Today, on this Wednesday in Holy Week, we have just heard read one of the most emotionally charged passages in all the Gospels. In an act of intimate, self-giving love, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. But he then turns from love, to betrayal. We are told, laconically that Jesus is ‘troubled in spirit’; perhaps an understatement. For he has just washed Judas’ feet. Jesus loved Judas, as he did all his disciples. Jesus’ heart likely burned with a deep sorrow at what Judas was about to do.
But love and betrayal exist side by side. And there is a very close parallel between what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet, and what Judas was about to do. That parallel is made very clear by one word in the text, and that is the word betrayal. But that is only one translation of the word used by John. In the Greek of the original text, the word translated as ‘betrayal’, is ‘paradidomai’. This literally means ‘to hand over or give over power to another, or to hand over another into the power of another’. Here, that verb is translated as ‘to betray’ because this ‘handing over’ of Jesus by Judas is done treacherously. But elsewhere in the New Testament this very same word is used in a beautiful and loving way. In the letter to the Ephesians for example, we read that Jesus ‘has loved us and given himself for us.’ The same verb, paradidomai. Jesus so loves us that he freely gives himself over to the power of another. And this is what Jesus was expressing so beautifully when he laid aside his robe and washed his disciples’ feet. So great is his love for us that he laid down his divine power and became as a servant; became vulnerable and ‘woundable’. Through love he exposed himself to the power of Judas, he gave himself over to the power of the darkness in men’s hearts, ‘and it was night.’
Two of Jesus’ inner ring of followers had so much in common: Peter and Judas. We know nothing about their upbringings and backgrounds. How were they raised? What did they value? What were their ambitions? Why were they attracted to follow Jesus? And why, among the multitude of his followers, did Jesus choose the two of them to be in his closest circle? Jesus was a shrewd and intuitive judge of character. What did Jesus see as so special in Peter and Judas? Were they charismatic? Were they eloquent? Were they passionate or articulate or extremely bright? Were they, like Jesus, riled by hypocrisy and injustice? Did they have a whimsical sense of humor, a hearty appetite, nerves of steel, the wisdom of a serpent, the innocence of a dove, a love for children, a certain way with the erudite or with the poor? They must have been impressive, both of them. Was Peter called “the rock” because he was stubborn or because he was strong? Maybe both. And Jesus made Judas the treasurer. Was that because Judas was so responsible, so accountable that he was entrusted with so much among those who had given up everything to follow Jesus? We don’t know. Surely Judas was a very special person, especially wonderful, to have a place so near to Jesus’ own heart. Surely Judas’ kiss of betrayal was not the first time he had expressed his closeness to Jesus.
So what happened? However similar or different they are to one another, both Peter and Judas end up in the Garden of Gethsemane, and both of them, surely to their own horror and to others’, they became betrayers. What, ultimately, is the difference between Judas, remembered for his deception, and his friend Peter, remembered for his sainthood? They had so much in common… except for one thing. Following Jesus’ crucifixion Judas was precipitous; Peter was not. Judas takes his own life; Peter is given his life back by Jesus’ in the gift of forgiveness.
Isaiah 50:4-9a John 13:21-32
In his The Gospel of John: A Commentary, scholar Frederick Dale Bruner headlines this day’s gospel reading as “Jesus’ Foot-washing Warning: (with the subtitle) Let Yourselves Beware of Yourselves.” Or, as Rudolf Bultmann puts it, “The consciousness of belonging to the body of disciples must not seduce any of them into the illusion of security.”[i] And, I would say that, a false sense of security from harm without is usually paired with such a sense within: a false certainty of our own steadfastness and loyalty, under any conditions. This passage from John, in the context of Holy Week, will not allow us to dodge a confrontation with the power of evil in humanity.
The gospels do not provide us with a clear explanation for Judas’ act in “handing over” Jesus to the authorities. And most of the answers we try to extrapolate from the evangelist’s words say a good deal more about us and our need to distance ourselves from the possibility of acting as Judas did.
Judas is a complicated person. (Aren’t we all.) We know, of course, that Judas had been invited by Jesus to be among his twelve closest followers and friends… and we experience Jesus to be a very keen judge of character. What did Jesus originally see in Judas? What did Judas see in Jesus? We’re not absolutely clear. We do know there was subsequent jealousy among these twelve apostles: who was the greatest. (1) The one nicknamed “the Beloved Disciple” seemed to have the greatest intimacy with Jesus and was the target of some jealousy. (2) Judas seemed to have the greatest… greatest something in Jesus’ eyes – greatest power? greatest stewardship? greatest accountability? we don’t know – because he was entrusted to carry the money. With that responsibility, Judas’ reputation became mixed. Though he upbraided Jesus with the other disciples about their self-indulgence in the face of the poor, he was known to steal money from the common purse. (3)