Wednesday in Holy Week

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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?

Judas Iscariot

I’ve been thinking about Judas a good bit. The initial prompt was the gospel for the 5th Sunday in Lent about which I preached here. There we learn pretty much everything we know about Judas Iscariot–that he is the son of Simon Iscariot, that he is one of the twelve, that he keeps the common purse. John also calls him a thief and puts in his mouth the criticism that Mark attributed to “the disciples”–that the money Mary spent on the perfume would have better gone to help the poor.

In the gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week, we read the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in John 13. Of all the gospels, John is the most insistent on the devil’s role in Judas’ actions but Judas’ reasons for betraying Jesus are not at all clear. Many scholars have speculated that the name “Iscariot” refers to a group of assassins named the “sicarii” who were active a couple of decades after Jesus and that Judas may have been actively engaged in revolt or resistance against Rome. Others suggest the term is derived from a village in Judea and point out that Judas’ father is also known as Iscariot. Matthew attributes Judas’ motives to money, although the sum he receives, 30 pieces of silver, is not especially valuable and Judas seeks to return it as he repents of his actions.

I think the most likely motivation for Judas lies in the political sphere. From the synoptics, it’s apparent that the disciples don’t really know why Jesus is going to Jerusalem. They don’t understand the predictions of his death. It’s likely that any messianic speculation they might have had would have focused on Jesus leading a revolt against Rome, perhaps invoking heavenly armies to do battle with the Roman Empire. Judas may have betrayed Jesus in an effort to force his hand, to compel him to take action against Rome. If so, he was wrong, and his repentance after the fact may be evidence that he came to understand what Jesus was really about.

Judas is an enigmatic figure not just because we know so little about him (the uproar about the Gospel of Judas notwithstanding). He is enigmatic because we struggle to understand his motives. If Satan was the driving force in his betrayal, then Judas is more a tragic figure than a villain.

The Christian tradition has tended to interpret Judas as a diabolical figure in his own right. That’s particularly true of artistic representations. The famous fresco by Giotto in the Arena Chapel has been a powerful influence on later interpretations of Judas. Giotto depicts him as barely human. His features are ape-like, animal, and he radiates hate and evil.

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A later depiction, by Caravaggio, takes Judas’ other-ness in a different direction. Now, he is the most “Jewish” looking of anyone in the painting:

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In each case, Judas becomes someone with whom we can no longer identify: the personification of evil, of other-ness. And the same is true in recent cinematic or television portrayals of Judas. He is dark and swarthy, easily imagined as an undocumented immigrant or a muslim, certainly not “one of us.” That’s unfortunate because one of the things we can say certainly about Judas was that Jesus called him as a disciple, as one of the inner circle, the twelve. He walked with Jesus through Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem. He heard him teach, saw the miracles he performed. In that he was like all of the other disciples. His misunderstanding of Jesus was no deeper than that of any of the others, although he acted on it in ways they did not. But none of them understood what it meant to follow Jesus. None of them understood fully who Jesus was. That understanding came only after cross and resurrection.

There are ways in which we are very much like Judas. We heap all sorts of expectations on him, we want him to be a certain way, to do certain things, to confirm our expectations. We may not betray him as dramatically as Judas betrayed Jesus, but we do betray him, when we refuse to share his love, when we neglect the needs of those around us, when we seek to remain in our secure and complacent faith, and fail to follow Jesus on the road that leads to the cross. We are Judas, at least some of the time, just like there are times when we are Peter who denied him, and like all those who abandoned him. But Jesus loves us, just like he loved Peter, and the other disciples, and even, dare I say it, Judas?