Betrayal! – June 14, 2020
Luke 22:22-23, 39-53
June 14, 2020
We have been looking at the stories of Holy Week. And my thought this week is that it’s hard to look at all that happened that Holy Week without looking at the story of Judas. Like it or not, uncomfortable as his role is in all of this is, Judas Iscariot is one of the main players in this story. And not looking at him is like not looking at the elephant in the middle of the living room!
So, I thought it would be good to talk about him today. However, unraveling the story of Judas, and figuring out the man that he was, is tough. In 1939, Winston Churchill described Russia as being, “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Well, I think that’s Judas. And people have been trying to figure him out for two thousand years now! And it’s still a debate. And there are still some nagging questions about him that have yet to be answered – and may never be answered. Just choosing a title for this sermon was tricky. I thought about a lot of other titles, but in the end, I decided just to go with the simple title – “Betrayal!”
The first thing I would say is something I’ve said before. God has a great flair for the dramatic! When God acts in the world he really acts. When God starts something, he really starts something! God makes liberal use of the exclamation point! (One of my favorite punctuation marks!) Think about it. The Exodus, the story of Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, Pentecost! All stories of high drama! As the Psalmist often said, God acts in the world, “With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
Well, this story, too, is one of high drama, although it’s drama of a darker nature. Think about it. This is like the best Hollywood script writing. The Savior of the world, at a pivotal moment in all of history, is betrayed by one of his closest friends. That’s a story that has endured throughout the ages!
Over those ages, there have been many opinions about Judas Iscariot! A book I read years ago, said that he was seen as anything from demon to saint. He was a saint, because he was seen as doing God’s will. Some have even said God carefully orchestrated this, and therefore he caused Judas to do what he did. (Even though scripture clearly tells us that it was Satan who entered his heart and caused him to act.
But that’s how some have felt about him. And maybe you have, too. People have exonerated Judas, saying “he had no choice in what he did.” It was like he was a puppet that was having someone else pull his strings. He was like Geraldine, the old character created by Flip Wilson. Do you remember her? What was her famous line? “The devil made me do it!”
So, some have exonerated Judas. And, of course, others have vilified him. They picture him in the Upper Room, hiding a cynical look as Jesus spoke, somehow already sprouting devil’s horns. He’s become the scapegoat of history. “We might not always do right, we might fail God sometimes, but we’re certainly no Judas!” Or maybe we are. If we’ve ever turned our backs on someone, maybe we have been cast in that role of “being a Judas.” Because that’s a label given to traitors over the years – just like skeptics have been given the title “doubting Thomas.”
So, how do you feel about Judas? Where are you on that spectrum between “sinner” and “saint?” While you’re thinking about that, let me give you some thoughts. And by no means is this to be the definitive work on Judas! – Like it took two thousand years for me to come along and answer all the questions! Right? No. But let me give you maybe a little more to think about!
First, let’s think about “Judas the puppet.” Here again, a lot of people feel that Judas was “doing God’s will.” They say that, “If Judas didn’t do what he did, Jesus couldn’t have done what he did!” They see Judas as an integral part of the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, he had to do it! He had no choice! So, part of this has to do with the whole “free will” – “free choice” – verses “Predestination.” (I’m sorry to say!) If Judas was “predestined” to do what he did, if he had no choice, did he have “Free will?” We Presbyterians struggle with that question for everybody, not just Judas.
Well, to that I would just say what I said last week. There’s a difference between a God knowing all that’s going to happen to us, and a God causing all that’s going to happen to us! To me, it’s a matter of us having free will, but God knowing what we are going to choose! Does that make sense? (Or are we back to that “riddle wrapped in a mystery?”)
Think again about that statement “If Judas didn’t do what he did, Jesus couldn’t have done what he did!” People still see Judas as an integral part of the story of the atonement. So, he had to do it! Right? Well, the more I think about that, the more I’ve been thinking that’s not necessarily true.
Think about this. We’ve been looking at Holy Week, and we’ve seen how the road to the cross was being shaped by everything Jesus did that week – and the weeks before. We’ve read places (and there are a number of them!) where the Pharisees said to one another, “This Jesus must go.” We’ve read where they were plotting already how to eliminate him – to put him to death. They were serious! So think about it! This was going to happen, Judas or no Judas. The Pharisees were going to do this! Jesus was going to do what he did! Without Judas, it just might have read a little differently! When I think of it that way, I don’t have a problem with that “free will” thing. I think Judas acted on his own, prodded perhaps by Satan, as John said it, to follow the feelings he had.
That’s what I think Judas really adds to this story – his feelings! I think if we understand him a little more, we might get more of a sense of what everyone was thinking and feeling! Because this wasn’t just a picture of Jesus coming on the scene, and everybody loved him – except those who didn’t. There were a lot more feelings about him than that. There were many questions!
One of my favorite shows of all times is “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” And when that show first came out, there was a lot of controversy surrounding it. “It’s not biblically accurate,” some said. It has “inappropriate music!” (Of course, Jesus wouldn’t sing Rock and Roll!) And it has no resurrection. But the thing I remember was how, for the first time, for me, the Biblical story came alive! These people had feelings, they had passions! They had questions! There was real drama in this story! You know how I always say that we sometimes read the scriptures in our “Bible voice,” that we make it sound dignified and respectful. And that’s good! It ought to be. But sometimes we lose the emotions of the story.
