Isaiah 50: 4-9a
Hebrews 9: 11-15, 24-28
Psalm 69: 7-15, 24-28
In our friendship with Jesus when we consider his ministry and his relationship with his apostles and other followers most of us find it easy to identify with Peter. We see in his strong attraction, incomprehension, exuberance, fear and denial the range of our emotional responses. We recognize ourselves also in Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and like him we are at a loss to explain why we feel that way. Perhaps another reason we identify with Peter is that the others are so in shadow. Thomas and Matthew, Andrew and James we know something about. And there is Zebedee’s son John, usually remembered as the one Jesus loved. But was he really or was that more wish than reality? Maybe it was a relationship that came to be when another primary relationship with Jesus was displaced. At this time in this Holy Week I would like for us to consider Judas, one of the principal Apostles and try to put aside all our assumptions, all that we have been taught about him, and try to see him as he was before he bore the odious title of the Lord’s betrayer and became one of the most infamous in human history.
One clue to his place in the affections of Jesus was his placement at the Last Supper. While we remember John as leaning against Jesus, near his heart, the place of honor at the table was reserved for the most important of the apostles, and that place was at the left hand of Jesus. And who was reclining there at that final, fateful meal? Judas. We know him as a Zealot, a member of a group of Jews who advocated armed resistance against the Roman oppressors and their Herodian henchmen. Judas had the responsibility in Jesus’ ministerial team of handling the financial contributions that supported their work and helped those who came to them in need. There were probably others among the apostles as skilled with money as Judas, Matthew, for instance, readily comes to mind, but Jesus gave the job to Judas. There must have been a beguiling quality about Judas’ enthusiasm and his energetic support of Jesus’ teaching. We think of spiritual zealousness as indicating a true believer. No doubt, Jesus found Judas’ intelligence, conviction and personal charm strongly appealing. In Judas, of the ragtag lot who followed him, Jesus had someone who he thought truly understood what he was attempting to do. And so he loved him, depended on him and gave him first place at the table. In middle eastern custom that was what a seat at the left hand of the host indicated.
Judas has suffered from the picture of him we receive from the Gospel writers because of stories that circulated after his betrayal of Jesus and Judas’ violent death. I suspect the community of apostles was much like later Christian religious communities. Such communities are composed of men or women whose common tie is the vocational call. Friendship among these strangers may develop, but when one leaves some reflex defense mechanism brings out all the stories of that person’s shortcomings fueled by jealousies hitherto held in check. As a result, the picture of Judas that has come down to us may have been painted with a darker brush. Who knows, among these men Judas once may have been the beloved disciple.
Might the announcement last week in the press of the discovery of a hitherto unknown Gospel of Judas shed light on the enigma of Judas in the Passion Narrative? This gospel, discovered in Egypt and written in Coptic dates from the Fourth Century CE and is a copy of a much early Greek text now lost. In it Jesus singles out Judas, distinguished among the apostles for his fervor and intelligence, to reveal to him the secrets of his ministry and purpose, and to seek his help in what were to be his final days. In this gospel Jesus asks Judas to betray him into the hands of his enemies so that his spirit can be freed from his human body, thereby through death and resurrection he could bring the hope of salvation to all believers. According to the account of this newly discovered gospel, this conversation takes place three days before the Passover and in secret. With it in mind the cryptic comment of Jesus in the Gospel of John about “someone at this table” betraying him, and his command to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do” makes sense. This would also explain why the rest at the table were not aware of why Jesus was sending Judas away, even though Jesus revealed to the one lying close to him that Judas would betray him. But we must keep in mind that the Gospel of Judas was written at least 150 years after the event by a Gnostic Christian, and the Gnostic version of Christianity was built on the theory that some Christians are assured of salvation through secret knowledge not available to ordinary Christians. In all likelihood this newly discovered gospel was an attempt to provide an explanation for the role of Judas in Jesus’ suffering and death, and nothing more.
It is helpful to remember that what most Christians know about the Passion is actually a conflation of accounts from St. Paul and the Gospels, later interpretations of these texts and visual portrayals of these events. For instance, I can never think of this holy drama without remembering Giotto’s startling image of Judas’ kiss from his Passion cycle in the duomo at Assisi.
So what are we to make of Judas? Was he the human puppet of a foreordained divine plan? If we accept that explanation it undermines any notion we have of freedom of will in our relationship with God. It takes away our power to say no to God. It might be best for Judas and his role in the Passion to remain an enigma, to accept that his darkness and motivation are mysteries, much as we are mysteries to ourselves and each other. Nevertheless, his evil forces us to recognize our own capacity for evil. Like Judas we have the capability for great good and terrible violence and much of life depends upon the choices we make.
The drama of that final meal ends with the bald statement, “And it was night.” And the image we are left with is of a blackness so heavy, so complete that there is no light in it. The light has gone out of the world. Judas accepts bread from Jesus’ own hand, but rejects the gift of the giver. Immediately he departs and is enveloped in darkness.
And yet in that moment of sadness and the overwhelming sense of impending violence and tragedy, in that recognition of the shattering of the life they had known, Jesus gives his apostles as his parting gesture a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” One small candle in a void of darkness. Yet it is enough.
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