Reflections on Judas
‘One of you is going to betray me …’ Jn 13.21ff.
We are told they all looked at each other in bewilderment. In Matthew they ask Jesus – ‘surely you don’t me?’ It’s a strange response. Wouldn’t they know if it was them?
Wouldn’t you? Can you betray without knowing it? Possibly.
Religious faith has a disturbing way of leaving us talking and behaving as if we
have no choice or initiative. Because it’s all fate? It’s all foretold? God is in control.
It can look and sound very pious – but it’s actually nothing of the sort.
There is way of reading this story that suggests that Judas had no choice or responsibility.
The text can sound as it was all predestined … his actions ordained elsewhere.
Jesus knew all along what was going to happen.
Judas becomes like a string puppet, manipulated in a role chosen for him ….
If that is true then there is no help for any of us …
We are in a world without choice or freedom, run by a God who is the worst kind of loveless, control freak. But is Jesus really talking as if this is all pre-programmed? Is he really giving his life for the divine equivalent of a computer generated virtual world?
In the stories of this week there are plenty of people who avoid responsibility and making real choices.
* The politician who washes his hands of it all
* Soldiers who are only following orders
* Religions leaders so driven by hate they rig evidence and outcomes.
* Disciples who had promised all and then deny and run away
So what of Judas?
There have been two options on offer:
One – he is guilty as judged. He betrayed Jesus. Church history, like the gospel record, remembers him without pity.
The other – was he a victim. He was used. Our contemporary blame culture would back him to the hilt.
But in John’s account something different is going on.
In that whole account in chapter 13 Judas has a prominent place all the way through. His feet are washed with all the others.
When Peter tried to refuse this he was warned by Jesus ‘unless I do you have no part of me’. Judas didn’t refuse. He is ‘part’ of Jesus.
At the meal too he has significant place.
The betrayal is mentioned twice but Jesus takes a morsel of bread and dips it into the dish and gives it specially, and first, to Judas. In the household Passover meal today this is offered to the most honoured guest.
Then Jesus quietly tells him: ‘Do what you have to do quickly’.
Judas goes out – where ‘it was night’ (13.30). John’s detail. Judas goes into darkness in every sense. But the very next words of Jesus are ‘now is the Son of Man glorified’.
In our Bibles this is a new paragraph – as if a new line of thought. But Greek doesn’t do paragraphs. Here it flows directly from what Judas is doing. Glory flows out of betrayal.
Nothing of Jesus’ behaviour here suggests other than love for Judas. Jesus gives Judas permission do the job that he has to do. The Passion cannot happen without him.
God doesn’t demand what Judas does – he allows it – and even makes it central to it all.
Judas, the betrayer, is central to the plan of salvation.
Not because God controls the script … but because even our worst must have place in the story for our salvation. God will bring overflowing love even, and especially, out of the depths of human betrayal.
But ‘betray’ is not the most obvious translation here. One of you will ‘hand me over’ is a more literal reading. ‘Handing over’ is the way Jesus always described what would happen to him – handed over into the hands of sinful people.
He submits himself. He allows himself to be done unto.
So from now on in John, as Jesus draws near his cross, the mood is passive. Where before Jesus taught – he will now be more and more silent. Where before amazing power flowed from him – he does no miracles. Where before he triumphed – soon he will be weeping in despair in the garden. Where before he was celebrated – now he is despised. The one who brought others back to life – will himself die.
All this unfolds as a result of Judas’s necessary act of ‘handing over’.
So what of Judas?
The tragedy of Judas was not his handing over of Jesus – and who is there that doesn’t abandon, deny, reject Jesus in this story – or since? …
Surely his tragedy is that he could not conceive of the sort of forgiveness and love that would meet even him through it all – the sheer scale of a love that is willing to make even betrayal part of the story of our salvation.
He was caught up in something way beyond his understanding or capacity to manage and whose outcome, in the end, he could not endure. He is not alone. This love is beyond us all.
The historic church has reserved special condemnation for suicide. It was only this February of this year that the General Synod of the Church of England voted to change its law and allow suicides to receive a Christian burial at all.
For Judas we may pray – ‘rest eternal grant him, O Lord’. Surely he knew not what he did, Jesus – and is that not what you forgave on the cross?
For ourselves we may ask – ‘surely you don’t mean me?’
Yes he does. We must take our place in this story – at our worst, our most misguided, misconceived, uncomprehending and with all the deadly consequence that follows.
But more important is not what we call Judas or call ourselves.
It is who Jesus is.
Just a year ago a rural church in Dorset dedicated the last of some etched windows by an artist called Lawrence Whistler. Long after all the others had been installed this one had shocked and divided the
church and local community. The artist had loaned it to the local museum and there it had remained for 30 years – with instructions that if the community ever changed their mind he still wished it installed
and called ‘The forgiveness window’. It shows a man hanging by the neck from the branchof a tree. Coins are spilling from his hand and turning into flowers as they hit the ground.
It is Judas.
It is a shocking and distressing image – but as with all the windows in that church the light streams through it – as if to affirm the transfiguring story being told through it and beyond it.
Judas went out into the night.
But the light is now streaming in.
This reflection owes much to Sarah Coakley’s piece, ‘Betrayal’, in her wonderful Grove Booklet – The Cross and the Transformation of Desire: Meditations for Holy Week on the Drama of Love and Betrayal.