The Ballad of Judas Iscariot

780px-Caravaggio_-_Taking_of_Christ_-_DublinIf anyone in the Bible gets a bad rap, it’s Judas Iscariot.  We have been taught since we were little that Judas was the great betrayer who, as the devil incarnate, turned Jesus over to the authorities to be crucified.  Judas went to the high priests and offered to hand Jesus over to them.  He got a nice sum of money for it, too.  In his gospel, John makes it quite clear that Judas was a good-for-nothing.  He inserts commentary everywhere he can to say that Judas was stealing money from the community purse, that he didn’t care about the poor, and that he was that bad dude who would stab Jesus in the back.  Dare we, however, take another look at the story?

During the end of Jesus’ ministry he told his disciples that he must suffer and die.  He even went so far as to call Peter Satan when Peter said it couldn’t be so.  As Jesus and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, Jesus tells them that the time is drawing near.  The disciples, however, act like they don’t believe it or don’t care and carry on like nothing is wrong.  They are greatly surprised, then, when Jesus actually is captured at Jerusalem and killed.  All except for Judas.

There are numerous theories about what Judas did and who made him do it.  Some accounts say that it was Jesus who told Judas to go talk to the high priests, because he knew he must be captured and wanted it as peaceful as possible.  This is perhaps why Jesus looked at Judas at the Last Supper and told him to go do what he must.  Another account from the Gospel of Barnabas says that it was actually Judas who died on the cross and not Jesus.  This story says that Jesus had already ascended to heaven when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus and so Judas was transformed to look like Jesus and was taken in his place.  The Gospel of Judas says that Judas was Jesus’s closest disciple to whom he revealed the mysteries of the universe.  Jesus then had Judas turn him in so that he could be freed from his body and returned to his eternal form, but the other disciples couldn’t comprehend this so they stoned Judas.  The most popular version, of course, is that Judas was possessed by Satan and betrayed Jesus for money.  Regardless of which is actually correct, let’s look at a more simple possibility.

Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, grew up in Kerioth in Judea.  Simon did the best he could for his family, but he was by no means a rich man.  Judas grew up always telling himself that he would not let his kids be poor as he was.  He was going to make a better life for his family than the one that he had been given.  After Judas was called by Jesus, he was commissioned with the task of keeping the community purse.  As such, he was the one who would have to go to pay the temple tax when it came due.  Judas may have dipped in to the pot to make ends meet on occasion, and maybe not.  If he did, was he any worse of a sinner than anyone else?  After all, he had mouths to feed and no way to provide because he had decided to follow this carpenter’s son.  Sure, it was a tough decision to leave his family behind, but although Judas wasn’t really sure who this guy was, he knew that there was something about him and that he just might be the one to lead the revolt against the Romans that oppressed them so much.  So, Judas followed Jesus, listened to his teachings, and did what he was told.

As he and the rest of the disciples made their way to Jerusalem, Jesus kept talking about how he was going to be captured and killed.  This worried Judas.  If this happened, then there was no way that Jesus could help them conquer their occupiers.  When they arrived in Jerusalem, Judas went out to deliver the temple tax like he did every year at Passover.  The high priests see him and said, “Hey Judas.  Come over here a minute.  We realize that you travel with Jesus and we have been hearing about all of the amazing things that he has been doing.  We were especially amazed when we heard that he had raised a man named Lazarus from the dead.  We realize that it is in all of our best interests to ally with Jesus because it does nobody any good if we are against each other.  Clearly with so much power, God’s favor rests upon this man.  We would like to talk to Jesus about this, but it is important that we keep this hush-hush so as not to insight any trouble from the Romans.  Can you help us get a meeting with him?  In fact, here, this is really important to us and for all of Israel, so we want to offer you payment for doing this.  We realize it isn’t easy, so here you go.”

And there it was.  Judas was being given today’s equivalent of $100,000 to do what was right!  Finally, he wouldn’t have to worry about feeding his wife and children.  He was being asked to be a liaison between Jesus and the high priests.  What a huge role!  Finally, Jesus could partner with someone in power to overthrow the Romans AND he was getting paid to make the arrangements.  God truly does bless!

And so, we know the rest of the story.  Judas goes and tells Jesus about the arrangement.  He will kiss him so that the authorities know which one he is and they will take him in and they can talk in private.  Jesus agrees and when it is time, Jesus tells him to go and do what he needs to do.  Later that night, he returns, but something is wrong.  He notices that the high priests are accompanied by Roman soldiers.  Judas starts to panic, but then he thinks, “Maybe the Romans won’t let the high priests do anything on their own, so they had to come with.  Then, when the priests are alone with Jesus and the soldiers are gone, they can have their talk.  Ok, stay cool.”  But we all know it didn’t work out that way.  Jesus ends up on the cross and Judas realized that he had been duped.  He feels so bad, so guilty for not only causing the death of his teacher and friend, but also for letting down the people of Israel and destroying their chance at a good future, that he gives the money back to the priests and then hangs himself.

Poor Judas.  He probably didn’t do anything wrong, but because people have their agendas, he was painted as the ultimate of bad guys.  Regardless of what really happened, there was something that Judas was missing.  It is something that I, too, have overlooked or mistaken at times.  When I work out I like to listen to podcasts.  I usually listen to a particular podcast where a couple of theology nerds called Trip and Bo sip craft brews and host a program called Homebrewed Christianity.  On this program they host a number of theologians and scholars of the church.  A few weeks ago I was listening to one with Diana Butler Bass.  As they went to a Q&A session, the first question that was asked of Diana was one that stumped me, too.  The person asked, “If we are telling people that they need to come to church so that they can help the poor and the oppressed, then what do we do when those people respond that they already do these things through a non-profit?  What, then, are we to tell people is the reason to come to church.”  I had to think about this for a good while.  I eventually realized, that I, like Judas, had something to learn from Mary Magdalene.

Jesus was at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha to celebrate the resurrection of Lazarus.  Jesus had just told them all again that he would be killed soon.  Sure enough, when the authorities heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus they got very worried that this powerful of a person could cause some real trouble.  So, as the text says, they plotted to kill him.  Mary knew a thing or two about burials.  After all, she had just done her brother’s.  Mary anointed Jesus not as a king from the head first, but as a corpse, from the feet first.  She realized the importance of ritual in difficult times.  She knew that in times of great sadness and great joy like birth, death, and the journey to death that we need friends, support, rituals, and meaning to help carry us through these times.  This, you see, is what both Judas and I were not seeing.  This is why the Jews begin preparation for death with rituals and stories while the person is still alive.  This, is why we gather together every Sunday morning to support one another, uplift each other, and to celebrate through ritual, our births, our deaths, and the many resurrections we experience throughout our lives.


One Response to “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    Amen Brother. I for one can attest to now appreciating what it means to be part of this Sunday gathering. In a way I have never experienced before, and quite frankly never felt that I had been missing. But now I feel a yearning for spiritual sustenance. Like the historical description of Judas above, I too had as a goal to differentiate myself from my humble beginnings — to be a better husband to my wife than my father was to my mother; to be a better father to my children than my father was to me; to be a better provider to my family than my father was to ours. Those goals drove me then. I am content along those familial lines today, with my wife and our sons and our nuclear family. I feel a pivot underway, where my goals can now be broadened, my focus deepened. I still need to play the “money collector” role, and work diligently at the day job, but increasingly note that my front and center thoughts now begin and end the day with my own internal spiritual mantra. Our Sundays gatherings at Tri-C buoy my spirit and sustain me throughout the week, until the following Sunday’s refilling of the spiritual tank.

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