April 17, 2014
William G. Carter
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved - was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
The Bible story takes me back a moment when I was five or six years old. My mother parked in front of J.J. Newberry’s variety store, and helped my sister and me to get out of our seatbelts and take us shopping. But just as we walked into the store, there was a rough looking man with a black comb-over. He had a tattoo prominently displayed on his left shoulder, and a gold ring in his ear. She clutched our hands, pulled us toward her, and said, “Stay close.” Then she murmured, “He’s a bad man.”
I later learned she was responding to more than mere appearances. He was a local character. The man had recently gotten out of prison for doing time for some unmentionable act. In my mother’s world, at least at that time, a man like that should not have been walking the streets. “Stay close,” she said, “he’s a bad man.”
The experience still gives me pause. Was he a bad man because of something he did, or was there something wrong in his soul? It’s an ongoing question. We struggle to explain human lapses. Is it bad decision-making, or something far worse?
Every time the Gospel of John mentions Judas Iscariot, it gives him a swift kick and says, “He’s a bad man.” John says Judas was “a devil from the beginning.” (6:70) He kept the finances for Jesus and his disciples, but John says Judas often put his hand in the money box to keep a little something for himself (12:6). This is the betrayer, says John. He was indifferent to the poor. He collaborated with Jesus’ enemies. Worst of all, the devil had crept into his soul. He was not clean.
Now this is how John tells the story, some sixty years after it happened. He and his church had some time to think about it. By the time John writes the book, his church saw the world as a struggle between dualities: good and evil, light and darkness, God and Satan. Jesus comes to the world in perfect goodness and the world smacks him back. This is the cosmic struggle of the Gospel. Jesus came to his own people, says John, and they refused him. It was a bad decision, to say the very least, and it was probably due to the pervasive power of evil.
Even so, we have to wonder about a few things. The first is this: Jesus chose Judas. It was his intentional decision to select him as a disciple. He was one of the twelve. He heard the teachings, he saw the miracles, he passed out the loaves and fishes, he took care of the finances. Sixty years after the fact, John declares in chapter six that Jesus knew from the beginning how Judas would betray him. He knew it, and he chose him anyway.
Not only that, in the account we heard tonight, it is Jesus who directs Judas to go and quickly do what he was going to do. Jesus (who knows everything) seems to be calling the shots for a man he chose who has Satan in his heart. Let that sink in for a minute . . . it sounds like the dark side of predestination, that God had a plan for Judas, that Jesus the Son knows the plan, and that Judas is playing a part in the plan for Jesus to save the world. Is he a bad man – or in some grander sense, is he doing what God wants him to do?
Of course, John is writing this story sixty years later, around 90 AD. And as he looks back, he remembers what God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. He takes it with him to the cross, where in a single act of glory, his self-giving love once and for all cancels the power of sin, and God raises him from the dead to speak peace and invite us to believe and receive God’s eternal life. John sees the whole thing and says it was a plan from the beginning of time. God wants to rescue the rebellious world that God himself loves.
So, is Judas a bad man? Or is he a bit actor in a much bigger plan? Here’s my conclusive answer: I don’t know.
What I do know is the story is as complicated as we are. The Bible reads us perfectly. If you look at the people around you, you can’t describe them in a simple diagnosis. That would be like that Far Side cartoon from years ago. A goofy looking man is babbling away on a psychiatrist’s couch and the shrink writes on his pad, “Just plain nuts.” Oh, if it were only that simple.
The other day, I was reading about a man named Cornealious Anderson of St. Louis. He was arrested and convicted for armed robbery thirteen years ago. He held up a Burger King store with a BB gun. The court said, “You’re going to jail,” but through a clerical error, they never came to take him away. Mr. Anderson was out on bail. He kept waiting, but the court never gave him a prison date. So he went about his business, got married, had some kids, learned a trade, got a job, started his own business, paid his taxes, renewed his driver’s license, and, generally speaking for the past thirteen years, straightened out his life.
Last summer a clerk discovered the old error and pretty soon a SWAT team knocked on Mr. Anderson’s door. At the time, he was fixing breakfast for his three year old daughter. He has been thoroughly rehabilitated, but the state of Missouri took him off to prison without so much as an apology. Is he a bad man? Not any more.
So I wonder about Judas. I wonder about the rest of us. I believe God has reconciled the world to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe God intended this from the beginning. I believe there is only one God, and regardless of evil and wherever it comes from, God is infinitely more powerful.
I also believe people are complicated enough to still create an awful lot of messes, both in their lives and in the lives of others. What gets into them? Is it Satan? Or are they just full of themselves? It may be too complicated to say, but the messes still happen. The very people God loves can fall down. The Messiah is betrayed.
And so tonight, two words are offered to us from scripture. The first comes from an early preacher of the church, “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him!” (1 Peter 5:8-9). In my mother’s early warning, “Stay close.” Stay close to the protective power of love. For we have the ability to say No to all that can hurt, destroy, and betray. We need the clarity and courage of God to do so.
The second word comes from Jesus. It is the Christ who takes a piece of bread from his Last Supper table and gives it to Judas. He feeds Judas from the bread at the Table. And he hands us the same bread from the same table and says, “Take, eat, this is my body given for you. Do this, remembering me.”
Imagine this: to be so full of Christ that evil has no power over us! Now, there is a holy plan.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.