Well, Jesus Christ Superstar brought that out for me. And the other thing it did, was it attempted to tell the story of Jesus from the point of view of Judas. Looking back, that was a pretty bold thing for Andrew Lloyd Webber to take on. And I think he did an amazing job. And in the opening song, entitled “Heaven on their Minds,” there is a wonderful rendering of the possible mind and motivation of Judas. I’m going to print the words to that song on our website. It’s too long to read in this setting! Although I’ll give you part of it in just a moment.
What that song suggests is that Judas was struggling with what Jesus was becoming. At first, he was a great preacher, who had compassion for people – even the power to heal them. But he was starting to get “out of hand!” He was taking on the authorities, he was challenging the “powers that be.” Up until this point, he had steered clear of having a confrontation with Rome. But was that a possibility at some point? Do you see how complicated this was?
I think Webber did a wonderful job helping us understand that in this song. Actually, his lyricist was Tim Rice. But listen to these words sung by Judas to Jesus. Does this get at some of the fear Judas might have felt?
“Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race?
Don’t you see we must keep in our place?
We are occupied! Have you forgotten how put down we are?
I am frightened by the crowd. For we are getting much too loud!
And they’ll crush us if we go too far.”
It’s so hard for me not to sing those words! I think Judas felt those things. And so did a lot of the people! They knew their history! They knew the reprisals Rome had visited upon the people in the not-so-distant past! If you’ve ever read anything about that, you know those reprisals were brutal! After one attempt at revolution, there are descriptions of the main street coming into Jerusalem lined with people nailed to crosses! The Romans didn’t mess around!
On the other hand, some have suggested that Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand. They’ve said that he wanted the revolution, and Jesus wasn’t moving fast enough toward that end! They had a revolutionary among them. His name was Simon, and he was part of a group called “The Zealots.” There have been different interpretations of that word over the years, but generally it’s been understood to be a group of people who were working toward the revolution, toward the freedom of Israel – something everybody wanted. We even know Simon, in the Bible, as “Simon the Zealot.” Maybe Judas had been talking with him!
Whatever his motivation, the other thing we have to say about Judas and his betrayal, is that it wasn’t obvious that he was going to do it. In this reading from Luke, when Jesus said that one of them was going to betray him, it says in verse 23, “They began to question one another, which of them it was that would do this.”
They didn’t know! It wasn’t obvious that Judas was the one Jesus was talking about! He didn’t say, “One of you will betray me,” and everybody turned and looked at Judas! No! It could have been any of them! At one point, John, one of Jesus closest disciples, leaned close to him and asked, “Is it I, Lord?” In John’s Gospel it’s even more apparent that Judas was not suspect. This is what it says there. “Jesus said to Judas, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” And no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the feast, or that he should give something to the poor.”
Even as Judas left the room, they didn’t know what was happening! They didn’t know it was he who was going to betray Jesus! And they didn’t know that events were moving very quickly towards Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. But they were. The priests were ready. Their soldiers ready. And Judas or no, Jesus was going to be arrested. Judas just made it easier for them. Because he knew where they could make the arrest without all the crowds around, without causing a “public scene.”
So, what does this say to all of us? Could any of us ever rise to the level of a Judas? I would hope that’s not what we’re talking about here, though I’m sure we’ve all had our little moments of betrayal. And wasn’t he acting out of the same fear or the loss of control that we sometimes feel? Was Jesus taking things too far, or was he not taking them far enough? Do we ever feel like we’ve gotten impatient with God? Or have we ever become apprehensive or fearful of what God was doing? Has change ever been happening too quickly for us?
They say the world is changing today. They say, after COVID, things will be different. We’ve all been hearing that, and we’ve all been thinking about that. And there’s some good in that. We’re certainly all becoming more computer savvy! And maybe more people are realizing these days that we really are “all in this together.” Maybe we’re seeing that black lives – that all lives – do matter! And by the way, is it a coincidence that these two crises are happening together? I think not. I believe they’re tied together.
Think about how Jesus stripped away the class systems of his society. There would no longer be people who were important and people who weren’t. The last shall be first, and the first, last. And the great would be servants of all. Maybe we’re learning, after all, that Jesus was right.
But change like that can be frightening. Sometimes we hear those kinds of things and think it all sounds “unrealistic.” And I don’t know where all this is going, but however this all falls out, I think it’s important that we not let fear rule the day. We all have fears. Maybe they’re the same kinds of fears that Judas had. I think it’s important that we see beyond those fears, that we err on the side of caring for people, and lifting people up. It’s important that we think about standing with the oppressed, about reaching out to those nobody else will – all the things Jesus did.
Things would never be the same after the Upper Room – for the disciples, and for the world. There would be frightening times ahead for them. There would be terribly uncertain times. And I’m grateful for the promises Jesus gave to his disciples in those times, that he would be with them always, and that no matter what the tribulation in the world might be, that he had overcome the world.
That’s his promise to us, too.
Eternal God, we thank you above all things that you are with us, wherever we go and whatever we do. Help us to know your presence. Help us to know your peace, no matter what the circumstances of the world, and of our lives. These things we pray in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of your kingdom in our midst, Amen.