Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior was betrayed, denied, and abandoned by his friends: Give us grace to accompany him on his journey to the cross and to share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.–An alternative collect for Wednesday in Holy Week
Wednesday in Holy Week is traditionally known as Spy Wednesday, so-called because it is remembered as the day when Judas betrayed Jesus.
As I listened to the passion narrative from Mark’s gospel, I was struck by his depiction of Judas in relation to the other disciples. For some reason, I was surprised by Mark’s description of the Anointing at Bethany, where the criticism of the woman’s actions was put in the mouths of anonymous people at the meal (In Matthew, it’s the disciples; in Luke and John, it’s Judas). Mark immediately follows the anointing with Judas seeking out the chief priests and scribes, but doesn’t link the two events at all.
As the passion narrative builds, the theme of Jesus’ abandonment by his disciples becomes ever more important. Interestingly, Mark does not have Jesus identify Judas as his betrayer at the Last Supper. Instead, Jesus predicts one of them will betray him. A few verses later, as they begin the walk to Gethsemane, Jesus tells them they will all desert him, the occasion for him to predict that Peter will deny him.
Then comes the kiss, the betrayal and arrest, and Mark’s insertion of the story of the disciple who fled from the scene naked. Given that all of the disciples will abandon him, that Peter denied him, that Jesus cried from the cross in despair, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, far from being the worst sin ever committed, is on one end of a continuum that includes the actions of all of the disciples (and perhaps, God).
By John’s gospel, that’s no longer the case. He still doesn’t quite understand why Judas betrayed Jesus. He offers at least two explanations, that he was a thief (John 12:6) and that Satan entered him (John 13:2, 27). Over the centuries, Christians have come to view Judas in increasingly negative terms. One need only look at images of Judas from the Middle Ages or Renaissance to see the point clearly. He is depicted with animal-like features, demonic, or as the most Jewish-looking of the disciples. Giotto’s depiction of Judas is a good example of this.
What that demonization of Judas has done is let us (and the disciples) off the hook. Holy Week, the passion narratives invite us to imagine ourselves in the story, to see ourselves as one of the characters. A demonic Judas resists our efforts to see ourselves in that role as one who betrayed or abandoned Jesus, as one who was disappointed by Jesus and sought to force his hand. For all our faults, sins, and shortcomings, we can’t imagine ourselves the embodiment of evil like Judas has become.
But we should remember. Judas was a follower of Jesus, he did share in the last supper, receive the bread and wine. Even in John 13, where it’s possible to interpret Jesus’ actions in taking up the towel and basin as a response of his knowing that Judas would betray him, Jesus washed his feet just he washed the feet of all the disciples.
We do need to see ourselves in Judas, as followers of Jesus who betray him in small and large ways, seeking our own glory, not his, expecting him to conform to our expectations of what a Messiah should be, demanding that he share our prejudices and values, giving him up to the powers and principalities of this world.
I wonder if there’s a message to us in John’s final juxtaposition of Judas’ departure and Jesus’ words: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus demonstrated his love for his disciples and the world. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. As his disciples, are we called to love Judas as Jesus did, and as Jesus loves and forgives the Judas in us?