March 15, 2009 / Lent III
Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or the people may riot.” While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.
Why did Judas do it? Why take the money? Why betray his friend? Some argue that Judas was a paid informant of Jerusalem’s collaborationist government. Novelist Reynold Price wonders whether Judas was a gay man who could not quite figure out what it meant to love completely. Remember when The Gospel of Judas made a big stir a few years ago? The Gospel of Judas claims that Jesus’ asked Judas to turn him in. Judas was actually the only one of the twelve to understand Jesus’ mission and so he was the one that Jesus chose for this important task. We shouldn’t be surprised that in a scroll called The Gospel of Judas, Judas is actually Jesus’ most intimate friend. Even the gospels can’t agree on their stories. Luke says that Judas betrayed Jesus because Satan entered him. John wants us to think that Judas was a greedy thief who did it for the money.
Why did Judas do it? I have excavated another document, allegedly written by Judas, that adds to the speculation. Let’s listen and search for God’s wisdom.
For 2,000 years, people have slandered my name. My name is Judas Iscariot. As you know, I am a Jew. You have probably read some things about my ancestors: Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to name a few. You probably know very little about others like Habakkuk and Joel, Micah and Zephaniah, Hannah and Deborah. All of these men and women had a great love and respect for God. We were all taught the same things as children: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. My ancestors tried, but sometimes their nationalism got the best of them. They would do anything to keep their race pure and to keep other religious and cultural beliefs from creeping in.
One of my ancestors, Nehemiah, wrote about what happened when he found out that some of his fellow citizens married foreign women. He wrote: “In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of [other nations] . . . So I confronted them and called down curses on them. I beat some of them and pulled out their hair. I made them swear in the name of God that they would not let their children intermarry with the pagan people of the land.” The point of all of this is that my people loved Israel. They that God had a special hand in carving it from among the lands of all the peoples of the earth. They would sin, then repent, and then sin again. But they kept trying to be God’s people.
The claw of Rome took control of my country’s government about 150 years before I was born. Rome’s grasp crushed the hopes of many of our people. But not all. A group of Jews remembered God’s promises: the promise to bless all people through Abraham; the promise to lead a group of Israelite slaves into their own land with Moses; the promise to be their God if they would be his people. This certain group of Jews never forgot those promises, even when the hated foreigners came in and took over.
One family, the Maccabees, was the best known of the leaders of the Jewish resistance movement. The Maccabees managed to expel the tyrants and cleanse our sacred temple.
But, the revolt did not last. The hated oppressors regained control. By the time I was born, the Romans had a firm grasp of everything relating to my beloved country. They bled us with taxes, and regulated every single part of our lives. How we hated them and how we hated those Jews who were friendly to them, especially the tax-collectors who set up their home base right inside the Temple. How could God let this happen?” I wondered. “How can the promises of God come true?”
We always believed that God would send a Messiah to set the people free. I wondered when and how it would happen. Every night I would pray that God would send his Messiah,
and that the Romans would be cursed! While I was still a little boy, a man named Judas of Galilee organized a group of guerrilla fighters committed to getting rid of the Romans. These men were called Zealots. They led a failed revolt and 2,000 of them were captured. The Romans crucified all of them along the roads of Judea -- 2000 men hung on crosses as an example to anyone else who might try to defeat Rome. I remembered those men, and when I was a young man, I became a Zealot. I’m not proud of everything we did. My name, Iscariot, means dagger-man. We carried small daggers under our cloaks. In large crowds, we would stab Roman sympathizers and then blend into the mob by pretending we were one of the frightened onlookers. But the Zealots were true believers. We believed in God, and in Israel. We believed that these things were worth dying for.
The problem was that we had no leader. We thought that John the Baptist might join us, but he did not. Then we heard about a man named Jesus. He was from Nazareth, and the people told stories about his teaching and healing. I found this Jesus and listened carefully to what he had to say. How the hope inside of me burned brightly when he spoke. I just knew that he could be our leader in overthrowing Rome. Then an incredible thing happened. Jesus asked me to become a disciple, to join his inner circle of friends. I could hardly believe it at first. I had gone looking for him but he acted as if he had sought me out. He had a way of doing that with everyone, of making them feel that he was searching for them and wouldn’t rest until he found them.
What a man Jesus was! I can still remember how he taught the crowds and scolded us disciples for not understanding everything he said. I came to realize that this man could be God’s Messiah. He could lead us in a successful revolt against Rome. So I waited. I tried to be patient until the time was right. A year passed, then two. Jesus sounded less and less like a revolutionary. He told us to love our enemies and to do good to them who spitefully used us. Those were indeed hard sayings to take.
We traveled much in those days. Jesus kept teaching; we kept listening. But I always wondered, “When will Jesus turn against Rome?” The end climaxed quickly, for him ... for us ... for me. The time came when he made up his mind to go to Jerusalem. It was during the time of Passover. “Perfect,” I thought. “He is going to declare himself to be the Messiah, and the people will join him in driving out the tyrants.” That’s all I ever wanted. The people greeted Jesus with jubilant excitement. They spread palm branches and leaves out before him. I was so excited I could hardly stand it! “Now,” I thought, “now he is going to revolt.” It started out so well, too. Jesus went into the temple with a whip and drove out all of the crooked tax gatherers and moneychangers. I laughed until I cried with anticipation. The temple had enough money to raise an army. Then Jesus stopped. He didn’t even try to raise an army. He just kept talking and debating. He was doing nothing to start a war with Rome. Then, like a heavy fog, the truth came in upon me. I knew what I had to do if we were to overthrow the Roman rulers.
Now this is where you come in. You already have your minds made up about me. You think you know why I did what I did. You think I was a greedy little coward who would betray his own mother for the right price. Before you judge, maybe you want to consider that my motives were as pure as any you have.
When I was a little boy growing up in Judea my mother used to tell me stories at night. I remember one about a horse and a donkey walking down the road together. The donkey was so loaded with cargo that he could hardly walk. He asked the horse to take some of the load. The horse laughed and refused. A short while later the donkey fell beneath his heavy load and died. The owner of the animals took all of the cargo from the dead donkey and loaded it on the horse. Then he took the carcass of the donkey and heaved it onto the back of the horse. The horse wobbled down the road thinking, “If only I had carried my fair share I wouldn’t have to carry all the cargo and dead weight besides.”
I was determined to carry my share of the weight of responsibility. I decided to make Jesus act, to make him lead a revolt. If I could cause a confrontation Jesus would have to defend himself. I went to the chief priests and pretended to turn Jesus in. The priests even gave me money, so I took it to make the betrayal look real. At the end of the Passover meal, I met with the chief priests and soldiers. Together we went to Gethsemane. I saw Jesus and embraced him. The mob came. They arrested him. And I thought, “This is the beginning of the end. Now Jesus will have to defend himself and the revolution will begin.”
But he didn’t. He didn’t resist. He didn’t fight at all. Jesus simply went with them, chained like a common criminal. My plan had backfired. It lead to one more death instead of a final victory. And now, I’m accused of betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
Before you judge me, I need to ask: Have you ever dreamed passionately about the future, only to see your dream hurt others when it comes true? Have you ever felt so committed to your ideals, only to see them crush those who love you? Have you ever been blinded by white-hot zeal, only to realize to late that the fire was fueled by hatred, by shame, by contempt, by morality, by everything other than the fire of love? Have you ever made a mistake – a grave, tragic mistake?
My biographers claim that I felt no remorse for what I did. The question is, would I do it differently if I had another chance? My question is, will you?
The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
A Serious Way of Wondering by Reynolds Price
“Why I Did It, A Sermon by Judas Iscariot”