Here’s how you know something has cultural currency: when its characters or symbols become standard images for a whole host of other things in the culture at large. For example, everything from the Soviet Bloc to the New York Yankees that has been described as an “evil empire” it is an image of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars that is evoked. When people speak of going into uncharted and perhaps disturbing territory as “going down the rabbit hole,” we know that the cultural reach of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is secure. And if ever anyone calls someone else a “Judas” we all know what that means—a betrayer, backstabber, traitor. In fact, so great is the cultural reach of this story that betrayers are much more likely to be referred to as Judases than as Brutuses, however plaintive and betrayed Julius Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?” might have been.
In the movie Braveheart, when William Wallace is bribed, he replies, “A lordship and titles. Gold. That I should become Judas?” Judas references abound in cinema with some famous ones in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and even SuperBad.
Judas has achieved archetype status in the culture. The betrayer. The Faithless One.
It makes Judas a compelling and intriguing character, even though he’s very thinly drawn in the gospels. Perhaps it’s why he’s the object of fascination in Jesus Christ Superstar, an opera in which he is practically the main character. In Zeferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, he is presented as the idealist, tricked into betrayal. But the name has over these many years become synonymous with betrayal all the same.
II. THE CONSEQUENCES
There have been some grave consequences to that identification. Judas’ name is more properly rendered as “Judah” and is basically the same word—y’hudah—that means both “Judah” and “Jew.” It was no coincidence that Judas’ infamy contributed to anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews as concerned with money (Judas, after all, kept the purse and betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver) and as untrustworthy. Indeed, sometimes the anti-Jewish message is intimately connected with the caricature of Judas. I once saw a “Christian” magazine include a description of the disciples as “all gentiles (non-Jews)” except for Judas. According to this magazine, the only Jewish disciple Jesus had was the one who sold him out.
But there is another consequence no less problematic. See, we can imagine that Jesus had his betrayer. Judas was to Jesus what Brutus was to Caesar. What Benedict Arnold was to George Washington. His personal foil and traitor.
And that diminishes the fact that we are all betrayers of Christ. Oh, no! we think. Had we been there, we’d have been faithful. Had we been there, such a thing would never have happened. Perhaps. Perhaps I might not have gone running to the High Priest with a tip about where they might arrest him. But I am no less guilty of betraying Jesus.
Every time I avoid eye contact with a homeless person because I’d rather just get to the CVS without having to confront that reality, I betray Christ. Every time I ally myself with the powerful over the powerless, I betray Christ. Every time I hear someone say something racist or hurtful and don’t speak up for fear of making the situation awkward, I betray Christ. Every time I react out of hate and anger rather than love and mercy, I betray Christ. Every time I ignore the plight of the poor, the marginalized, the suffering, I betray Christ.
The danger with the Judas archetype is that we think betraying Christ only looks like selling out information for money. We betray Jesus in so many ways.
III. THE TEXT
So, why, then, in the scheme of things is Judas’ betrayal so lifted up? On balance, it was just the first of many, many betrayals of Christ. Why is it so special?
Because, it’s not even that special in the text. We all know that Jesus predicts that one of his disciples will betray him. In John’s gospel, Jesus even knows which disciple it is. But there is another prediction that Jesus makes, right after the passage we read earlier:
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.John 13:36-38
Jesus predicts that Judas will betray him but also predicts that Simon Peter will deny him. Three times. There is nothing in the text to indicate that Jesus considers one to be worse than the other. They are both rejections of the relationship that Jesus has had with these men. One betrays, the other denies. One might argue that Judas’ betrayal was at least necessary to the divine purpose at hand; indeed Jesus even tells Judas to go do what he has to do and do it quickly. But Peter’s denial cuts to the core. To have been Jesus’ chief disciple, the Rock, and to deny even knowing him.
And yet, Judas becomes synonymous with villainy while Peter gets to be the first Pope and the doorkeeper to Heaven.
IV. WHAT JUDAS DID WRONG
See, I think Judas did do something wrong that Peter didn’t do. But it’s not his betrayal. As I said, we’re all betrayers of Christ.
No, I think what Judas did wrong was not the betrayal, it’s that he never even allowed for the possibility of redemption. There are two traditions about Judas: in Matthew’s gospel he hangs himself; in Acts he falls headlong and he bursts open in the middle. He dies shortly afterward either at his own hand or the hand of Providence. But neither end embraces the idea that Judas might have been… forgiven. Least of all by Judas himself.
It’s not that Judas betrayed Jesus. It’s that he never trusted in Jesus’ mercy. Peter denied Jesus three times and yet, was able to accept Jesus’ forgiveness, going on to be the great leader of the early church.
Tonight’s service is in the spot that is usually when we have our Thursday evening Healing Service. It is a service of prayer, communion, and reflection. A service at which we reflect on the idea of the healing power of God’s grace for our physical and spiritual ills. I have often noted at this service that one of our biggest obstacles to receiving healing is our unwillingness to believe that we are worthy of that healing. There are some stains upon our soul that we feel are never coming off. We imagine that our blemishes are unworthy of mercy.
We are more like Judas than we realize.
Peter, as broken and ashamed as he was, still stayed with the other disciples, still sought that connection. And when it was offered, he accepted it. It was offered three times, by the way, and he accepted it three times. Judas never gave himself the opportunity. So convinced of his own brokenness he sought to end it all. So convinced of his own unworthiness, he never even gave Jesus the opportunity to offer him redemption.
I think the church has been too hard on Judas. We have demonized him, used him as an anti-Semitic mascot, and have imagined that it was he alone who betrayed Jesus.
We have all betrayed Jesus. And we all know it. Sometimes we know it so well that we imagine that we have fallen outside the free offer of grace, as Judas surely did. But, see, Judas was one of Jesus’ disciples, as are we. He should have known better, as should we. He’d seen Jesus going around the Galilee for months offering this grace to everyone: Syro-Phoenician women, Roman Centurions, Samaritans, demoniacs, lepers, adulteresses, prostitutes, sinners of all kinds. And yet he didn’t get it, as we so often don’t. He didn’t get that no matter how deep his brokenness was, that offer of love and acceptance was still there. Standing there right in front of him.
But we do the same thing. So, I won’t be too hard on Judas. Instead, I think I understand him better than we might think. And so, I’ll try to learn what he was unable to learn. And the next time I gaze into myself and don’t like what I see, the next time I come face to face with my own monstrosity and brokenness, I will not recoil in horror nor will I abandon all hope. I will seek to remember always that there is nothing that can separate us from Christ’s love, no matter how broken we think we are, Jesus seeks reconciliation with us. In the end, when we stand before the Throne of Grace, we will be there standing alongside of Judas, forgiven and restored.
The hardest part of forgiveness is actually learning to accept it. It is we who become convinced that we are unforgivable. It is we who imagine that we have committed the unpardonable sin. But we are in relationship not with one who judges us for our failures to be perfectly faithful, but one who is in relationship even in spite of our faithlessness, who even knows beforehand of our betrayals, our denials. And who, all the same, stands before us with open arms extending us mercy. To you. To me. To Judas. To all of us.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supperJesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”