In Memoriam: Judas
A Meditation on Acts: 1: 15 – 17, 21- 26 (but let’s not forget verses 18 – 20)
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop May 13, 2018 Grace Presbyterian Church
I was driving down Veterans’ Memorial the other day, returning home after a morning walk with my bulldogs at the old UA golf course (or “Unofficial Dog Park” as it is known around here), when I got behind a large truck. It was not a moving company I had ever heard of before. The name? Predestination Transportation LLC. There was a little fish symbol beside the logo. My bullies completely missed the humor in this situation, even though they are good Presbyterians. What advertising agency wouldn’t love to work with them! Imagine the tag lines. “We know where you’re going before you do!” “Predestination Transportation: We’ll get you there for judgement day!”
And I wondered…are they a single predestination or double predestination shipping firm? How far south are they willing to go?? And does anyone really care how safe their drivers are? After all, God already knows if they will make it to their journey’s end.
Predestination, the idea that God has pre-ordained all the events of the entire world, that problematic theological doctrine so closely linked with our denomination. Scripture supports it. Scripture refutes it. Does it mean God plans for bad things to happen? How do you hold free will and God’s plans in tension with one another? Does God have OCD or is God impetuous and spontaneous? And what does all of this mean for Judas, whom we are recalling today.
Maybe Judas is a strange focus for this final Sunday of the Easter Season. Why speak of Jesus’ betrayer? Why not talk of happier things, more hopeful things? It’s still Easter! And next Sunday is Pentecost, the church’s marvelous birthing day! Next Sunday wind and flames will fill the space and God’s disciples will not be able to contain the good news of God’s love for all people from all places.
For that very reason, because next Sunday is Pentecost, we need to pause and remember Judas. Author and pastor Jim Killenger, writing for The Christian Century recalls this memory that puts Judas’ legacy in perspective:
Years ago, when my wife and I saw Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar on a London stage, the cast came down and talked with the audience during the intermission. We met the actor who played Jesus and the one who played Judas, and were told that they switched parts every few nights so other members of the cast wouldn’t get to hating them. “Before we did this,” they said, “everybody ostracized the one being Judas.”[i]
Everyone ostracized the actor portraying Judas…what a fascinating insight into human nature. We don’t even want to be associated with an actor pretending to be someone whose name is equated with the betrayal of God. If you love God even a little bit, the mere thought of betraying God is terrifying, and at our core we know we are as human as Judas.
Who was Judas? Judas Iscariot. Iscariot may simply refer to his hometown, but scholars debate the origins of the name. If it was his hometown of Keriot, it was in Judea, which would make Judas an outsider. All the other disciples were from Galilee. He was chosen by Jesus to be one of the twelve. Those are the facts we know. That’s all. The gospels record him as the one who handed Jesus over, but the reasons are unclear.
Some believe Judas became disillusioned with Jesus’ teaching or jealous of his popularity. Some will say it was Judas’ predetermined fate. Some say evil consumed him. Scripture scholar William Barclay takes a gentler view, as he wonders if
Judas was trying to force Jesus’s hand, to get him to act in a decisive way. Perhaps, he suggests, Judas expected the arrest would prompt Jesus to reveal himself as the long-awaited Messiah by overthrowing the Roman occupiers. Barclay noted that none of the other traditional explanations (for example, greed, disillusionment, jealousy) explain why Judas would have been so shattered after the crucifixion that he committed suicide. In other words, only if Judas had expected a measure of good to come from his actions would suicide make any sense…
This was Judas’ version of throwing Jesus into the deep end of the pool to see if he would swim.[ii]
We omitted some verses in our reading from Acts…you may have noticed…the lectionary omits some painful words in the middle. They must have thought this was too messy to be read in public:
In fact, [Judas] bought a field with the payment he received for his injustice. Falling headfirst, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines spilled out. This became known to everyone living in Jerusalem, so they called that field in their own language Hakeldama, or “Field of Blood.” (Acts 1: 18 – 20, CEB)
Matthew tells a slightly different story:
When Judas, who betrayed Jesus, saw that Jesus was condemned to die, he felt deep regret. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, and said, “I did wrong because I betrayed an innocent man.” But they said, “What is that to us? That’s your problem.” Judas threw the silver pieces into the temple and left. Then he went and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the silver pieces and said, “According to the Law it’s not right to put this money in the treasury. Since it was used to pay for someone’s life, it’s unclean.” So they decided to use it to buy the potter’s field where strangers could be buried. That’s why that field is called “Field of Blood” to this very day. (Matthew 27: 3 – 8)
Either way, a field and death. Although in Luke’s version, the field is more than a field; it is a farm. Judas “bought the farm,” long before that expression came to mean what it does. He bought a farm. Who does that unless they have hope for a future? For a brief moment, did Judas hope to begin again? Did he hope that he could start a new life? For a brief moment did he believe in the forgiveness which he witnessed each day in Jesus’ presence? Judas’ was some mother’s son. Maybe he was a brother. Maybe he hoped to have a family of his own, working the land together. If so, it was a brief dream. He convinced himself that the only way he could atone for Jesus’ death was to die as well. Judas died alone, unable to imagine there could be enough forgiveness and mercy to save him.
