Judas - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons



Some years ago I was being wined and dined on the high table of an Oxford college, when one of the dons leaned over to me and, quite out of the blue, asked me a rather unexpected question: 'Tell me', he said.  'Whom do you find the most sympathetic figure in the Bible?'  And I heard myself give a reply that, at the time, surprised even me, and certainly floored my questioner - because my answer was 'Judas'.

Judas is, of course, one of the archetypal villains of all time, his name synonymous with treachery of the worst kind.  His betrayal of Jesus is the more despicable precisely because he was one of his trusted inner circle.  And when Judas arrives with a mob in the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, he identifies his victim with a kiss - a gesture of such perverse cynicism that it beggars belief.

And yet, for all that, I can remember even as a child finding the figure of Judas somewhat perplexing.  After all, if he was such an out-and-out rotter, why on earth did Jesus (who in all other respects seems to be a singularly insightful judge of character) make the mistake of allowing him into his inner circle in the first place?  Or, conversely, how on earth did someone who was so close to Jesus fail to have his life utterly transformed by him?  Was it simply that Judas was playing a role that fate had allotted him, because it was the destiny of Jesus to be betrayed and arrested and crucified, and somebody had to trigger that particular sequence of events?  But surely that would reduce Judas to being a mere puppet - and what would that suggest about the nature of God?  

Judas has been derided and vilified throughout Christian history - and yet, if you look carefully at his story in the four Gospels, in the likely order in which they were written, something very interesting becomes apparent.  Because as the tradition of Judas develops, so his character becomes progressively blackened, and the motives attributed to him increasingly despicable.  He doesn't start out nearly as appalling as he ends up.  And if you look at the earliest version of events, in St Mark's Gospel, one can glimpse a very different interpretation of events from the one that evolved later.

It is characteristic of St Mark that he never spells anything out - he seldom explains anything, or interprets anything.  He prefers simply to present his hearers with events, and then leave us the readers to make the connections, to draw our own conclusions.  'Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.' And in his account, what we find is this:

At the start of Mark Chapter 14, the chief priests and the scribes are looking for a way to kill Jesus.  This is followed immediately by the story of the anointing of Jesus, with very costly ointment, by the woman at Bethany.  Some of those who witness this event are appalled at the profligate waste of money that her action represents - pointing out that the ointment was worth around a hundred denarii - it could and should have been sold, and the money spent on the poor.  But to their astonishment, far from agreeing with them and condemning the woman for her wastefulness, Jesus actually approves of what she has done, saying: 'She has done a beautiful thing to me.  You will always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you want - but you will not always have me.  She has done what she could, she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.'  

Now, just imagine for a moment that you are a committed disciple of Jesus, part of his inner circle; you have given up everything to follow this extraordinary and charismatic figure; and you have deeply imbibed everything that he had said about being called to a life of selfless love and commitment to the poor and the marginalized.  Suddenly you are confronted with this extraordinary incident - and his response to it - which must have sounded not merely surprising, but shocking and outrageous.  Does the terrible and devastating thought suddenly creep into your mind: 'Oh my goodness me - have I been wrong all the time?  Is this man Jesus really all that he has been claiming to be?  Have I been taken for a ride?  Is it all a façade?  Sure this demonstrates beyond doubt that he is, after all, only interested in self-glorification?'

And it is at precisely that point that Mark tells us without any further comment or explanation, that Judas Iscariot goes straight to the chief priests and the scribes and offers to betray Jesus. Judas doesn't ask for money from them for doing so - on the contrary it is they who offer it to him.  In other words, in Mark's Gospel, we are left in very little doubt as to what prompted Judas's actions.  He thought he had been 'had' - and one can well imagine that if that were the case, he would be feeling pretty angry about it.

But in subsequent versions of the story, the portrayal of Judas begins to evolve in a very different direction as it is retold and reinterpreted.  In St Matthew's version of the story, we are told that Judas goes to the chief priests actively asking for money, and saying: 'What will you give me if I betray him to you?'  And it is Matthew, incidentally, who first introduces the famous motif of the 'thirty pieces of silver' - and he does so for a very specific reason: Matthew is very concerned to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled the promise of the Hebrew scriptures, and so frequently tweaks his account so that he can highlight this motif.  The thirty pieces of silver is a phrase that has borrowed from Old Testament prophecy, because it ties in very nicely with his aim.  

