Rethinking Judas

April 7th, 2019

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

My son Desmond told me something many years ago that I’ll never forget. He had just returned from a class trip to Peru and I asked him what the kids were like. And he answered: “Who in particular?” So, I named a kid, and he responded: “It depends on who he is around. If is alone with me, he is like this. If he is with Jake, he is like this. If he is with Isabelle and Jake, then he is like this.” 

What Desmond reminded me of is that context counts. We are going to talk about context today, feathering it into the conversation we had last Sunday when I told you about a woman I met on the beach in Maui with lime green hands, a skateboard tied to her backpack, and no shoes. And how she asked the question: “Who are you?”

It wasn’t a question of identity; it was about connection-what are you connected to spiritually? And, while my answer in the moment wasn’t too hot, what I came to see is the connection that counts is: me to God to you; whoever you is in that moment. To put God in the middle grounds us in the moment and prepares us for the very next thing.

And yet, the very next thing happens somewhere. It happens in context. The spiritual life cannot be disconnected from the material world. God set us in a place, at a time, in a gene pool, with neighbors; so here we are. Context matters; and yet it is also context that causes us to feel most misunderstood. Context can be confusing, or inconsistent. Context can even be a force unseen.

So, to answer the questions “Who are you?” is qualified and mediated by context; isn’t it…and more than just context in the moment, historical context as well; and some of that context we know how to weave into our stories, and some of it we don’t even understand ourselves.

Context can be confusing, and cause us to feel misunderstood at times, but, to make it more confusing, sometimes we can’t even put our finger on why we feel misunderstood. Context is complicated. It changes fast, and often we don’t even see its invisible influence working upon us in the moment, causing us (to use Paul’s words from the Letter to the Romans) “to not understand our own actions and do what we don’t want to do.” (Rom 7:15 para).

We are complicated creatures. We are not flat, one dimensional beings;  but rather, nuanced puddles of cells as deep as the ocean. And that is what we find in John’s Gospel today in the person of Judas. His context was complicated, and I imagine he felt misunderstood.

It is easy to put Judas in a box that reads: bad guy; moral degenerate; character reprobate; Adolf Hitler. And the author of John seems quite happy to do this as well…“stealing from the common purse.” But, what if Judas thought it was for a good cause?  What if the money he “stole” was repurposed for something he believed to be more important?

Consider this…What if Judas thought that it was his duty, maybe even his calling, to help Jesus recognize his own calling, his own providence, his own possibility, his own destiny? What if Judas, because he does “know” Jesus, and he does “love” Jesus…what if he was repurposing the money to move Jesus closer to his destiny?

The Harlem Renaissance poet Countée Cullen in his poem Judas Iscariot  opens our minds to the possibility that Judas’ life might be rather more complicated than we like to imagine. 

It begins:

I think he knew the growing Christ,
and played with Mary’s son,
and where mere mortal craft sufficed,
there Judas may have won.

Perhaps he little cared or knew,
so folly-wise is youth,
that he whose hand his hand clung to
was flesh embodied Truth . . .

Judas was the only apostle not from Galilee. This may have caused him to feel like an outsider or it may have given him cause to see himself as a bridge, providentially placed, to connect Jesus to his destiny.

The name “Iscariot” is our clue. One meaning is “man from Kerioth,” a Judean city south of Jerusalem. And so, Judas may have seen himself as a bridge between the Temple hierarchy and the amazing Jesus.

But Iscariot also can mean “person from a city,” or a “city slicker,” if you will.  An Iscariot was a nickname for the Sicarii who were assassins tied to the Zealot party.  The Iscariots operated in cities, where they participated in assassinations by sneaking up on a person in the crowd, stabbing them, and then blending back into the crowd. If Judas was, or had been, a Sicarii, he might have seen himself as a bridge between the Jewish armed rebels and the powerful Jesus. Either way, he was different than the other apostles; more an outsider…His context was different than theirs, which makes it easier to be misunderstood.

Cullen, in his poem, suggests Judas knew Jesus in his youth. Could that have been the case?  Maybe. Who knows? But Judas was the only disciple Jesus calls friend and he did travel with Jesus for three years as an adult. He witnessed Jesus healing the deaf, blind, and demon possessed.  

He saw Jesus feeding 5000 with five loaves of bread and two fish…And seeing that miracle would alert a warrior like Judas to the fact that Jesus’ could not only conquer Rome but conquer the world.  Think about it. Jesus with 5000 men, and no need for supply lines to keep them fed; just a boy carrying a backpack with some fish and bread. They could march across the world without pillaging the lands they passed through. Beloved conquerors bringing God’s justice to all.

It may have seemed to Judas that it was his providence to guide Jesus toward this destiny.

So, let’s continue on with Countée Cullen’s poem.

And you may think of Judas, friend,
as one who broke his word,
whose neck came to a bitter end
for giving up his Lord.

But I would rather think of him
as the little Jewish lad
who gave young Christ heart, soul, and limb,
and all the love he had.

And men to come will curse your name,
and hold you up to scorn
in all the world will be no shame like yours;
this is love’s thorn.

Out of love, based on his context, Judas may have believed it was his duty to point or push or prod or cajole Jesus toward his own destiny…to be the king of the world. And now, is seems, it is Judas’ destiny to be maligned by all people for all time. That is his thorn; so misunderstood by all, except one…Jesus. Jesus was there for his Judas.

Richard Lloyd, who wrote todays anthem, says it this way:

Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
Forever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair

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

So, when we all condemn him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.

It was Jesus after all, who, at that last Supper, told Judas to go and do what he must. It was Jesus who saw the devil go into Judas and did nothing to intervene. 

It was Jesus who then, to the eleven disciples who remained, said:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Judas included.

For as Peter reminds us, “Jesus went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits (in hell) and saved them” (1 Pet 3:18 para).

If Judas were asked the question: “Who are you?” he might reply: “The one who sought freedom for the Jewish people. The one who loved Jesus. The one who knew Jesus’ providence as God’s chosen, the Messiah, the warrior king, that came to save God’s people and rule the world with justice.”

I do believe Judas had a sense of his own destiny; but he was aiming too low. He saw a king on a throne, not a king on a cross. Jesus’s kingdom was bigger than Judas could imagine.

But not understanding this, Judas went to the High Priest’s council to convince them (maybe) to make Jesus king, and he would save God’s people and rule the world with justice.

But context is complicated. And the Sanhedrin’s reply might have been: “Yes, let’s bring him in for a chat.” Jesus as king could not have been a compelling thought to the high priest. Maybe better to just get rid of this guy Jesus; especially if what Judas claims about him is true.

Judas, it seems, was caught off guard. It broke his heart. It was not his intention. He threw away their blood money and hung himself on a tree.

Countée Cullen’s poem finishes this way:

And you may think of Judas, friend,
as one who broke his word,
whose neck came to a bitter end
for giving up his Lord.

But I would rather think of him
as the little Jewish lad
who gave young Christ heart, soul, and limb,
and all the love he had.

Who was Judas? It is complicated. He wasn’t flat. He was a pool of cells as deep as the ocean. And at the very least he was misunderstood…yet Jesus loved Judas in the midst of it all. And Jesus loves you as well.