Preached on Sunday, 09.04.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor. 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; and he went and hanged himself.
The story of Judas is the story of betrayal that informs all other stories of betrayal. No one is in any doubt what is meant when somebody is referred to, to their face
or behind their back, as a ‘Judas’. It is in some ways the ultimate in accusations, the ultimate in insults. But I remember mentioning once before how the songwriter Leon Rosselson wrote a song called ‘Stand up, stand up for Judas’ on the grounds that, in his words, Judas has had a bit of a bad press over the years. The song is based on the thought that Jesus was busy going around and talking about the kingdom to come, and ignoring the injustice and the poverty of his day – and Judas believed that Jesus was betraying his mission, betraying the people who had put their faith in him, betraying the world he came to save.
Now, while you can perhaps pull out the words ‘you will always have the poor, but you won’t always have me’, Leon Rosselson is working on fairly thin resources in his poetic endeavour to give Judas a bit of support. He takes words from Jesus recorded in the gospels and, to be fair, interprets them in the way that many churches and Christians have done over the centuries, dividing the world into the saved and the damned, those for us and those against us, us and them; and he reminds us of how the Christian faith has been spread, in his words, ‘by sword and gun and crucifix’. But there is little or no grounding for anything that Judas might have said or thought – save the speculation that he was a zealot, whose main aim was to rid the land of the Romans.
The Gospels do not, as Rosselson said, give Judas a good press. Judas is the baddy of the drama, and nothing good can be said of him. He is the betrayer, and to be a betrayer he had to be all that is bad; nothing but ulterior motives can be ascribed to him – including being a pilferer of the common purse. If we turn, however, to the 2nd century Coptic work, the Gospel of Judas, we find a quite different picture. There, in a work made up of dialogues between Jesus and Judas, we find the idea that Judas was the only one who fully understood Jesus, the only one who had access to his innermost thoughts. And, among other things, we find there a repudiation of the sacrificial understanding of the work of Christ, an understanding of God in which the idea of the requirement of sacrifice is found to be quite alien.
There is the thought of the Gospel of Judas, the 2nd century Coptic version, being a translation of a much earlier Greek version – a version which would take us back virtually to the time of Jesus. And you then get into the possibility that Judas becomes the traitor of the story because he later presents a different account of what happened – in the same way that John singles out Thomas as the doubter because of a dispute between John and Thomas (or their followers) over how to understand Jesus.
Whatever those arguments, however, and whatever the interesting themes, the fact is that Judas is the traitor of the gospels; to be ‘a Judas’ is to be the betrayer. And we cannot examine the story of Judas without looking at the story of betrayal – betrayal then and betrayal now. We cannot read of the kiss on the cheek in the garden without the story being broadened in our minds to other betrayals – our own betrayals, the betrayals of so-called friends, the betrayals of those nearest and dearest, the betrayals we carry around in our souls – my betrayals and your betrayals.
And so this is a story which hits home; it hits us where it hurts; it gets up close and personal. The story asks us to consider betrayal and what we do with it, what it does to us, how we deal with it, how it deals with us. There are all sorts of betrayal to which we might feel related – there is the betrayal of trust, the betrayal of a confidence, the betrayal of a principle, the betrayal of a cause, the betrayal of a person.
I was told the standard phrase recently of what is supposed to be part of the spreading of a highland rumour (told to me by a highlander, or at least by one of highland descent): ‘I had better not say any more; I’ve already told you more than I know myself’. It’s a phrase that can take a person apart; it’s the process by which a small nugget of truth becomes so elaborated, so transformed, that it ends up bearing no relation to the truth – except that it still applies to a person and that person has still to face the consequences of the tale. It sounds like the betrayal of a confidence (at least it starts out like that) but it ends up being the betrayal of a person and the betrayal of the truth.
Betrayal can only be committed by someone close to us – that’s in the definition; and the closer the person the worse the betrayal, and the deeper the wound. And so the question soon becomes one of what you do with the betrayal – and that is true whether you are the one betrayed, or indeed if you are the one doing the betraying. In the story we read today, Jesus has to deal with the consequences of being betrayed – and the consequences are deadly; and Judas has to deal with consequences of betraying – and those consequences are also deadly.
And we, in our lives, have to understand the deep, deep wounds left by the betrayal of those we trust, or those we follow, or those we love. And while the story with which we wrestle today is told as the story of a few hours, other stories of betrayal play out over days or weeks, months or years, decades or lifetimes. We can be betrayed by words or deeds; we can feel betrayed by what is done, or not done, or even by death.
And we can carry that betrayal with us everywhere we go; we can become so accustomed to its presence that much of the time we will scarcely notice it – like a scar that, so long as we don’t go looking for it, so long as it doesn’t itch, we can ignore. But we know it’s there; we know that, if we put our finger in the right place, the indentation will be just the same – part of us, part of our identity, part of what distinguishes us, part of our story, part of what makes us who we are.
But the story we read today doesn’t go that way. The story we read today takes a betrayal as the way things had to be, perhaps even the way the world is. It interprets the world in which we live, and understands us, as being sinful – as being on the precipice all the time of getting it wrong. It’s a given – it’s not something remarkable, not something newsworthy. Indeed, it’s the basis of everything else. And from that understanding the rest of the story grows and develops.
It has been behind much of what Jesus has said throughout his three years of ministry – how every time anyone wanted to accuse anyone of anything his reaction was, in different ways, in different words, to say ‘and what about you’. And so, when Judas comes with his kiss and his henchmen, Jesus is not surprised. This is the way of the world and, if it were not so, he would not be there. So when Peter wants to fight back, to return evil for evil, Jesus says that the point of a sword misses the point of the world – and his point.
Judas’ betrayal is, like Jesus very life, an encapsulation of life itself. Judas, in the story we read, is the personification of the sinful world we live in, of which we are a part; and his betrayal gathers up all our betrayals into a moment, an action, a kiss. And what comes after all that is what all that is all about.
What comes after all that is the cross. In the drama of the week we enter today everything is gathered up, lifted up, on the cross. The cross is where betrayal takes us, the crucifying culmination of the sin which threatens always to undermine us and to overwhelm us. And on the cross betrayal hangs, awaiting transformation, awaiting transfiguration, awaiting resurrection. And on the cross a word will be spoken, a word not only for or about those who carry out the act of crucifixion, but a word for and about all those whose actions have led up to this point, and a word for and about all those who carry in their being the nails of betrayal.
It is, of course, a word of forgiveness; it is the only word that is sufficient to the task, the only word capable of taking betrayal and taking it away. It is the only language we can borrow that can renew our lives and renew our souls. And the question for us in every Holy Week is whether we can indeed borrow it. Can we take this language of forgiveness for betrayal and transform the pain or the mark or the memory that we carry? Can we, finally, perhaps after many years, take the small or large betrayals our lives have encountered, those we still carry, and place them where they belong: on the cross? Can we take the risk that they will be transformed, and we will be resurrected? Can we take the chance that we might lose forever that part of our identity – so unwelcome, and yet so cherished? Can we allow ourselves and our hurt to be crucified with Christ, so that with Christ we may rise not simply again, but anew?
Judas may have had a bad press – but so has humanity. We believe that in Christ God acted; in Christ God took our betrayals and our pain and inaugurated a new way – a new way that is not half as easy as it sounds, a new way that takes away the chains that bind us to the past, a new way that can set us dizzyingly free for the future, for God’s future, for God: ‘Father, forgive them’.