THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS
In the news at least, Judas has had a pretty good week. With the well-timed release of information about the discovery of the first known copy of the ancient Gospel of Judas, the man that the New Testament paints as the betrayer of Jesus and that Dante put in the very worst level of hell is getting a second look. On this night when the betrayal by Judas is re-enacted in churches around the globe, I thought we should take some time to look at this man and what he did, especially in light of the new document.
We have known about The Gospel of Judas for a very long time. The second-century Bishop of France, Irenaeus, speaks out against it, so it was in existence by AD 180, we had just never found a copy until last fall. The document that was found is a copy of that Greek document that was translated into Coptic a century or two later and preserved in the dry Egyptian sands. It is one of the Gnostic gospels, which means it comes from a religious tradition that believed salvation could be attained through secret knowledge. If you’ve seen some of the news reports, you can see that The Gospel of Judas is in fragments, which means a lot of the text has to be guessed at. But the parts we can read are certainly interesting enough.
The Gospel of Judas does agree with the New Testament Gospels on some of the basics. The Gospel of Judas affirms that Jesus was divine. It does admit that Judas played a key role in the arrest, and therefore the subsequent crucifixion, of Jesus. As I understand it, it’s not trying to say that Jesus didn’t die, that the death wasn’t part of the divine plan, or that Jesus was merely human. The thing that is strikingly different about the Gospel of Judas is the motive that it gives to Judas for the betrayal.
The Bible does not have a clear answer to the question of why Judas chose to betray Jesus. The Gospel of John says that Satan entered into him and, with a sideways swipe at Judas for stealing money from their treasury, he seems to point to monetary greed as a motivation. For John, the devil dangled thirty pieces of silver in front of Judas's nose, and Judas took the bait.
I can't believe that John's explanation completes the picture, however, because Judas does not end up satisfied with his ill-gotten gain. He returns the money...not grudgingly...he throws it back at them and then goes out and kills himself. Whatever Judas thought he was doing in handing Jesus over to the authorities, it doesn’t seem that he was planning on Jesus' condemnation and death. Judas is so distraught over the results of his actions that he cannot go on living and he hangs himself in agony. Whatever else may have been going on in his mind, it is clear to me that Judas did not consider that 30 pieces of silver was worth more than the life of Jesus.
Well, what was he thinking? The Gospel of Judas claims that he was being obedient…that Jesus’ asked Judas to turn him in. This new document claims that Judas was actually the only one of the twelve to understand Jesus’ mission and so he was the one that Jesus chose for this important task. What of that? Certainly the New Testament Gospels show that the betrayal by Judas was not a surprise to Jesus. John, who reports that he was seated right next to Jesus at the Last Supper and could have heard Jesus well, reports that Jesus mysteriously says to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Judas then leaves the room, to the befuddlement of the rest of the disciples, and carries out the task. In other places in the accepted Gospels Jesus also indicates that the betrayal is an act that must happen for the divine plan to be fulfilled.
While I think it’s a stretch to believe the claim of the Gospel of Judas that Judas was the most intimate disciple of Jesus…on many occasions that seems to be reserved for Peter, James, and John…it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that Judas was fulfilling a role that Jesus set out for him.
But that’s not the only theory in town. Judas bore the name of a Jewish hero named Judas Maccabeus, who, in the 2nd century BC, led the armies of Israel to defeat Syria's oppressive rule of Palestine and establish a period of self-rule for Israel. That self-rule was short-lived and by the time of Jesus, Palestine was under foreign control once again...this time from Rome.
It makes perfect sense to me that someone who bore the name Judas and who found himself chosen to be part of the Messiah's inner circle might come to think he had some sort of parallel destiny to that first Judas. Remember, too, that the common expectation of the Messiah in Jesus' day was that the Messiah would be a political and military hero that, like Moses of old, would physically save the Hebrew people from captivity.
It is possible in Judas Iscariot to see a man of action, passionate for his country, who is frustrated at Jesus' inaction. He might have believed that a revolt similar to the Maccabean revolt is just around the corner and that Jesus and the twelve disciples will be the heroes that rid Israel of Rome. There are indications that at least some of the other disciples had similar thoughts.
