For the season of Lent, we have been focusing on the spiritual discipline of listening, listening to God for direction on our lives and the future of our church, listening to one another, to the concerns, fears, and passions which we have. This morning, I want us to listen carefully to the life of Judas. Now, this is a much more difficult task than we’d like to imagine. We are well-schooled as Christians. That means that over the years we have been trained to perceive Judas differently than the rest of the disciples. We want to picture Judas as one who is uniquely evil, because then we can know that we would not and cannot betray Jesus. We want to see Judas as a monster because we don’t want him to be too much like us. So we naturally picture Judas different than all the other disciples.
I don’t know if you remember, but many years ago, quite a few of us gathered over at Alan’s to watch Jesus Christ Superstar. And what I like most about the rock opera is how it forces us to enter into the life of Judas. If you remember in the movie, only Judas is black. In the 70’s, this decision caused quite a controversy. But the writers wanted to force us to recognize this tendency which we have – how we write off and look down upon Judas, how we separate Judas so that we don’t have to take him seriously. So much of the passion play is an attempt to show us that in reality, Judas isn’t that much different than us. The play makes us ask ourselves: Would we do the same? Would we really act that much differently than Judas, if we were in his shoes?
So this morning, I want to take a closer look at Judas. I want to listen carefully to the story of this one man’s personal tragedy. As we do so, I believe we will find out that Judas is all too much like us. But before we do, let us pray:
God, give us ears to hear as we try to listen to Judas’ life. To learn from his dreams, his passions, his deepest longings and his mistakes. Help us to not see him as a monster, but as a human being with good intentions and misguided loves. And may his life help us see again the beauty and extravagance of yours. Amen.
How do you picture Judas? I like to picture Judas as a sly man, one who is always searching for the best way of getting Israel what it wants and needs. One who is deeply passionate about freeing Israel, about liberating God’s people and getting rid of Rome. He is an individual who dared to risk everything to work with Jesus in order to make this happen. And I think Judas probably saw himself as a sharper and altogether more signifiant figure than the journeyman disciples. He was always looking to theorize, analyze, and generalize; he was reluctant to take Jesus at face value, always searching to see the extra maneuverings at work whenever Jesus was healing or teaching.
As time goes on, Judas grows to really appreciate Jesus. He is moved and inspired by the parables, awed by the healings. He cannot deny that God’s kingdom and power are present in this man, and yet, you can sense his mounting frustration as he continually watches Jesus waste opportunity after opportunity to seize power and control. As Jesus keeps letting these life changing possibilities slip through his fingers. And I’m sure Judas hated the fact that he was always left out of Jesus’ inner circle. Seriously, Jesus why would you ever pick those blubbering idiots, especially Peter, over me. Can’t you see that they are holding you back from organizing your movement?
I see the turning moment in Judas’ life as our lectionary text for this morning – the anointing at Bethany. In this story, Jesus is sitting down to dinner with Lazarus, Martha, and a bunch of friends. This meal takes place during the final week of Jesus’ life. And during dinner, Mary who is Martha and Lazarus’ sister, takes a full pound of exquisite perfume and pours it all over Jesus’ feet.
While this is happening, our friend, Brother Judas, happens to be lurking around the back of the party, keeping an eye on the goings-on. Clearly, he has got a better sense of the market price of perfume than your average disciple. He takes one look at it, recognizes that a pound is an astronomical amount of perfume and reckons that it is worth 300 denarii. That number probably doesn’t mean much to us, but a denarius is an average daily wage. So we are talking about almost a year’s worth of wages. This perfume, in our economy, would be worth somewhere between $30,000 – 40,000. That is an unbelievable amount of money to be dumping on someone’s feet.
Judas is indignant. What a criminal waste, he proclaims: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Whatever the text proclaims about Judas’ personal motives, you miss the force of the story unless you recognize that he has a very important point. Here Jesus is letting someone squander an obscene amount of money by just pouring it on the floor. “What on earth does Mary think she’s doing? And what on earth do you think you’re doing letting her, Jesus?”
All Judas can see is that here Jesus wastes another opportunity. The money could have been harnessed for the growth of the popular movement. It could have been used to feed hungry mouths. You can hear Judas proclaiming: Stop worrying about this pious nonsense when there’s a revolutionary movement we have to organize Jesus.
After this last blunder, Judas has had enough. His patience has worn out. He is tired of Jesus’ style of leadership and his refusal to seize the initiative. He is jealous of Jesus’ magnetic personality. He is furious that Jesus seems more interested in making beautiful gestures instead of seizing the power available. So Judas decides that there is only one option left. He is going to look for an opportunity to force Jesus’ hand and make him once and for all, seize the power he has been refusing. The only option left is to trap Jesus into a corner, and force him to act. I believe that Judas betrays Jesus out of a twisted, impatient love. It’s a clumsy effort of manipulation where Judas says: “Fine if you are not going to do what I know is good for you, then, I’ll just have to force you into a position where you have no alternative.”
So Judas leads the chief priests’ henchmen to Gethsemane, and kisses Jesus. That precious sign of intimacy is extremely important. Judas could have just led the Jewish leader to Jesus. He could have maintained his distance. Stood to the side, shaking his head at Jesus, expressing his disappointment. But the kiss shows us that Judas truly loves Jesus; Judas truly wants what is best for his dear friend. However, Jesus is failing to do what is necessary. He is failing to grasp his full potential; he needs a little kick to push him in the right direction. So he brings the henchmen to Jesus and kisses him, saying, “Jesus I love you. One day you are going to thank me for doing this.”
I completely understand where Judas is coming from. We all have had friends or family members who continued to make bad decisions that could have negative repercussions on the rest of their lives. The decisions that they were making were not in their long-term best interests. Out of love, we felt the responsibility to step in, to force their hand and give them a swift kick in the butt to set them back on the right path. We risk upsetting them, and we provoke them in such a way that enables change.
