For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.
~ Mark 14:21
Oh, Judas. You’ve gone and done it now.
I mean, I know he’s Judas, but this is harsh, Jesus.
So, full disclosure, I’m bringing some baggage to this story.
Is this setup even fair to Judas?
Do heroes exist in a world with no villains?
How do we get redemption without a betrayal?
Was that redemption available to the traitor?
We get a lot of different and sometimes contradictory glimpses of Judas throughout the gospels. He was definitely one of the Twelve, and though he gets very few references that don’t mention his betrayal, there’s no indication he didn’t participate in the teaching, the healing, and the feeding that surrounded Jesus’s ministry.
He is Judas Iscariot, or “man of of Kerioth,” which is a city in Judah. This would have set him apart from the Apostles, who were all, as best as we can tell, from Galilee. John says he was in charge of the funds, and that he dipped into the kitty from time to time. Matthew says Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, which was maybe a couple hundred dollars today. Not really very much. Luke lets Judas off the hook by saying that before the betrayal, “Satan entered him.”
More ink has been spilled speculating on Judas’s motives and about the fate of his immortal soul than I care to summarize. And not just from scholars. Pop culture over the last century has taken numerous stabs at understanding or even redeeming Judas, from King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told, to Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, to Jesus of Nazareth and The Last Temptation of Christ. And with the latest boomlet in religious films, you can be sure there will be more to come. Suffice it to say that the conclusions about Judas are all over the place, so regardless of what your predilections are, you can find someone of authority to back you up. No need to trouble your little head with dissent!
So I don’t want to talk about the why of Judas. I don’t really even want to talk about Jesus.
I want to talk about choices.
Did it have to play out this way at all?
Did Jesus have to die?
Did Judas have to betray him?
For some perspective, let’s take a look at another story of judgment that everybody in this crucifixion narrative would have been familiar with: Jonah. The big fish is usually the show-stealer of that story, and that’s a shame, because it’s not nearly the most important piece.
Recap: Jonah is a reluctant prophet. God tells him to go to Ninevah, Israel’s sworn enemy, with a message of judgment. Jonah runs away instead, a big fish swallows him, yada yada, a chastised Jonah preaches. End of story. Right?
Well, not quite. Because here is the really important part.
After Jonah preached, the people of Nineveh repented. And after the people repented God changed His mind about wiping them out.
(Aside: Let’s add this to the stack of times the Unchanging God changed His mind.)
And this really pissed Jonah off.
See, Jonah hadn’t run away because he was scared of preaching. He didn’t run because he was stuck in some “comfort zone” psychobabble. No, Jonah just didn’t want to give up his comfortable life for no good reason. Because Jonah knew God was merciful, and he knew that if the people turned, God would forgive them.
That is what Jonah found intolerable. That he might look foolish. And that the mercy of God might be for more than just his tribe. That it might also be for “those people.”
Jonah made some bad choices, and then he made some (relatively) better choices (after he was stuck in a fish for three days, good job!). But the people of Ninevah also made some better choices. They repented. And it changed their history.
So let’s settle back into the Jesus narrative. Did things have to play out the way they did?
Jesus is clearly pushing everyone’s buttons, like he has some kinda messiah complex, and he’s been doing it for three long years. (To be fair, he is the Messiah, so…) And what his family was worried about way back in Mark 3 is finally coming to pass.
When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
So, yes, Jesus was an agitator. He was dead set on dying, and then rising, because that was the plan. Messiah gotta do what Messiah gotta do.
But it didn’t have to be Judas. It didn’t have to be Pilate. It didn’t have to be any of them in particular.
Judas could have just not followed Jesus from the beginning. Judas could have repented of his dishonesty with the team treasury. He could have refused the thirty pieces of silver. He could have led those looking to arrest Jesus in another direction.
Because Judas wasn’t a stock character, he was a real person. And real people have choices. People always have choices.
You have choices.
I had a pastor once who referred to God’s will as “God’s Dream” because it was a more accurate description of what we’re trying to convey here. We have the redemption story we do not because it was preordained, but because these are the choices that were made. If different choices were made, our redemption story may have looked slightly different.
But believe me when I say that God was not and is not dependent on any one person to make God’s Dream come true. God works toward God’s Dream through us and in spite of us, because God is God and we are not.
Not to totally change subjects…
Much has been made about “the death of the Church” and how we are moving into a “post-Christian” culture in America. It’s something that I don’t spent too much time worrying about.
First, I think our “Christian” culture has been toxic in a lot of ways. It has been more interested in power than in following Christ. I think we’re better off without a lot of it, to be frank.
But second, and most importantly: I’d like to remind you that the Church is supposed to be the body of Christ. And if that’s true, what makes you think that we have that kind of power to finally kill Christ off when centuries of persecution and indulgences and inquisitions couldn’t?
That’s pretty arrogant.
Don’t get me wrong; I am certain that we break God’s heart. But the Church has survived so many wounds — both from the outside and self-inflicted — than I can count. She will survive this.
Now, maybe she will survive through us; or maybe she will survive in spite of us.
That’s really our choice, isn’t it?