Monday, March 25, 2013

The Problem of Judas

Judas Iscariot has always fascinated me. Every Easter, when I write blog posts and skits and devotionals, I keep coming back to him over and over again.

Sometimes, I think about how I would view him if I were one of the people who knew him best: his fellow disciples. I picture them, huddled, frightened on that dark Saturday, together but feeling very alone. They were thinking about Jesus, of course. Of what to do next. But I bet Judas’ name came up too. And I picture myself there and wonder what I would say.

If I am Matthew, I would be nervously cracking my knuckles, thinking—maybe saying—“I knew it all along. Remember? I told you. I knew he was stealing from us. The numbers didn’t add up. And when I asked about it, whenever I said anything about it, he’d just make some snide comment about how the Roman’s financial management system wasn’t the same as good, honorable Jewish math and maybe that was my problem. Like I was still just the resident tax collector, the friendly local cheat.”

But what I wouldn’t say, what I would just wonder, quietly, was: And look what happened to him. Did it start that way, you think? Just a few cut corners, a bit of pocketed change? With tiny justifications and self-righteous denials?

Maybe, all along, he wasn’t planning to betray Jesus. Maybe he just wanted things his way. Wanted to be in control, to not have to trust God. And every compromise got easier.

I know that feeling. If Jesus hadn’t called me away…. Face it, I was the friendly local cheat. What if I had been given responsibility for the money bag? Old habits die hard.

It could have been me.

If I am Peter, I would be sitting there, listening to some of the others wondering how he could do it, gritting my teeth, and finally exploding, “Shut up! You don’t know anything. If you’re so holy compared to him, why are you here, hiding? Huh? Tell me that, or just don’t say anything at all.”

Because I know. More than any of them, I know what it’s like to have that sudden stab of fear when someone asks if you were with him. You react. Because of fear. None of this was what you expected, and all your nice-sounding religious commitments and morals go out the window because you didn’t see this coming. Who you really are shows up then, not who you pretend to be.

And you are a coward. When it counts, down to your core, that’s what’s there. Fear. Betrayal.

I thought I was brave. Really, I did. Came out swinging a sword, ready to defend him until the end. I was wrong. Three times wrong.

Maybe he betrayed Jesus because Jesus wasn’t who he expected. And he reacted out of fear.

It could have been me.

If I am Thomas, I would be sitting in the corner, trying to figure out if the psalm about betrayal that Jesus quoted meant that he didn’t have a choice. Trying to make everything fit neatly, logically. But it doesn’t, and neither do my actions in running away after everything I saw. It could have been me.

If I am James, I would be wishing I had noticed earlier, maybe been able to intervene and do something, even at the Passover meal when Jesus practically announced that he was the traitor. Why didn’t we understand? But really, we didn’t understand anything. Jesus talked about dying too, several times, and we missed that. We didn’t want to understand. We just wanted our glory days with the teacher, asking for positions of power, waving to the crowd with the palm branches and never seeing the sudden end. I was in it for myself, my own fame, all along. It could have been me.

If I am John, I would be telling the other the rumors I heard that he killed himself, afterward. It’s a sin to be glad at the news of another man’s death. Of course it is. How can I feel that way? Should I? If it was better for him to never have been born…. But he was one of us, from the very beginning. It could have been me.

I’m not any of the disciples. But there it is. Over and over. The reason I’m so fascinated by Judas is because I could have been him. I am him. So were the other disciples. So is every person who has ever lived, because everyone knows what it’s like to choose darkness over light, to betray God himself and then jolt to your senses and wonder what you’ve done, to know for certain that you are deliberately rebelling while at the same time feeling compelled by something within you to do it anyway.

I know what Judas was thinking, how he justified everything, because I’ve heard the same lies and made the same choices. The difference is my reaction to grace. There’s a lot I could say about that. But for right now, I want a few quiet moments, a few difficult paragraphs, to feel a loss that we don’t often take the time to feel.

When we mourn for Judas, we are forced to come face to face with everything inside of us that is evil and dishonest and cowardly and rebellious and say, “Yes. That is who I was. Who I am.” Which is the only way we can come to the cross and the empty tomb and say, “By the grace of God, Jesus died for me anyway.”

Sometimes I forget that I’m not a good person. Judas makes me remember, and for that reason, I tell his story around Easter, not for the thrill factor or the gruesome details of his death. But because he could have been me.


  1. Powerful message... thank you for sharing.

  2. Wow. This was really powerful. Thank you.

    I love your writing, by the way. You're very talented!