thinking theology

Good Friday

Today we are going to give the Judas Iscariot role some attention. Some commentators suspect that the character of Judas is a fiction created by the early church to show the division developing between Judaism and the Jesus sect. Others think Iscariot is derived from the Sicarii: Jewish assassins, terrorists or freedom fighters, in modern parlance. Indeed, all the gospels say that the chief priest and elders were conspiring to kill Jesus.

Now, in this slightly less anti-Semitic era, we are trying to rehabilitate the portrait of Judas. Whether an icon of division or am ancient subversive, I do not think this issue can be resolved either by the improved translation of The Gospel of Judas or by historical redaction. But something is going on here and I think we might want to look at this in concert with my previous reflections this Holy Week about salvation and choices.

I cannot say how this story about Judas began but in the gospels it developed from Judas being a disgruntled disciple to him being greedy and, later in early commentary (Papias), self-indulgent. I would like to think about Judas tonight in a different way, a way that acknowledges these stories but also suggests that the literary/narrative root of them might be quite different.

Initially, the final straw for Judas in the gospel of Mark is Jesus’ interaction with the nameless woman (Mark 14) who anoints him. All the disciples are scandalized by this but it motivates Judas to betray Jesus and the others. Does he do it because he is exasperated at Jesus’ lack of aggression? because he suspects Jesus of lax morality? because no one will listen to him about the direction of the group? We do not know. By the time of the writing of the gospel of John, however, Judas is greedy, selfish, and crafty.

I’m suggesting that there is another way to read these developed texts by peeking behind them for metaphor and meaning. What if Judas’ actions can be reviewed differently? What is unveiled by examining what are definitely oddities in the text.

Firstly, let’s think about the supper. In the gospels that include this, Jesus gives the bread and wine that he has blessed as signs of his life and mission to Judas. What do we usually think about sharing the bread and the cup? We are one body? At that point, Judas is filled with the Satan (see below) and empowered to do what must come next. Without Judas’ actions, would the trial have ensued? Jesus collaborates in setting in motion the train of events. Maybe Jesus and Judas share the frustration that the authorities will not confront Jesus. Maybe Jesus wants a showdown and is willing to gamble his own mortality to achieve it.

The name Satan is next on our radar. By the time John is writing, Satan and the Persian devil had become intertwined. But in Hebrew scripture, the Satan is an emissary of God, empowered to test the human heart, and the integrity of the righteous. It is not a proper name. The Satan tests Job for purity of piety to see if it dissolves in the fires of suffering and loss. When the Satan first appears to Jesus, it is to tempt him with worldly power, with an easier path to achieving his noble goals. When Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from risking his own life, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me Satan.” And finally, at the last, Judas brings in the armed forces to frighten Jesus, but it does not work. With this act, Judas has fulfilled his role as tempter and tester, but it is a bitter role.

The third ‘oddity’ is the kiss of peace between Judas and Jesus, an action completely unnecessary in terms of identification. I think it is, instead, a gesture of mutual forgiveness between two people acting with congruence in what they believe to be God’s will. Indeed, both now and in the early church, the kiss is a symbol of peace, of unity despite difference, of love despite disagreement, of forgiveness. How do we miss this in the gospel story? Arriving with armed people would be unlikely to fool Jesus into thinking no trouble would ensue. Instead Judas offers the kiss and Jesus receives it.

This is not an easy story. It makes us uncomfortable on many levels. We cannot always know if our challenges are noble or self-serving. We cannot ever know, absolutely, if we are serving with integrity. We can never be sure whether any decision, in the long view, is harmful or healing. No one wants to be Judas and no one wants the angelic prosecutor being inserted into our minds. But the alternative is to do nothing. This was Peter’s choice. Deny, be self-preserving, be safe. In fact, most of us are encouraged to be nice and mice.

It is later, at Pentecost, that the remaining disciples are empowered. Perhaps they did not have Judas’ strength of faith until then. Perhaps Judas did not know how to resist Jesus’ seemingly mad plan. We will never know, but we can search our own hearts, our own choices. We can demonize Judas, or we can forgive him with compassion for his tough choices. We can belittle Peter, or we can acknowledge his fear of standing up and out, as part of our own journey.

Who is being saved in this passage and for what? How, when we hear this story, are we being saved and for what? What does the story of Judas tell us about our own choices and those of others? I am going to ask you to exchange the peace now, thinking about the complexity of some relationships and the mystery of why we are all here in others.

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