Judas wasn’t the first to betray God. He wasn’t the last. His action only brought about the death of one man, and that was the very man who could defeat death! It is a broad, broad leap to believe that Judas understood that one kiss could unleash so much hatred in the world. Judas doesn’t seem like a player to me; he seems more like a pawn. But maybe that’s just what I want to believe. Maybe I want to believe that someone who spent so much time around Jesus couldn’t have hated Jesus, couldn’t have distrusted him so, and must have been transformed by him. To say Judas was not changed in Jesus’ presence is to deny the power of God to redeem.
So we direct our hate at Judas, because he represents the thing that frightens us most: our own capacity to betray God, to doubt God. Our desire to be in control of the time line when God asks us to wait. Our need to have the answers yesterday. Our longing to use Predestination Transportation for all our moving needs, so that we will always know where we are meant to be and when we are meant to be there.
There’s such an irony about this scripture passage, a passage which somewhat resembles the minutes of a church committee or session meeting. There is old business to discuss (Judas), there is new business to do (voting on a new apostle). But look at who is moderating the meeting: Peter. Peter!!
Peter, who, while Jesus was on trial for his life, denied ever knowing Jesus…not just once, but three times, is a betrayer, too. Each wept when they realized what they had done, but Peter was the fortunate one. Peter was able to meet Jesus after the resurrection, to be forgiven, restored, and blessed. If asked, Peter would have to admit that he knows the depths of Judas’ pain; that he knows how easy it is to lose your way.
Theologian Luke Powery writes, “Judas unjustly betrayed Jesus, but where is the compassion of God for those who stray? …The church seldom embraces Judas’ humanity. Are those we think of as wicked not worthy to be affirmed as human?…It may be easy to forget fallen disciples and evildoers by wiping away traces of their blood from the lectionary, but doing so raises the question of the degree to which we are willing to love enemies…grace is not cheap, but neither is human life. [iii]
Judas – and Peter – remind us that the church consists of very human, very imperfect people. That is why we must practice forgiveness and compassion right here within this community, and in our homes and in our workplaces. We must practice over and over again. Because we all stand in need of forgiveness. Every single day. The Peter and Judas inside of each of us needs to know that God’s mercy and steadfast love are boundless.
It’s complicated, isn’t it? But somehow I believe that someone like Judas, who garnered so much hatred at the end of his life, a hatred that has continued on for 2,000 years…somehow I believe that he is most in need of God’s love, compassion and mercy after death. We leave this us to God. The God of love and forgiveness. Amen and amen.
Written by Richard Matheson
Corpse dangles from tree by snapped-twig neck,
innards spilled out from stomach like rotten raspberries,
nothing but stick-figure hang man.
Simon Iscariot’s tears fall beside blood and water
that pours from your abdomen,
similar to the emulsion
from the spear-wound in Jesus. Christ
gave you the highest honor:
that of making all
They were then hidden away for centuries in dry clay pots
in musty caves of sheep-herders.
Father lowers you down
the greatest of care
to the arms of
[i] Killenger, John. Missing the Resurrection, The Christian Century, 2006.
[iii] Powery, Luke, Seventh Sunday of Easter, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Lectionary Year B, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 251.