St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
When I was in fourth grade, I had a best friend named Lindsay. Lindsay lived in the same neighborhood and was in my class at school. We played together. We helped each other with our homework. We even came up with a secret alphabet, which we used to write each other notes. Lindsay and I were inseparable. The next year a new girl moved into our neighborhood. She was cool and confident and we wanted to be her friend. She and Lindsay hit it off right away. The only problem was, the new girl didn’t like me. And as a result, Lindsay chose the new girl over me. I’d chalk it up to pre-adolescence, but the same thing happened to me after college. And as silly as this sounds, I still nurse these hurts to this day. Jesus talks a whole lot about forgiveness, but it’s especially difficult when you are betrayed by people close to you.
Few people in the history of Christianity are reviled more than Judas Iscariot. His name is basically a curse word, and it’s no wonder: he’s portrayed as a thief who stole from the disciples’ common purse, of which he was in charge. He protests exorbitant spending because he wants to keep the money for himself. And, when either greed or jealousy or frustration take over, he plots to hand over Jesus to the authorities in exchange for money. In some ways, even Satan seems less of a threat than Judas because at least we know up front that Satan is pure evil. It’s harder to swallow Judas’ betrayal because he is one of the 12, chosen as a disciple to proclaim the Good News. He preaches, teaches, heals, journeys, and eats with Jesus. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah. And still he betrays him.
I must admit, as strange as it sounds, I have always had a soft spot for Judas. I want so badly to believe that there was some other motivation for his betrayal, some reason that the gospel writers were too biased to include in their accounts because of their anger with him. It’s not like the other disciples’ were super faithful, either: all of them deserted him in the garden when Jesus was arrested, and don’t forget Peter denied Jesus three times. Even so, Judas is not the most likable fellow, and his death (either by hanging himself or spontaneous disemboweling) seems to satisfy our need for justice, and perhaps also our propensity for schadenfreude.
There’s a particular midrash, or ancient Jewish biblical commentary, that explores what happens when the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea. They have witnessed the power of God in their escape from slavery in Egypt and miraculous parting of the waters. As the waters come back down and cover their Egyptian captors, the Israelites are so moved by joy and relief at their newfound freedom that they begin to sing and dance. In heaven, the angels wish to join in their celebration. God says, “My creations are drowning in the sea and you wish to sing?”
We like to paint Judas as this one-dimensional character, but in reality, he was a multifaceted human being. Maybe the reason why I feel so badly for Judas is because I see myself in him. I, like Judas, have betrayed Jesus, in thought, word, and deed. It follows, then, that, I, like Judas, deserve death.
But the story doesn’t end there. Tomorrow begins the Tridduum, the 3 Holy Days where we commemorate Christ’s passion and his glorious resurrection. Even though we had erred and strayed from God like lost sheep, Jesus gave his life for us so that we could live. I believe that God’s love extended to Judas, too. Apparently, I’m not the only one; there are several stories and poems about what happened after Judas died. I’ll read you the shorter one called The Judas Tree by D. Ruth Etchells.
In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died,
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified.
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there,
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair.
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms.
"It was for this I came,” he said,
"And not to do you harm.
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept,
Though one betrayed and one denied,
Some fled and others slept.
In three days' time I must return
To make the others glad,
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had.
My tree will grow in place of yours;
Its roots lie here, as well.
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell.”
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst,
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.
As we move deeper into Holy Week, I encourage you to reflect on God’s mercy and forgiveness, and the extraordinary lengths God goes to show love for all of God’s creations.
The icon of "The Betrayal of Judas" in Haas Hall at St. Thomas'