Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Problem of Judas

I've been watching the Bible mini-series, of course. It's well-done, in that the actors are good, the special effects are pretty good, the dialogue isn't as clunky as usual for such things. I was a bit surprised at the Ninja angels who come to rescue Lot and his family from Sodom. And, in trying to jam a book with 1189 chapters and 31,173 verses into 10 hours minus time for commercials, I understand that some things have to be cut. I'm trying not to be like those Tolkien fans who were outraged when Tom Bombadil was cut from the first Lord of the Rings movie. Tom is a delightful character but he adds nothing to the plot and the filmmakers, though big fans of the books, knew they had to keep the action moving. Still, I feel we are watching a Bible highlights reel. We start with Noah and the Ark in storm, with him telling the Adam and Eve story to his terrified family to explain why God was starting over with humanity. Then we go to Abraham. Then all of a sudden we're in Egypt. No Jacob wrestling with God, no story of Joseph and how the Israelites got to Egypt in the first place. A lot of time is spent on the exodus but the Ten Commandments are just a shot of Moses coming down a mountain with the tablets and talking to Joshua. Then--Bang!--it's 40 years later and Joshua is facing Jericho. No fire on the mountain, no golden calf, no wandering in the wilderness following the cloud by day and the fire by night. There's a lot of drama skipped over--the earth swallowing people, plagues, manna, quail, Moses pleading for his stiff-necked people. So I just hope it does send people to the Bible because, as you know, the book is always better than the movie.

I am intrigued as to how, when they do the story of Jesus, they will combine the 4 gospels and, as an actor, how they handle Judas Iscariot. Dorothy L. Sayers faced that challenge. Besides writing the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, Sayers was an amazing lay theologian (See her essays in The Whimsical Christians and her amazing The Mind of the Maker) and church dramatist. She wrote plays for presenting in church and they weren't the "kids in bathrobes" variety. Asked to write a play for the Colchester Festival, she took the slim thread that the historical basis for Old King Cole might have been the grandfather of Constantine, and used it to write a play about the first Christian Roman Emperor and the creation of the Nicene creed. She did a lot of research and it is a fascinating attempt to combine a portrait of a very complex man while dramatizing a great achievement that is intellectual and spiritual.

She was also asked to write a series of dramas on the life of Christ for BBC radio. The Man Born to be King is perhaps her masterpiece in playwriting. She not only had to research the gospels but work out how to portray each person as a character. One, who is key, was very problematic for the dramatist. "Judas in the Gospels is an enigma," Sayers writes in the introduction to the book of her play cycle. "One thing is certain: he cannot have been the creeping, crawling, patently worthless villain that some simple-minded folk would like to make out; that would be to cast too grave a slur upon the brains or the character of Jesus. To choose an obvious crook as one's follower, in ignorance of what he was like, would be the act of a fool; and Jesus of Nazareth was no fool…But to choose an obvious crook for the express purpose of letting him damn himself would be the act of a devil;…for a God, who behaved like that, nobody--except perhaps Machiavelli--could feel any kind of respect. But also (and this is far more important to our purpose) either of these sorts of behavior would be totally irreconcilable with the rest of the character of Jesus as recorded." She says that you might write an anti-religious propaganda piece that Jesus was stupid or an extreme predestination tract that Jesus was beyond morality "…but there is no means whatever by which you could combine either of these theories with the rest of his words and deeds and make a play of them. The glaring inconsistencies in the character would wreck the show; no honest dramatist could write such a part; no actor could play it; no intelligent audience would accept it. That is what I mean by saying dramatic handling is a stern test of theology…"

Sayers' solution was to make Judas' besetting sin his intellectual pride. She makes him the smartest of the disciples, the one who first grasps the true purpose of Jesus' Messianic mission. But Judas is bothered by how the "dumber" disciples get more attention from Jesus and is worried that Jesus may not stay true to his purpose but instead fall for the idea of an earthly political kingdom. He is, as Sayers writes in her notes to one of the plays, "in the mood of a jealous husband, whose suspicions would only be confirmed by protestations of innocence….Rather like Othello, he can only believe in innocence after he has killed it." Her Judas betrays Jesus when he thinks Jesus has betrayed his mission and ideals. Only later does he realize he was wrong about Jesus and what a terrible thing he's done.

