By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
At Easter, the television industry trots out all the religious programming it wouldn’t dare show any other time of the year. You can always count on Moses showing up in the form of Charlton Heston, and this year a “milder” form of Mel Gibson’s’ The Passion of the Christ was aired. Frankly, I’m surprised The Da Vinci Code didn’t premiere until last weekend. I would think that if you were a movie producer, Easter would have been the perfect time for it.
Well, there was a new element in the Easter basket this year, but Hollywood didn’t have anything to do with it. Did you notice it? The long-lost Gospel of Judas was made public… by the National Geographic Society, of all people.
Have you read it? I confess I haven’t. I’ve only read about it. But I do know it begins this way… “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot.”
It seems there have been efforts of late to clean up Judas’ act, if not his image. Apparently, according to this apocryphal work dating back to the late third century, Judas betrayed Jesus because that’s what Jesus wanted him to do… that Jesus revealed intimate secrets to Judas that he told none of the other disciples, even Peter… maybe especially Peter.
“Step away from the others,” Jesus is said to have told Judas, “and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. You have been told everything,” Jesus says to him. “You will exceed all of them… for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
It definitely adds a new twist to the mystery surrounding why Judas betrayed his Master, doesn’t it? You see, the New Testament gospels do not tell us directly why Judas betrayed Jesus except that the devil entered into him… and that as a result of his duplicity, in grief and self-pity, he took his own life.
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Truth be told, the followers of Jesus were quick to blame Judas. Maybe that took some pressure off themselves for their own feelings of betrayal. After all, the easiest way not to deal with one’s own problems is to project them onto others. Perhaps Judas was different from the rest, and they never liked him in the first place. Could it be they always wondered why Jesus would choose such a man to be a part of his intimate circle? It’s possible that Judas was an outsider from the get-go, never belonged, was always on the fringe. And when he did what he did, it made it that much easier for the others to condemn him so quickly.
The passionate feelings toward Judas didn’t let up either. Even though it was written a number of years after the first three gospels, John’s gospel refers to Judas as a thief and a liar. Just goes to show that the intervening decades had not cooled down the hot and angry feelings toward the one who gave Jesus up for thirty pieces of coin. Evidently, that hasn’t changed over the centuries either.
John Killinger tells of the time he and his wife Anne were in London and went to see the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. During the intermission, the cast came down and talked with the audience. John and Anne met the actor who played Jesus and the one who portrayed Judas, and were told that they switched parts every few nights. Why did they do that? So the other members of the cast wouldn’t get to hating them, they explained. “Before we did this,” they said, “everybody ostracized the one being Judas.”1
That must have been the way it was for the other disciples of Jesus. You won’t find any sympathy whatsoever for Judas in the New Testament. The followers of Jesus made it as clear as the nose on your face… they blamed Judas, and Judas alone, for his betrayal. If they had had the Gospel of Judas in their hands, I doubt it would have ever seen the light of the twenty-first century.
And for that reason, we – you and I – are just as quick to blame Judas for what he did.
A couple of years ago, when we re-enacted the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week, Mike Turner played Judas. While the group was still in rehearsal, Mike and Glynda were in the car with two of their grandchildren and were talking about it. It was the first time Mallory found out what her grandfather was doing. “You’re playing Judas!” she exclaimed. “Pops, you’re the betrayer! You can’t be the betrayer!”
Most of you know that for the last three years or so I have been preaching what is called the lectionary. The lectionary is a prescribed set of scriptures, appropriate for the church calendar and divided into a three-year cycle. For each Sunday, there is a selected text from the Old Testament, including the Psalms, a reading from the New Testament gospels, and one from the epistles. The idea is that if the preacher chooses one of these texts, over a period of years he or she will preach the essence of the entire Bible. It’s been a good discipline for me, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
The selections for today are very interesting. With the image of Judas lurking as a backdrop, listen to the psalmist… “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). Keep thinking of Judas, if you will. The epistle reading is from 1 John: “Whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (5:12). The gospel reading is from John. Jesus is praying for his disciples and thanks God that not one of his followers has been lost… “except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12). All this, plus the reading from Acts which narrates how the remaining disciples replaced Judas, seemingly without much, if any, grief or remorse.
