Wednesday of Holy Week April 8, 2009

by Rev. Elizabeth Musselman
Campus Minister, Augustana Lutheran Church, Chicago

Grace to you and peace from our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Apparently, it's in fashion these days to sympathize with Judas.  So says Adam Kirsch in last Sunday's New York Times in a review of Susan Gubar's new book, Judas: A Biography.  This new book, a history of exegesis of Judas written by a feminist literary critic, begins with the biblical stories. 

And we know that the biblical stories of Judas are sparse and ambiguous.  The common thread in the Judas narratives is that he betrayed Jesus, handing him over to the authorities for crucifixion, but when it comes to the details there's not consensus even among the gospels.  For example, in Luke and John, Judas is possessed by the devil.  In Luke and Mark, Judas betrays Jesus to the chief priests before they offer him money; in Matthew, he betrays Jesus in order to make money; in John, Judas doesn't make money from the betrayal but had been stealing from the common purse all along. 

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss; in John, Judas hands him over in passive silence.  In Matthew, Judas repents and hangs himself after returning the 30 pieces of silver to the temple.  In Acts, Judas uses the money to buy a field, in which he immediately falls down (or swells up, depending on how you translate the Greek), bursting open in the middle with all of his bowels gushing out.

All of this is very interesting, but the point of Susan Gubar's new Judas biography isn't to reveal biblical contradictions.  The point is that it's no longer in vogue to regard Judas with hatred or vilify him as pure evil; or to imagine him enduring the most painful kinds of suffering, as we see in Acts and medieval artwork and Dante's Inferno; or to conflate the name and character of Judas with the Jews, as many Christian theologians have done through history. 

The point is that ever since the famous painting of Judas' kiss of betrayal in which Caravaggio paints himself among the arresting officers, interpreters have been more likely to admit that we too are among the betrayers of Jesus, we too have sold him into death with our sins, and if we are to see anything in the blurry face of Judas it should be ourselves.

And yet, it's so easy, and so tempting, to vilify Judas as an antichrist figure in the story of Holy Week.  He's the evil one who steals from the common purse and then has the audacity to sit at dinner next to the friend he's decided to betray.  It's so easy to see in the face of Judas those people who we regard as enemy, perhaps especially those enemies who are distant from us: Hitler and bin Laden; the pedophiles and the drug lords; the Wall Street bankers and the war profiteers.  

It's also easy, and perhaps somewhat therapeutic, to label as Judases the people in our own lives who have caused us pain: friends who've betrayed us out of selfishness or disregard; spouses who are unfaithful to their marriage vows; family members whose psychological weaknesses take everyone down with them-all of those friends or lovers or relatives who have sinned against us in ways that have broken our hearts. 

As I meditated on today's gospel story, I found it far too easy to compile a mental list of the Judases who I know, those people who have betrayed me or my friends.  I found that creating such a list is both gratifying and intensely sad.  It was secretly gratifying to list as a Judas that rotten ex-boyfriend from all those years ago.  But it was sad to realize that some of the people I very much respect and care about are also on that list for breaching trust in their relationships, betraying themselves and the ones who love them. 

My mental list of Judases grew as I pondered the story but-because I was educated at a Lutheran elementary school, a Lutheran college, and a Lutheran seminary-I didn't have to sit with this list very long before my sense of guilt kicked in and the words from the liturgy rang in my head: if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 

Or as Paul puts it, whoever is born into sin is a slave to sin.  That means us.  We too are among the betrayers.  As I pondered my own guilt, I was startled to remember that Judas had loved Jesus in the beginning, so much that he had given up his belongings and his family for the sake of discipleship.  He had loved Jesus before being turned by a complex set of motives that we don't understand but we very likely share: greed, entitlement, narcissism, envy, doubt, fear, uncertainty about the future, simple human weakness.

We look into the story of Judas and we see just how broken we are.  We see ourselves betraying the people we love for inexplicable reasons and then denying responsibility for our actions.  We see ourselves hating those who betrayed us and then letting ourselves be destroyed by our anger. 

Repentance is so incredibly difficult.  And forgiveness is so incredibly difficult.  But the sinful we will always have with us.  The betrayed, the betrayers, the unhappy, the uncertain, the naïve, the greedy, the unmindful, the impulsive, the lonely, the unaware, the selfish, the broken we will always have with us.  They are us.  Surely not I, Lord?  But we already know that it's true: in all of our utterly human complexity, in all of our failures, each of us is Judas.  It doesn't take a New York Times book review to tell us that: we know it in our guts.

The part of the story that the New York Times book review doesn't tell, however, and surely the most important part of the story, is that even betrayal can not thwart God's grace.  As psychologically interesting as Judas is, he's not the most important character in this story.  The one who he betrayed, and the one who we betray each time we hurt each other, is the Christ. 

And even before the Resurrection, in those terrifying days before his imminent death, we see Jesus responding to Judas with a generosity and grace that we know is also for us.  In John's gospel it's a footwashing.  In Matthew and Mark's versions of the story, immediately after he talks with Judas about betrayal, the very next words out of Jesus' mouth are take and eat, this is my body.  And that supper ends with a kiss that really is a kiss of peace, with communities united around bread and wine in spite of betrayal, with enemies forgiven.  "Poured out for you, for the forgiveness of sins."  For you. 

The good news in this story is that the one who Judas betrayed unto death overcame death in order to bring new life to all who would betray him.  This is what Jesus means when he says in John's gospel that he will be glorified.  The Hebrew word for glory means at its root weight or heaviness, and the word glorification in John's gospel is code for suffering.  The heaviness of Christ's glory is his incarnation, his suffering.  He stretched out his arms in suffering in order to free from suffering those who betray him.  The glory of which Jesus speaks in John's gospel is the cross into which Judas will betray him, which is to say, the cross into which we betray him.  But through this cross God absorbs all of our betrayals so that in the empty tomb we will find them transformed, forgiven. 

That's the good news in this story, but it doesn't get us off the hook entirely.  It doesn't make the anguish of Jesus' crucifixion any less troubling, nor does it diminish the pain we cause one another with all of the betrayals of this life.  It doesn't mean we can avoid taking responsibility for the harm we cause each other or for the ways in which we sabotage the gifts God has given us. 

It doesn't mean that we will always be ready to forgive one another or deserving of one another's forgiveness.  These are very serious matters.  It's not okay that we are sinners; it's not okay that we are betrayers; it's not okay that we harm one another.  But as we travel with Jesus toward the cross, even under the weight of our sin we can believe these words that the pastor proclaims during individual confession and forgiveness: by water and the Holy Spirit, God gives you a new birth, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God forgives you all your sins.

We are still the betrayers and the betrayed, the unrepentant and the unforgiving; we are still the sinner that we see when we gaze into the face of Judas.  We're midway through Holy Week; the cross looms large; and we can't stop Friday from coming.  But perhaps during these holy days, looking into the face of Judas as if it were our own, we can glimpse beyond the image of sinner a picture of one who is also forgiven and loved: undeservingly, inexplicably.  Amen.


Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 70, Hebrews 12:1-3, John 13:21-32

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