Judas was a greedy person who only became the treasurer so he could steal, and was stealing, then not only would we have to say that Jesus picked out the person who would betray him, but that he could not also see into Judas and know that he was steal from them all and let him carry the communal purse.That just doesn’t ring true to me, and in fact we have some remnants of a different story about Judas contained in the gospel stories.

Our view of the last supper has been influenced based on our own ideas of eating and those presented to us by DaVinci in his work of the last supper, than by the reality.  The disciples would not have been sitting at one long table, instead they would have been sitting at what is known as a triclinium, tri being three, and so it would have been a table shaped like a U.  People would have sat around the table and the center would have been empty so that servers could reach everyone.  There would not have been chairs, instead the table would have been situated close to the ground and people would recline on pillows with their legs behind, and one hand resting on the table.  In addition, the seating arrangements would not be as we would normally think of them with the host and the most important person sitting at the head of the tables, but instead the situation would look like this:

The 1 indicates where the host would sit, the most important guest of honor would sit where the 2 is, and the second most important guest of honor would be in the number 3 spot, and then the rest would be arranged around the table accordingly. (And yes, I know that there are only 9 spot here, but all 13 would have been sitting at the same table).  When you know this, then James and John’s request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in the kingdom begins to make more sense because of this very arrangement.

So with this in mind, listen to what we hear in the gospel of John “‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.” (John 13:21-26)  Luke says it is the one whose hand is on the table who will betray him, but all of them would have had hands on the table, so that isn’t helpful.  But in Matthew he also says that the one who will betray him is the one who dips his hand into the bowl with me, which, means only one person who could do this, and he is the one who is sitting in the position of honor.  Now we might assume that Peter would sit in the position of honor, but this tells us that it was in fact Judas.  What also seems very puzzling to me, and to lots of others over the ages, is that if Jesus did indeed say who was to betray him that night, and it would have been obvious who it was, why did the disciples do nothing to stop him first of all?  And I also think it’s important to remember that according to Matthew and Mark the disciples wondered who it could be, and wondered if it could be them.

So why did Judas betray Jesus, and what did he betray? I don’t think we’ll ever know the real reason, but that doesn’t stop us from speculating.  As I already mentioned, John and Matthew would have us believe that Judas did it out of greed.  Mark does not give a motive, and Luke tells us that Satan entered into Judas.  Now for Luke this continues from his story of Jesus’ temptation, because Luke says “when the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time,” and this appears to be it.  Now one of the problems with saying that the devil made him do or saying that Judas had to do this as part of God’s divine saving action  removes any responsibility from Judas.  How can we blame Judas or hold him responsible if in fact he wasn’t responsible either because the devil made him do it or because God made him do it?  There is no exercise of free will in either of those scenarios, and therefore it’s tough to blame Judas.

A more likely reason for the betrayal is because of Judas’ conception of the Messiah didn’t match who Jesus was.  The term messiah, which means anointed one, and when translated into Greek becomes Christos, or Christ, was a title given to someone, not a proper name, and there were many different conception of who the messiah or who the Christ would be.  The first would be that of a great military and political ruler, who would throw off Roman rule and return Israel to its rightful place, and that God’s promise to David would be fulfilled and that his descendants would sit on the throne.  Others thought the messiah would be a divinely inspired priest who would return Israel to proper obeyance of God’s law. The third understanding would be a divine-being who would come to judge the world, overthrow the evil powers of the world and bring God’s kingdom here on earth.

While Jesus talked about all of these things, he was none of these things, because none of the understandings of the Messiah in the first century included someone who would suffer and die. In fact death on a cross would be the indicator that Jesus was not God’s chosen one. Now we don’t understand that now because we have 2000 years of interpreting scripture to fit our understanding of who Jesus is, but most of the passages we use don’t mention the messiah, nor were they seen as messianic passages, until Christians interpreted them in that very way. That is why Peter rebuked Jesus when Jesus said that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die and then be raised on the third day. So some have speculated that Judas betrayed Jesus to try and force him to become that messiah, to become the one who would throw off the Romans, and having the Romans arrest him would force him to become the military and political leader he expected. While I think there some strength to this argument, we are not told anything that Judas did to follow up on this, such as being among the crowds trying to rile them up to rise up, or trying to raise an army to do the same thing, so this answer has some weaknesses.

But, I think there is a different answer, one argued for convincingly to me by Bart Ehrman, who believes that Jesus had been teaching the disciples privately that they would come to rule the new kingdom with him that he had come to proclaim, and that they would sit with him to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.  Ehrman argues that Judas and the other disciples incorporated this idea into their own understanding of messiahship, not really hearing what Jesus was telling them, and so when they got to Jerusalem and Judas found out that what he had expected was not going to take place, and that instead Jesus was going to be killed that Judas became disillusioned and so told the chief priests that Jesus had called himself the king of the Jews, that he said he would bring in a new kingdom and that the other disciples would rule with him.  That is the only thing that makes sense with Jesus’ death, of Pontius Pilate asking Jesus if he is king of the Jews, the charge for which he was killed, and the title that was put above him on the cross, but never something that Jesus proclaims of himself publically, at least in the synoptic gospels, and for this the gospel of John needs to be kept separately.  Nothing that Jesus was proclaiming publically would have been things to get the Romans upset and force them to do something about him, and so the high priests needed Judas to provide information that would force the Romans to conclude that Jesus was a threat and put an end to his ministry, and the charge that cost Jesus his life that he was a threat to the empire appears to have come from Judas.

