Matthew 26:14-16, 47-50, 27:3-10
April 3, 2011
William G. Carter
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him . . .
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed..."
Of all the people who populate the Bible, Judas Iscariot may be the most complicated. His story is told in three scenes today.
Whenever Judas is mentioned, two defining details are repeated. First, he is always called “one of the twelve.” He is a chosen disciple of Jesus who called him a friend. Second, Judas is always called “the betrayer.” His very life points to a theological mystery: what happens when the doctrine of election goes badly? Judas is chosen by God in Christ, and the chosen one turns out poorly.
The New Testament struggles to understand him. Three reasons for his actions are given.
He was Under the Influence: In Luke 22:3, we are told “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve.” Satan tempted Jesus at least three times, says Luke, “departing until an opportune time.” Judas is one of Satan’s opportunities, and if his faith is not strong, he will be “sifted like wheat” (22:31). Similarly, Luke says the jokers around the cross will also tempt the Lord, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:37)
Judas represents the Dark Side of Predestination: “He was a devil from the beginning,” says the Gospel of John (6:70). In this view, Judas was part of a larger plot -- or a pawn in the divine plan. Some would say he was used by God, perhaps condemned before birth. He never had a chance. In Matthew, Jesus says an enigmatic word: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have better for that one not to have been born” (26:24).
In the end, it was the Free Choice of Judas to betray the Lord. Was it greed? (Matthew 26:14) Disagreement with Jesus? (John 12:4-7) Depends what you read. Whatever his tangled thinking, Judas’ free will was misused. It could happen to any of us. As Matthew reports, Jesus declared one of the disciples would betray him. Each of them said, “It isn’t me, is it?” Any one of them had the capacity to betray. Judas is singled out for doing what any one of them might do.
Most likely, he was a tangle of motives. Some popular studies suggest Judas was a militant and wanted to force the hand of Jesus. He saw the miracles, knew the power, affirmed Jesus’ authority, but didn’t think Jesus was changing the world fast enough. So, goes the idea, he cut a deal with the enemies to press Jesus into step up into his kingship. Maybe so. We can’t say.
Back in the seminary, Dr. Bruce Metzger peered through owlish spectacles and told us about a variant text for John 6:71. Judas was “son of Simon from Karyot (Kerioth),” a small town in the south of Israel. “Ish-cariot” may have been the Man from Kerioth. If so, since all the other disciples were from the Galilee up north, Judas may have tired of the preferential treatment toward those Yankees. We don’t know.
In one of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons, she makes a suggestion that makes sense to me:
Maybe he just fell out of love with Jesus. That happens sometimes. One day you think someone is wonderful and the next day he says or does something that makes you think twice. He reminds you of the difference between the two of you and you start hating him for that - for the difference - enough to begin thinking of some way to hurt him back.
Whatever his reason, Judas is the betrayer. He embodies the horrible words of Psalm 55:
It is not enemies who taunt me - I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me - I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company...
The hard truth about each one of us is that we are capable of building relationships and capable of breaking them. We can make promises to people we love and then sell them out for a lower bidder. We might lean on friends and family for help, and other times we're in it only to take advantage of them. One of the hardest things about being a grown-up is realizing that, in every choice we make, we are going to affect a lot of people. We have the ability to deeply hurt others by choosing only what will please ourselves.
It gives us a glimpse of what God is up against in choosing to save the world. God is faithful and constant with us, even when we are selfish, destructive, and turned toward ourselves. Judas is not struck down with a lightning bolt for considering his betrayal or following through on it. Neither are we struck down. It’s that divine self-restraint that keeps the human race alive. God is full of mercy.
But this brings us to a really troubling part of the story. According to Matthew, God is full of mercy, but his representatives are not. For me, that is the hardest part of this tale.
Our storyteller is clear that Judas repents (27:3-4). He returns to the people who paid him off. He acknowledges his sin. But the religious leaders are harsh and unbending. They show Judas no leniency and allow him to wallow unforgiven. They have no interest in restoration. They show no capacity for compassion. The leaders make no room for a repentant sinner while refusing to acknowledge their own complicity in his crime. Matthew shows us a heartless church, so to speak, formed in grace but refusing to be gracious.
And so goes the church, exiling the member who makes a mistake, shrugging off the deacon who embarrasses his wife, refusing to welcome anybody who is not yet housebroken. The hopeless boozer is shunned. The public thief remains unvisited. All the while, the shrill church lady with an unpleasant mouth offers her commentary, parsing the world into good Christian folk like her and those who are unworthy of her angry God.
When my friend Brent took his own life, he did it because he felt he had nowhere else to go. He was a minister, and he was gay. He was a complicated man, on the one hand, raised by a church to despise people like himself; on the other, inclined to love every child of God. When life turned sour for him, when a tabloid reporter threatened to embarrass him for profit, Brent did not feel he could trust himself to people who might turn against him. All he could do, he wrote, was to throw himself on the mercy of God, who he trusted to be more merciful that the church he knew.
I would like to think my friend misread the situation. Four and a half years later, his friends still feel betrayed. But I can’t deny how he felt – imprisoned in an invisible cell without another way out.
When we make no room for the brokenness of another, we perpetuate the brokenness in ourselves. After Judas betrays Jesus, he is betrayed by the children of God. The people in his day who are most responsible for teaching the love of God are the same people who withhold that love from him. The Unforgiving Church gives him nowhere else to go.
The Bible never declares suicide to be a sin. It frowns on it, of course, because it is the taking of a life. But suicide is never called a sin by scripture, much less an unforgivable sin, any more than the betraying of Jesus is declared to be an unforgivable sin.
No, says Jesus, there is only one unforgivable sin, and that is to speak against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). It is unforgivable to deny that the Spirit casts out demons, makes broken people whole, lifts up the lowly, empowers the inadequate, and blesses the poor in spirit. The unforgivable sin is to deny that God is forgiving, that God comes in the grace of Jesus Christ to heal and show mercy.
And that’s why we come to this Table: not to impress the God who knows how imperfect we are, but to claim the power of our crucified Savior. The church of Jesus Christ is created in his grace. We are called to live by his grace. We are chartered to welcome everybody home. In bread and wine, we declare that Christ is here, to forgive, to welcome, to embrace whatever and whoever the world pushes away. It is not our self-righteousness that we celebrate; we celebrate God’s mercy.
Matthew tells us that Jesus died because of the sins of Judas. But I think we can believe something more than that. We can believe Jesus died for the sins of Judas. Yes, I think we can believe that. Jesus died for the sins of Judas, just as he died for the sins of those who pushed Judas away.
Has the winter been so long that we have forgotten the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
(c) William G. Carter
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