We’re still blaming Judas, aren’t we, after all these years? No love lost there. Let’s just replace him in the line-up and move on.
Which is exactly what the other disciples did, isn’t it? “Let’s fill his spot and get on with it. We’ve got important things to do.” That is pretty much the attitude they reveal. Add a dose of condemnation, and that appears to be the basic attitude we find in the Bible about Judas.
Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, is quite graphic in telling us what happened to Judas.
Janet and I once were in a Sunday School class composed of people our age. One of the ladies in the class had been asked to teach a group of twelve year-olds in Vacation Bible School. She was rather nervous about it, never having done it before. On the first day she discovered they were all boys. That made her even more anxious since she was the mother of girls. Boys can be pretty rambunctious, after all – especially at that age – and she wasn’t used to dealing with that. Her experience was ponytails and lace, not the rough edges that come with boys. What in the world was she going to do?
Sure enough, she had a bit of a struggle with the boys… until, in Bible study on the first day, they came across this verse that tells about Judas’ bowels gushing out. Twelve year-old boys! They loved it! So, she made sure one of the boys read this verse every single day. She had no problem getting their attention after that.
It certainly got our attention this morning, didn’t it?
But once Luke gets past the replacement of Judas – with Matthias who, interestingly enough, we never hear from again – Luke doesn’t bother to dwell on Judas. He’s ready to go on to other, more important, things. And frankly, that’s okay with us. Let’s indeed move on. We’ve got a mission. Let’s get to it.
The major consideration for the disciples was that their group of apostles be composed solely of people who had been firsthand witnesses to the resurrection. That’s the key to this whole thing, and do you know what that does? It brings us right back around to Judas. We just can’t get away from him, can we? I believe that to be the heart of Judas’ story. And, I think it is why the disciples were especially hard on Judas for his betrayal.
As far as I can tell, all the disciples of Jesus were betrayers. None of them believed or endorsed Jesus’ mission. James and John thought his kingdom would be political, Peter refused to accept the idea of Jesus as the Suffering Servant, and during the ensuing argument was called Satan by his Master. The only difference between Judas and the rest of the disciples – especially Peter – was that Judas didn’t stick around for final redemption. Judas wasn’t a witness to the resurrection.
That is what sets him apart from the others, and why, I think, the scriptures reveal such a resentment toward Judas. Perhaps it was not the betrayal of itself. It was that Judas had given up, did not stay around for redemption, took matters into his own hands and took his own life. That may be why his fellow disciples are so hard on him.
They recognized that all of them were betrayers, but betrayal does not need – in fact it cannot be – the final word. Redemption is and always shall be the very last thing.
As harsh as it may sound, the same that was true of all of Jesus’ disciples is true of you and me. We all have the spirit of betrayal. If there is to be any difference between us and Judas, it is just that. For redemption to take place in us, we must be witnesses to the resurrection.
It has been said that history is written by the winners and not the losers. In the camp of Jesus, Judas was the obvious loser. He never got to tell his own story, and perhaps that is why, a couple of centuries later, someone did it for him.
Fortunately, we will never be famous… at least in the way that Judas is famous. Nevertheless, I don’t think we want to take a chance on having someone else write our history for us. It is best that we do it ourselves and that we do it now. The only way to write our history from an eternal perspective is to be witnesses to the resurrection, and the only way to do that is to affirm the Risen Christ.
What does your history say about you? Are you a witness to the resurrection? Answer that now, if you will, and don’t leave it to someone else to do it for you.
Reveal to us, Lord, how to write our own story. And at the center of it, may we find Christ our Risen Lord. Help us to stay, to be faithful, so redemption will be our final word. Through Christ we pray, Amen.
1John Killinger, “Witnessing the Resurrection,” The Christian Century, May 16, 2006, p. 19.