Sayers was gratified by the angry letters she got from listeners who saw Judas' motive as too noble for such an evil person. She pointed out that it is the most gifted of people who can be either the best of saints or by misusing them, the worst of sinners. My illustration of this: imagine if Hitler, with his ability to stir people up and make them follow him, had been a preacher and mobilized the German people and the rest of Europe in a Christian revolution of helping the poor, the hungry, the immigrant, the sick and those in prison. He would have been a great saint. We might have named our church after him. The Pope might have taken his name!

Of course, Sayers has to invent other characters and a subplot to explain her subtler and more plausible Judas. But you can look at it the other way. In the old Tab Hunter film King of Kings Judas is in fact part of the political faction, thinks Jesus is the Messiah but sees him as way too spiritual to bring about a physical kingdom of God on earth. He hopes to force Jesus' hand by endangering him. If Jesus was captured by his enemies, he would surely call for his followers to fight for him and overthrow the Roman occupation. It is Jesus' meek acceptance of his death that leads Judas to see what a monstrous thing he has done.

The gospels really don't help us much with Judas' motivation. In today's gospel, John tells us that Judas was a thief. But I must agree with Sayers that Judas could not have been so transparently evil or Jesus would be either stupid or incredibly manipulative in selecting him to be one of the Twelve. I agree with both The Man Born to be King and King of Kings that whatever Judas' specific reason for betraying Jesus, he had to have been sincere about following Jesus, at least at first. So the question is: what made him change?

One thing commentators notice is that Judas seems to be the only Judean among the Twelve. The rest are Galileans. Iscariot could mean "man of Kerioth." There are 2 towns with that name, both in the south of the Holy Land. So he would have felt like a bit of an outsider.

Judas was also the treasurer. When Judas leaves in the middle of the Last Supper, the disciples think he was dispatched by Jesus to make a donation to the poor for Passover. Now you don't make an obviously greedy or dishonest person your treasurer. You give that responsibility to someone you trust. That's why when organizations and churches find out that the person in charge of the money has been embezzling it, they feel hurt and betrayed. Sad to say, in all of these cases the money was rarely going to a noble cause but personal indulgences, like a big house, cars, clothes, tuition for their kids, etc.

However in Judas' case, what would he spend it on? With their peripatetic lifestyle, Jesus and the other 11 disciples would have noticed if Judas was suddenly wearing very expensive robes, or if he was drinking a lot, or buying jewelry, or eating better than them. Sayers has Judas paying an informant within the group of Zealots he feels are seducing Jesus with dreams of an earthly kingship. Were I writing a drama, I might have Judas taking the money to help out a ne'er-do-well relative. We all have, or know of people with brothers, sisters, grown children or the like who can't get their lives together, who are addicts, or homeless, or petty criminals. These people come to their better-off relatives from time to time and ask for financial help. And because they are family, it's hard to refuse them. Perhaps Judas was taking from the common purse to help a hard-up relative and rationalizing it as charitable giving to the poor. Unfortunately, this is speculation. As I said, the gospels don't make Judas' motivations clear.

So why do people usually betray friends or leaders? There is the mundane reason: for money. One of the most damaging spy rings in US history, in which a Navy officer helped the Soviets decipher more than a million encrypted naval messages, was created because John Anthony Walker was strapped for money. So it could have been that simple, although, as we've pointed out, it's difficult to see what Judas was doing with his ill-gotten gains.

But unlike Walker, Judas wasn't someone who happened to be born into a country, felt nothing for it, and sold it out. Judas joined Jesus' following. Because of the potential Jesus saw in him, he was picked to be one of the Twelve. He was trusted with the treasury funds. For Judas to betray someone who inspired him and a movement he believed in, he must have first become disillusioned. He must have felt in some way that Jesus betrayed him.

