Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Here is my sermon from Sunday. Part four in our series on the people of the passion. The text was Luke 22:1-6, 14-16, 21-27, 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, “then fall, Caesar.”  That might be one of the most famous scenes of betrayal in history, except, of course, for the one we just heard between Jesus and Judas, but I have to be honest and say that I think that Judas might be one of the most tragic and misunderstood characters of history, maybe especially in Judas’ understanding of himself.

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 today is referred to as Judas Iscariot, or Judas of Iscariot, Judas the one called Iscariot, among several others, 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 “man 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 that is true, it would mean that Judas was different and separate from the other disciples from the very beginning.

Some scholars have speculated that Iscariot 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, including the high priest Jonathan, using hidden knives, from where they get their name.  Another option is that Iscariot comes from an Aramaic word meaning “red color,” so maybe Judas was a red head, and we all know about red heads.  In the end, where most scholars who have worked on this issue end up, is that while they may have their personal preference, the truth is that we simply don’t know what the term Iscariot 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, and that he came to Jesus, as did the others, as answer to a prayer that Jesus offers. 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, something hinted at by Matthew as well.  Now this has always struck me as being a little incongruent with things, because it seems like Jesus was a pretty good judge of character, of who people truly were, so would Jesus allow someone he didn’t trust carry their money? Instead, it seems to me you don’t give your community’s money to someone you don’t trust; you give it to the person you trust the most.  So I think what we have happening with the story of Judas is that we have stories being told about him through the lens of his betrayal, and yet we also have some remnants of a different story about Judas, and this especially found in the story of the last supper.

Although daVinci makes us think otherwise, 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. Thus when Jesus says that the betrayers hand is on the table it doesn’t really tell us anything because nearly all of them, if not all, would have had their hand on the table. This matches the idea presented in Matthew and Mark that when Jesus makes the announcement that one of them will betray him, all of the disciples begin asking if it is them.  We tend to forget that piece of information, that all of the disciples wonder if they could be the ones who do it.  We also forget that Luke introduces Judas as the one “who became a traitor.”  That is, this is not in Judas’s character, it’s not who he is, but who he becomes in one moment.

Now the seating arrangement in the ancient world also tells us something significant about Judas, because people did not sit around tables, or arrange themselves, the way we do now. Instead the situation would look something 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)  Matthew also has Jesus saying 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, and that the beloved disciple, commonly believed to be John, is on the other side.

So why did Judas betray Jesus?  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.  A more likely reason for the betrayal is because 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.  It is not a proper name, and there were many different conceptions 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.  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.

But no understanding of the Messiah before Jesus 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 scriptural interpretation 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, religious and political leader he expected.  Judas wants to take matters into his own hands and force Jesus to do what Judas, and the others, think he should be doing. He thinks he’s doing God’s work here, and it’s a trap we all fall into.  Richard Rohr said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but that the opposite of faith is control. Rather than trusting God, and Jesus, Judas wants control of the situation, he wants to take control of his life, and in doing so he also thinks he is doing what God wants to do as well, because of course God is on our side.  Isn’t this true of all of us?

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.  But Matthew does say that Judas repents, but his guilt was too much for him to live with, and as a result, he did not live long enough to truly understand who Jesus was and what he came to do, that he came to free us, as we say, from our slavery to sin and to death. That death is no longer the inevitable outcome of sin, that while all will die with Adam, that all are raised with Christ.

I think that is the major difference between what Judas and Peter do, is that while both repent of their actions, although we never see or hear of Peter’s repentance for denying Christ, only Peter accepts forgiveness.  For Judas, the shame of what he has done is too much for him to bear, it’s too much for him to carry, he becomes in his own mind, and in the minds of the other disciples, the one who betrayed Christ. But that is not who he is; we are always more than the worst things that we have done in our lives, regardless of what that thing is.  It’s possible that the disciples would have never been able to see him as anything other than the betrayer, but that’s because giving him that title, scapegoating him, allows Judas not only to carry his own sins, but to carry the sins of the others as well, because that is one of the roles that scapegoats play. They allow us to absolve ourselves of our own actions and place them on the shoulders of others. But is that how God sees us?

In his letter to the Romans, Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God. 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 things that not only separate others from each other, but that they separate us from God as well.  There are things that we think are unforgiveable, that we cannot forgive others for, or even worse, that we cannot forgive ourselves for, because apparently we have higher and much more stringent levels of forgiveness than does God.  And I think this is what the story of Judas comes down to in the end.

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?  Are there limits to 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.

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, although that’s certainly there because every relationship contains within it the seeds of betrayal.  But, instead I see in the story of Judas a story of God’s love and of God’s forgiveness, just like with Peter, 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.  But, and here is the most important part, to receive that love, we must learn to forgive ourselves, to stop holding ourselves up to a higher standard than God. Forgive others and forgive ourselves, and so I pray that this morning as we come forward to the table that we might not only ask God for forgiveness, but also to forgive ourselves when we take the bread and we receive the cup, that we remember it is a reminder of God’s love poured out for us, that it was first received by all the disciples, including Judas, and now this gift is being given, offered to us as well. May we learn its message, and accept its message of forgiveness, in the deepest parts of our souls. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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