And by the time we get to St John's Gospel, and the version of the story that we heard here a moment ago, not only is Judas shown as being greedy for money, but he is a thief who has his hand in the till: 'He kept the common purse', we are told, 'and used to steal what was put into it.'  So, as the tradition gradually develops, so the person of Judas becomes increasingly blackened, and his motives presented as ever more selfish and depraved, as he moves from being a passionate but disaffected follower of Jesus, to being an utter scoundrel - a man whom it is so very easy to hate, and so very easy to blame.

It seems to me that the earlier portrait that St Mark gives us rings true, for a couple of very good reasons.  Firstly, there is something recognizably human about it.  Just to give you a parallel example: we are fast approaching the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation in Europe - it was in 1517 that Martin Luther famously posted his Ninety-five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, which lit the blue touch paper and launched it.  And at the risk of presenting you with a grossly over-simplistic caricature - what has always fascinated me is why it was that in Europe, a population that had been incredibly pious and observant, and whose lives were structured around the rituals and pilgrimages and feasts of the Catholic church, responded, not merely by turning their backs on all of that, but with iconoclasm - smashing up churches - images of the saints were destroyed and church buildings were looted.  That kind of extreme destructive energy was in no small part generated by a profound sense on the part of the population that they had been 'had'.  In a similar way, I can perfectly understand how a passionate supporter of Jesus could so very easily become an agent of destruction for the very man he had once loved.

But there is more.  Because it is also clear from the biblical accounts that Judas was by no means a man without scruples or a conscience.  According to St Matthew, on seeing Jesus condemned to death Judas realizes with horror what it is that he has done, and, feeling beside himself with grief and remorse, repents and returns the blood money to the chief priests, hurling it down before them in the Temple.  They shrug and say, 'What is that to do with us?'  After which he goes away and hangs himself.  Hardly the action of a man who was utterly corrupt and who had a heart of stone.

We should weep for Judas.  We should weep for a man who got it all so desperately and tragically wrong; a man who set wheels in motion that would destroy the one whom he had once loved and believed in enough to have left behind his everyday life to follow him - and who found he could do nothing to stop that train of events once it was rolling.  A man who, having faced the truth about himself and what he had done, could no longer live with himself.  We should weep for Judas; we should weep for him.

And finally, what of that curious incident at Bethany - the point at which it all began to unravel for Judas.  What are we to make of that?  The more I reflect on it, the clearer it seems to me that it is in fact an episode that is of profound importance to our understanding of Christian discipleship and the Christian life.

We are called to make a difference to God's world in our service to the poor and the marginalized and in our challenging of the structures of injustice and oppression, of course we are.  That is absolutely integral to our call to follow Christ.  But without a recognition of our need to love and honour Christ; to sit at his feet and weep for our sins and for the sins of our broken world; we can deal with the symptoms, but not with the most profound causes of such injustice.  And, as Jesus points out, the woman's symbolic act is not merely a token of love - it also points us forward to his death and burial.  Jesus is anointed before death because, of course, he cannot be anointed after it - the women who carry spices to the tomb on the first Easter morning find it empty, the stone rolled away.  Set against that broader backdrop, the question of how much the precious ointment happened to cost becomes a complete irrelevance.  Far from being a deviation from the ministry of Christ the act of anointing was the first stage of its fulfilment - the preparation for his saving death.

There is a very short but rather beautiful poem by Lorna Inman that captures this moment as nothing else.  It is called 'Only a broken flask':

Only a broken flask,
But through her love
A fragrance stole upon the evening air,
And Christ was honoured there.

Only a broken loaf,
But from his hands,
A food sufficient for the souls of men
Was offered to them then.

Only a broken life,
But from that Cross
A love to save the world went forth in power,
Born of his darkest hour.

A flask, a loaf, a life with love infused -
Are all things broken that are greatly used?


blog comments powered by Disqus