The garden is Judas’ clumsy act of intervention. Jesus will not be able to escape the chief priests this time. In the garden, there is no place for Jesus to run and retreat. He will have to overtake the powerful forces, at last, Judas thinks. He will have to rise up and start the revolution now. This act will force Jesus to free Israel, to take control of power and finally kick the ruling forces out of Jerusalem. It’s the perfect plan of manipulation. I’m sure Judas had a smirk on his face believing that he was a genius. That history would some day reward him for taking this great risk, for finally provoking Jesus. Yet, in an instant, everything backfires; Jesus refuses to take up arms: “Put your sword back in place! All who draw the sword will die by the sword!” In a flash, he is handed over to the Romans, which means certain death.
After this, Judas is completely discombobulated. He never imagined this turn of events. After three years of planning, scheming, of devotion and love for this man Jesus, all he has left to bring about the kingdom of God is thirty measly pieces of silver. Beside himself, he goes back to the chief priests and says: “It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. This isn’t what I intended. I was supposed to be the hero!” What do the chief priests do? They laugh and say: “You thought Jesus could be your tool. Turns out, you were ours.”
The story of Judas is a tragic story of a man who sincerely believed he was doing what was right and needed, only to see everything completely unravel at the end. He wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t uniquely evil. He was a human who was not much different than each and every one of us.
I hope by now that you see that Judas was a man of dreams, of passion, of vision. His greatest aspiration in life was to “make a difference.” He craved a life that mattered – a life that affected not only the destiny of Israel but the destiny of all humankind. And … he got one. Just not the one he was hoping for. Judas had a deep friendship with Jesus, and he didn’t know what to do with it. So he betrayed Jesus in order to get what he wanted.
This is exactly what betrayal means. It’s when we do not believe our lives matter, and instead go looking for ways to make them matter. It’s when we care more about our own ideas and lives than we do about others, especially the people we love. It’s when we cannot cope with the lives in front of us, and have to reassure ourselves by controlling other people’s lives. So we coerce, we manipulate, we treat others as our pawns in order to make our own lives secure. It’s when our real commitments lie not with others, but only with ourselves.
Adultery is betrayal because it shows you care more about your own desires than you do about your marriage. Sharing someone else’s secret shows that you would rather impress a third party instead of valuing the intimate gift a friend shared with you. The same is true with Judas’ kiss. It shows that his love for Jesus, this deep friendship was not enough. He greedily was looking for more, for his desires for power, control, and security to be met. Judas could not imagine friendship with God as everything; instead he regards this friendship as a mere means to a more important end. Judas’ aspiration to make a difference prevented him from losing himself, from abandoning himself to others.
Jesus, however, had a different approach. He refused to draw others into his power; instead, he gave his life into the hands of others. He loved his disciples, even Judas, and by loving them, he gave them power over him. He allowed them to betray him, even to the point of death. From the very beginning of his life, Jesus lived a life of self-abandonment. From the very start, he’d been giving his life away. In Gethsemane, he was given into the hands of those who were using Israel for their greater purposes. On the cross, he chose to give his life away. Jesus refuses to seize the initiative. Just the opposite: he saves us by giving his life away.
And Mary, in our story for today, epitomizes this approach as well. She pours out her whole self – financial, emotional, social – to show her love for her friend. She performs this outrageous and yet beautiful gesture not out of a desire to manipulate Jesus or to gain a word of affirmation and gratification. Friendship with God is enough. She gives up all control, she breaks societal norms, and wastes everything to demonstrate her devotion and her willingness to follow Jesus in this life of self-abandonment.
Judas just can’t grasp acts like Jesus and Mary. And that is because he cannot be under the control of other people. That is why the very last act of Judas’ life is to commit suicide. The second he realizes that he has been manipulated into being a pawn in someone else’s game, that everything he has worked for has just been thwarted, he performs the only action left within his realm of control. He takes his life. Judas always had to be in control; he always had to grasp after his own desires. For him, being under the control of people, especially people he now sees are empty, is the ultimate disaster.
But that is not the type of life which Jesus and Mary demonstrate for us. For them, life revolves around relationships, around friendships. Jesus has no purpose beyond making, maintaining, and restoring relationships. These relationships are not a means to something more important. They’re all there is. For ever. Jesus is God becoming our companion and restoring the whole creation’s companionship with God, for ever. Period. There is no other motive. We aren’t pawns on God’s chessboard. We are friends God is seeking to make. And the only way to be a friend is to give your life away. Not usually all at one go; not always as extravagantly as Mary’s act of devotion. But Jesus’ life is one that epitomizes friendship. He never had any other motive than making us and all of creation his friends forever.
I have a feeling that we are all, a lot more like Judas, than we would ever like to admit. We long to make a difference. We crave lives that matter. We don’t cope well with our lives being out of control so we look for ways to reassure ourselves by controlling other people’s lives. And we find ourselves tempted to step into the life of a loved one in order to apply a bit of pressure in order to push them back on the track which we believe is best for them. Each of these desires or actions prevent us from losing ourselves, from abandoning ourselves to others. Each of these actions prevent us from true friendship.
And that means, like Judas, we often betray God. For friendship with God is not enough. We do treat God as a means to our more important ends. God is often a way of fulfilling our desires to matter, to be important. Like Judas, we do make God into an instrument of our clumsy, misguided attempts to find our own security by controlling others. But not God; God never will betray us. That’s what the life of Jesus shows us. It’s impossible; it’s not in God’s nature. Jesus hands his life over to us. Like Mary, he extravagantly gives up everything for us. He lives a life of complete abandonment, which simply means it’s a life of complete friendship.