There are differences in the reports of what Judas does after the betrayal, and as much as some people might try to reconcile them, they simply can’t be reconciled.  Matthew tells us that Judas, when he saw what was to happen to Jesus, that he was to be killed, repented and took the money back to the priests and elders and then went and hanged himself in remorse.  I wonder if maybe Jesus had said something to Judas like what he said to Peter and we covered last week, when he says when you turn back, when you repent, go and strengthen your brothers.  We of course might not know that information because Judas didn’t survive to tell us.  Matthew says that Judas repented, but his guilt was too much for him to live with.  In Acts, which was written by Luke, we are told that Judas used the money he received and bought a plot of land, and that he died on the land after falling and having his guts burst open.  It is not clear if this is the result of punishment by God, or at Judas’ own hand.

So we conclude by wondering what is it that Judas can teach us, what can we learn from this story.  Last week when we looked at Peter’s denial I said that we might have some sympathy with Peter when we think of the times in which we have not lived up to what we said we would do, or when we too had denied each other or God in so many different ways.  But, we also know denials are very different from betrayals. If you’ve been a live for a while, then there is a great likelihood that you have been betrayed in some way, or had something done to you that you perceived as a betrayal, by someone you love or someone close to you. And because they are close to you, and the very people you expect not to do something like that to you, these are the wounds that hurt more than other. When we feel that we have been stabbed in the back by someone we loved and trusted, we wonder how it could have ever happened, how we could have allowed it to happen, and we try and put up walls to try and make sure that we never allow it to happen again. These are the wounds that are hard to forgive. While we might be able to easily say, as Paul does in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and yet at the same time we can say, or at least live our lives proclaiming, that there are some things that can separate us from each other. There are things that we think are unforgiveable, that we apparently have higher and much more stringent levels of forgiveness than does God. And I most certainly include myself in that, as there are some hurts and betrayals that strike so deeply that I have yet to be able to let go of them. But when we begin thinking that we must also remember, the great likelihood is that we have also hurt and wounded and even betrayed, just as we have been hurt, wounded, and betrayed and if we want to be forgiven we must also forgive. Which is what I think the story of Judas comes down to.

Rev. Ray Anderson recalls seeing some graffiti one time in San Francisco which said “Judas come home – all is forgiven.”  And so he wondered, was Judas forgiven?  What are the limits of God’s forgiveness, and could Judas possibly be included?  I think the answer is yes, that even Judas can and was forgiven for his actions, just as Peter was, and I believe that not only because of what Paul writes to the Romans, and not only because of the fact that Matthew tells us that Judas repented for his actions, but also for the fact of what happens immediately before Judas leaves to carry out his act of betrayal, and that is that Judas participates in the first communion celebration.  Jesus doesn’t do it after Judas leaves, he doesn’t tell Judas to leave first, and he doesn’t say that this doesn’t apply to Judas.  Instead Jesus takes the bread and he breaks it and he says this is my body which is given for you, and the first person he serves is Judas, and then he takes the cup and he says this is the blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins, and then the first person he gives it to is Judas.  I think Judas shows us the power of the cross, and Judas shows us the power and extent of God’s forgiveness.

But, based on Matthew’s account we must also wonder if Judas ever truly understood that forgiveness for himself. Matthew tells us that Judas repented for his actions, just as Peter did, but rather than being able to go and strengthen his brothers as Peter did, he instead went and hung himself. It has been said that not forgiving others is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to be hurt, and not forgiving ourselves is even worse, because it’s like drinking a double portion. Now forgiveness for ourselves and for others does not come easily, or freely, we must seek it, we must turn around, we must repent, but then we must also be willing to receive. We must be willing to let go and to let God’s grace and love and forgiveness overwhelm us, and flow through us, and flow over us. What I see in the story of Judas is not the personification of evil, not of the worst things that we can do or be, but instead I see in it the story of God’s love and of God’s forgiveness, and the reminder of a constant theme this lent that we all fall short of the glory of God, but that God loves us and that God forgives us because God wants to be in relation with us, and that we are called to remember that not only when we see the cross, but when we take the bread and we receive the cup, the same thing received by all the disciples, including Judas, as God’s love given for us and poured out for us by the gift of God’s son.

1 comment:

  1. I am the one who wrote the signs in San Francisco: COME HOME, JUDAS - ALL IS FORGIVEN. J.C."
    Just at a time when I was terribly betrayed by my own closest friend, I had the idea that even Jesus would have forgiven Judas.