It was on 9th September 1547, here at St Bride’s, that all the images of the saints, the great crucifix that would have hung on the traditional rood screen that would have stood before our altar, and all the other visible trappings of Catholicism, were systematically removed from the mediaeval church that then stood on this site. The Vicar here at the time, John Cardmaker, was a leading Protestant reformer, who embraced such changes with enthusiasm, so I suspect that little violence or active protest was involved, from him at least. But that was by no means always the case.
Indeed, one of the features of the Reformation that I used to find most baffling was how ordinary lay people, who had grown up venerating the images of the saints with the utmost devotion, suddenly started not only tearing them down, but in some cases actually smashing them up – desecrating priceless works of craftsmanship and artistry in the process. Any of you who have visited the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral will know that its walls are lined with statutes of the saints, each of which has been savagely decapitated – apart from one that they accidentally overlooked. Why the sudden switch from utter devotion to rage and destruction?
That kind of extreme reversal of behaviour is the classic response of a person, or a group of people, who feel that they have been betrayed; who feel they have been ‘had’. Which is why, tragically, most murders happen within families: because the deeper the bond of love, the greater its potential to turn to hatred and destruction.
And it seems to me that this is also a key to understanding one of the most perplexing figures in the gospels – the disciple Judas – whose conduct begs so many questions. How could a man who was one of the twelve; one of the hand-picked followers of Jesus, who had given up everything to follow him; one who knew Jesus intimately; heard his stories, and witnessed his miracles – how could a man in such a position turn against Jesus and betray him, as Judas does? Conversely, if Judas truly was the out-and-out bounder that history has consistently judged him to be, why was Jesus (who is normally so extraordinarily insightful) so completely lacking in judgment as to choose him to be one of his trusted inner circle?
I have always felt that Judas, a man who has been vilified throughout Christian history, is in fact a greatly misunderstood character. The reason is this: if you look at the way in which Judas is portrayed in each of the four Gospels, in the likely order in which they were written, you can observe how, as new details and layers of interpretation are added to the original story, the character of Judas is progressively blackened. So much so that, by the time we get to John’s Gospel – almost certainly the last of the four to be written – we are told expressly (as we heard a moment ago), that Judas was a thief and a liar.
I think we need to look to the earliest of the Gospels, St Mark, to start to piece together what is truly going on – and the explanation that he suggests for Judas’s betrayal is very different. Mark seldom gives outright explanations for anything in his Gospel: what he does instead is to juxtapose events and stories in a way that leaves us, his hearers, to make the connections, to draw the conclusions ourselves. ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear’ is the constant refrain of his Gospel – which is what we, too, need to do. And in St Mark’s Gospel, the story of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, a version of which we heard today, is pivotal to our understanding of why Judas betrays him.
In Mark chapter 14, we are told that the chief priests and the scribes are looking for a way to kill Jesus. Immediately after that, we hear the story of the anointing of Jesus, by an unnamed woman in his account, at a house in Bethany. Mark describes how some of those present were appalled at the profligate waste of money that this woman’s actions represented: that precious ointment was worth a fortune! It could have been sold and the money used to help the poor – and yet this foolish woman has broken open the flask that contains it and has poured it on his head!
But if her action was scandalous, the response of Jesus must have seemed even more shocking to his disciples. Because far from stopping her, or rebuking her for what she has done (as they expected him to), Jesus actually rebukes them instead!:
‘Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; 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.’
Those of us who know the story of the crucifixion and death of Jesus, can now glimpse the true significance of what she has done. Jesus’ body cannot be anointed for burial after his death, because the women who go to the tomb to do that very thing, find the stone rolled away and his body gone. But at the time of the anointing at Bethany none of the onlookers knew that, of course.
And in the absence of that foreknowledge, think about what the anointing, and Jesus’s response to it, must have looked like to those who witnessed it. Imagine that you are one of the disciples and have given up everything to follow this charismatic figure, who preaches a Gospel of love and grace, and commitment to the poor and the marginalised, whom you believe to be the promised Saviour. And yet, here he is, sitting back and relishing this woman’s attentions, basking in being anointed with the most expensive perfumed ointment imaginable – and – even more outrageously – actually rebuking you for challenging this squandering of money and resources.
How do you respond? Does a terrible doubt suddenly creep into your mind? Have you been wrong all along about this man, for whom you had given up everything? Have you been ‘had’? Is he, after all, nothing more than a charlatan, just like all the other pretend Messiahs? Is he a fraud?
Because it is at this point that Mark tells us that Judas Iscariot goes straight to the scribes and the chief priests and offers to betray Jesus. Judas does not ask them for money to do so, as he does in St Matthew’s version, where he says to them ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ And it is Matthew, incidentally, who introduces the idea of the thirty pieces of silver (a motif he has borrowed from Old Testament prophecy).
No, in St Mark’s Gospel is the scribes and the chief priests who offer money to Judas.
In other words, we are left in little doubt in Mark’s version of events that the reason why Judas betrays Jesus is because Judas is suddenly and chillingly afraid that he has himself been betrayed. Hence his determination to destroy the man he loved. And the sequence of events that Judas sets in motion, is one that he is then unable to stop. Indeed, according to St Matthew, on seeing Jesus condemned to death, Judas is so overcome with grief and remorse at the realisation of what he has done, that he returns the blood money to the chief priests, hurling it down before them in the Temple, and he goes and hangs himself.
Which is why we should weep for Judas. We should weep for a man who got it all so terribly and tragically wrong; who destroyed the man that he loved; and who, having recognised the enormity of what he has done, could no longer live with himself.
But one final observation about the story of the anointing at Bethany. As followers of Christ we are called to make a difference to God’s world through our service to the poor, and the marginalized; and to challenge the structures of injustice and oppression, as an essential part of our discipleship. But unless we can also recognise our need to sit at the feet of Christ, and to honour him, and to weep for our own sins, and the sins of our world, we would be dealing with the symptoms, but not the true causes of that injustice. And it is Christ’s saving death – the death for which the woman at Bethany anointed him, that lies at the heart of our hope of redemption.
In a short and very beautiful poem, Laura Inman weaves together the themes of the anointing, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion, with these words:
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 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?