If Judas felt that Jesus was not who or what Judas thought him to be, it means he must have made some fundamentally wrong assumption about Jesus. He must have thought Jesus was something other than he really was. And while it is tantalizing to speculate what that was, the important thing was that Judas had, as most of us do, created in his mind a Jesus after his own image. Judas wanted a Jesus that conformed to what Judas wanted him to be. He wouldn't let Jesus be Jesus.

We see this today. Biblical scholars are always coming up with a Jesus who was an enigmatic wanderer-sage, or a political radical, or an apocalyptic nut job, pretty much what they want him to be. Christians and non-Christians see Jesus as either a modern-day progressive or a modern-day conservative. The people at PETA think Jesus was a vegetarian. White Supremacists think he was an Aryan. New Agers think he was a guru. I have to catch myself lest I fall into thinking of him as a spiritual Sherlock Holmes, an unofficial rabbi who comes in and solves medical problems and religious questions that the official rabbis are wrong about. I actually think Holmes was based on Jesus.

The problem with preconceiving Jesus as someone committed to our ideas and our issues is that eventually you're going to come across evidence he isn't. Those who think Jesus is staunch supporter of the Right are going to be disconcerted by Jesus telling the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor or his parable where those who don't welcome immigrants or visit those in prison are sent to hell. And those who think of Jesus as a firm supporter of the Left are not going to be happy with his condemnation of divorce and sexual promiscuity, or his indifference to the injustice that Roman soldiers represented, or, for that matter, his belief in hell! But if you are a Christian, your commitment is to Jesus as he is, not as you wish him to be. Jesus isn't the man of your dreams; he's Reality itself, to which we have to adapt, not vice versa.

If Judas got disillusioned, the illusion he lost was that Jesus was something other than his own man. It was that everything Jesus would think and speak and do would be exactly what Judas would do in the same situation. Whatever it was that broke the spell of the dream that Judas was having, it left him so angry that he had no problem turning in this man who healed thousands and fed the hungry and preached the forgiveness and love of God. Judas was so mad he couldn't see the harm he was doing. Or he could and didn't care.

Except he did care on some level. Just as a perceived injury by one we love can fuel fierce hatred and lashing out, it can turn to sorrow and regret after the violence is over and the damage is done. After Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin, and marched off to Pilate, Judas is horrified by what he has done. "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." He flings the 30 silver coins he had been given onto the temple floor, goes off and hangs himself.

And that is what makes Judas a truly tragic figure. In classical tragedy, a man falls through his own fault. Because what Judas doesn't do is ask the man who preaches God's unfathomable forgiveness to forgive him. Would he? Would Jesus forgive Judas? He forgives Peter, who stood outside the place where Jesus was being tried and denied him 3 times. He asks his Father to forgive those who are in the process of crucifying him. Jesus forgives the robber crucified next to him who had been mocking him beforehand. I think if Judas had not despaired, had not decided to be his own judge, jury and executioner, if he had not doubted the grace and mercy of God displayed in the daily life of Jesus, he could have been forgiven. He not only gave up on himself, he gave up on the goodness of God. Drowning in sorrow over his sins, he did not reach out for the hand of the Savior who could pull him out. Burning with shame and self-loathing, he did not seek the living water that Jesus could give to quench his anger at himself and his actions. C. S. Lewis said the gates of hell are locked from the inside. Judas consigned himself to the hell of his self-targeted rage, shut the door on himself and threw away the key.

Judas is a cautionary tale. His decision warns us never to put anything before Jesus--not our own version of him, nor our pain and outrage at finding him to be our God and not our tool or pet or mini-Me. Nothing is more important than faithfully following Jesus, wherever he takes us. We must not second-guess him or be offended when he does not do or say what we want him to. Today we tell every human being to be himself or herself; not to let anyone else define them. But we think God can be whatever we say he is.

Judas' fate warns us not to fall into the trap of thinking our sin is too big for God to forgive. That's arrogance--thinking anything we can do can stymie God. God is bigger than all the sins of the world. Jesus was able to shoulder them all. He died for all the sins of the world. What's really sad is that Jesus died for Judas' sin, too, but Judas didn't avail himself of what Jesus won for him. He could have, had he thrown himself at the feet of his crucified Lord. But he didn't give Jesus a chance to forgive him. And that's tragic.

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