Some have suggested that Judas was trying to force Jesus' hand. Judas had seen the miracles. Tensions in the group were rising. Jesus seemed to be preparing the Twelve for something momentous as they came to the capital city of Jerusalem. And yet Jesus is holding back. In this scenario, Judas alerts the authorities to Jesus' whereabouts so that Jesus will be forced to take the military action Judas knew he must have been planning all along.
But something goes terribly wrong. Jesus does not stand up to the soldiers and lead a revolt. When one of the disciples pulls out a sword to begin the battle, Jesus does not lead the charge, but tells him to put his sword away. If I had to guess, I would say that in this theory, Judas' horror and remorse began with that command. "Put away your sword." Judas knew in that moment he had misjudged. Jesus was not what Judas had thought...he was not the Messiah after all. He was simply a kind man, a prophet perhaps, a friend that now Judas had sent to his death. That was too much to bear.
Whether you take John at his word that Judas was a greedy thief open to the influence of the devil; whether you buy the claim of the Gospel of Judas that he was simply acting out of obedience to Christ’s command; or whether you believe that he honestly thought he was helping Jesus’ cause by forcing him to act, one thing is clear. At least from Judas’ perspective, something went wrong. The suicide of Judas shows that, whatever he intended or thought would happen, it was not the brutal death of the one he had left all to follow. Judas hangs himself before Pilate has even made his decision.
The suicide of Judas is the thing that makes me cast the most doubt on the claim of the Gospel of Judas that Judas was the only disciple who “got it.” Judas isolated himself almost as soon as the deed was done and sank to the depths of despair. Here again, we don’t really know his motive.
If the Gospel of Judas is right, maybe he took his life because he was angry at Jesus for making him a name that would be hated forever. Maybe he thought that in being closest to Jesus they would come for him next. Maybe in the mystical tradition of the Gnostics he thought he was freeing his soul from this dreadful body and would soon greet Jesus in spirit as Jesus did the same…a kind of suicide pact…but the New Testament doesn’t paint the suicide as a peaceful anticipation of something better. Maybe he realized his plans had gone terribly wrong and hung himself in shame. Maybe he realized the magnitude of his sin and believed there could be no forgiveness for a sin so great.
None of those possible motivations for Judas’ suicide was the truth. Had Judas made a different choice and waited out the next few days, I believe he would have found forgiveness and joy like all the rest. Who knows, maybe Judas the betrayer and Peter the denier might have had equally prominent places in the ministry to come. God has picked unlikely people like that before. But Judas didn’t truly “get it.” He missed the core message of God’s love and forgiveness for even the worst of sinners. Whatever Judas might have understood about the necessity of Jesus’ death, he had missed the part about rising again to new and everlasting life…life that has the potential for joy in the here and now, within matter and within history, and not just in the spiritual life beyond.
On this night when Jesus was betrayed, we also remember the betrayer and search our souls. “Is it I?” we ask, and rightly so. Of course it is us, and our motives are as unfathomable as those of Judas. Sometimes we think we’re doing the right thing…it just turns out all wrong. Sometimes we try to push our agenda and discover that God had something different in mind. Sometimes we are greedily focused on gain, when Jesus has taught us to give it all up. Sometimes we are being truly obedient but can’t cope with the scorn of those who see it differently.
A part of us wants to save Judas…to make him less of the devil-filled villain that millennia of Christianity has made him. I think we do that because we know that he is in all of us. To save Judas is somehow to save ourselves. Christians apparently began trying to do that since at least the second century.
To all of us, both the New Testament and the Gospel of Judas have something to tell us…a secret, a mystery…something so wonderfully strange that even when you hear it, you won’t believe it. But you’ll have to trust for a few days yet. Whatever you’ve done, don’t despair. Trust in the Lord and lean not to your own understanding. What seems unredeemable and horrible and the most awful thing anyone could imagine has happened. We’ve betrayed our Lord to death. Look, there is his broken body and shed blood. Weep and repent of your sin, yes, do. But don’t despair. I’m telling you, you won’t believe the news. It’s death, I know. But come back Sunday…here…to the tomb and hear the mystery of faith. Even those who have betrayed him will rejoice. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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