The name Judas is a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Judah (Hebrew for “God is praised”).
I doubt any of us hear the name Judas and think “God is praised.” Instead, we immediately think what? Traitor, Betrayer, Scoundrel, Villain, Beast. His very name has come to be a synonym for treachery and disloyalty.
Clearly Judas had some redeeming qualities that prompted Jesus to select him as one of his original twelve disciples. But it’s not his redeeming qualities we read in the Gospels. Instead, it’s his character flaws. For instance, In John’s Gospel when Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with a pint of pure nard, Judas challenges, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” But the editor notes, “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:5).
Despite his pilfering of funds, Judas probably appeared to be as faithful and loyal to Jesus as any of the other disciples until that fateful night when he betrayed Jesus to the chief priests for thirty pieces of silver, leading them to the Garden of Gethsemane where he identified Jesus to the crowd by kissing him and addressing him as “Rabbi.” Jesus was then arrested, tried, tortured and executed. And Judas, experiencing deep remorse and anguish, went out and hung himself.
Or did he die a very different kind of death described Acts 1:18 –“Now (Judas) acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.”
Last Sunday after worship, three members of the Ministry of Adult Formation met with me to formulate some ideas for this sermon. After pondering the Gospel texts about Judas, we had lots of questions.
Was Judas eager for a political rebellion and disappointed that Jesus didn’t seem interested in starting one? Did he think he could force Jesus’ hand to start the revolt?
Did Judas feel that Jesus had somehow gotten derailed from his original mission? With Jesus making waves in Jerusalem, weren’t all the disciples thinking, “We didn’t sign up for THIS!”
Didn’t Judas experience and express deep remorse and regret for what he done? Could not he have been forgiven and restored to fellowship with the other disciples?
Isn’t there a bit of Judas in every one of us? Despite our best intentions, we sometimes betray the trust of even those closest to us.
Why does Judas get such a bad rap? Didn’t his betrayal set in motion the events that led to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, which, according to traditional Christian theology, brought salvation to humanity? In fact, the Gnostic Gospel of Judas – rejected by the mainstream Church as heretical – praises Judas for his role in triggering humanity’s salvation and exalts Judas as the best of the apostles.
As we hold all these questions, I’m wondering if the Judas story reminds us that there is a little good and a little bad in every one of us. The greatest hero has character flaws. The greatest villain has redeeming qualities. Might the Judas story be cautioning us about labeling people by their worst moments? I’m wary of labeling people traitor, thief, sex offender, illegal immigrant, felon, etc.
People are good. People are fallen. People can be redeemed.
Please don’t label me by my worst moments, and I won’t label you by yours.
Might this be one key, not the only key, but one key to help us forward in these difficult days politically? This week many of us have been horrified by the events at our southern border. Now, more than ever, it’s easy to identify the enemy.
But rather than labeling people by their worst moments, might we give them the benefit of the doubt, find ways to build bridges, not walls?!
Might this be a time to affirm our oneness with them? We are they. They are we.
Does not our identity as Christians call us to extend grace even to our worst enemy? Labeling, stigmatizing, vilifying…that’s not who we are. We’re better than that!
OK, that was one sermon. Now I have another one for you. But I’ll keep it brief.
When our little group met last Sunday, Dan Rossmiller shared a great resource by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, called Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes.
In his chapter on Judas, Spong argues that the story of Jesus’ passion was not the miraculous fulfillment of prophetic words from the past, as many of us have been led to think. Or to put it another way, it is not as if there are clues given in the Old Testament about what’s coming in the New. Instead, the Jewish Christians created the Gospel narratives with bits and pieces of stories from their own Jewish Scriptures. This is an ancient style of Jewish storytelling called Midrash
Spong asks, Who was Judas? Was he a person of history who did all of the things attributed to him? That is one option, and clearly what is believed by people who interpret the Bible literally.
Or was there but a bare germ of truth in the Judas story, on which was heaped the dramatic portrait that we now find in the Gospels? Can the details that have been attached to Judas in the gospel stories be found elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures? How much of the Judas story can be seen as a midrashic reconstruction drawn from bits and pieces of the Jewish sacred tradition? The answer is, almost every bit of the story. Consider these Old Testament stories of heroes and anti-heroes that more than likely were incorporated into the Gospel stories of Jesus and Judas:
1) From Zechariah we get the account of the betrayal of the Shepherd King of the Jews for thirty pieces of silver.
2) From the story of Ahithophel in 2 Samuel, we get the picture of the one who, when he betrayed David, the Lord’s anointed, went out and hanged himself.
3) From the story of Joab, David’s captain, being replaced by Amasa in 2 Samuel, we get Joab’s kiss of betrayal, and his murder of Amasa by disembowelment.*
4) From Psalm 41 (which Deanna read earlier), we get the account of the betrayal of King David’s close friend who becomes his enemy after eating bread at the table together.
5) From Genesis 37-50, we find Joseph betrayed or handed over to an enemy by his brothers, one of whom was named Judah (Judas).
That accounts for almost every detail in the gospel tradition regarding Judas Iscariot. This also suggests that most of the details about the life of Judas may not be literal at all.
Who was Judas? We really don’t know. We do know that it was important to the early Jewish Christian church to create an anti-hero to reveal the power of God working in and through their hero, Jesus. The villain of the Gospel stories was in fact a composite of bits and pieces of the villain stories from their own Hebrew scriptures.
Spong argues that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater of lesser degree, in the midrashic style of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that many of us have never become familiar with. This style is not concerned with historical accuracy.
We are not reading history when we read the Gospels. We are listening to the experience of Jewish people, processing in a Jewish way what they believed was a new experience with the God of Israel. Jews filtered every new experience trough the corporate remembered history of their people, as that history had been recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the past.
This is the midrashic principle at work. Stories about heroes and villains of the Jewish past were heightened and retold again and again in the heroes and villains of the present moment, not because those same events actually occurred, but because the reality of God revealed in the present was like the reality of God known in the past.
I for one am constantly searching for ways to understand and talk about this midrashic style of ancient Jewish story-telling. It’s not second nature to me. Spong has helped me better than any other Biblical scholar to understand and talk about it.
Understanding the ancient Jewish midrashic style of story-telling has greatly enhanced my appreciation for the Gospel narratives, and for the Bible as a whole!
With this understanding, we in this Christian community are learning to take the Bible seriously, though not literally.
*In 2 Samuel 20:1-10, Joab David’s captain, was replaced by Amasa during a period of civil war. Joab, enraged by his being replaced, approached Amasa under the guise of feigned friendship, very much as Judas had approached Jesus. Joab greeted Amasa with the words, “Is it well with you my brother?” and he drew Amasa by the beard to kiss him. In that moment, however, Joab treacherously plunged his sword into Amasa’s body and shed his bowels to the ground.