Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
I’d like to recommend a particular kind of prayer practice for you to try during Holy Week, especially if you’re feeling as if your prayer life has become a little dry lately, or self-absorbed. Choose one of the Biblical characters who populate the stories of the last weeks of Jesus’ life – anyone except Jesus himself. You may choose Pilate or Barabbas. You may choose Thomas or Peter. You may choose Mary, the disciple, or Mary, Jesus’ mother. Or there are some great characters in the parables Jesus told – you could choose one of them. Or you could choose the rich young ruler who wasn’t ready to give away all his possessions, or the person who donated the colt for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem. Read the story. This year, since we are concentrating on Luke, you may want to begin with his version. Just skim through the verses, beginning around the time Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem – around chapters 14 or 15. Skim through them until one of the characters catches your attention. Once you’ve chosen your character, treat her or him as the main character of a novel you’re writing about her or his life. Make up what might be called the back story. What was she thinking, feeling? Who was he with, worried about? Where did she sleep? What did he eat? Imagination is key to this prayer/study method. Use yours – and imagine looking at Jesus through the eyes of your chosen character. Listen to him through your character’s ears.
Many times practicing this type of imagination prayer, I have chosen Judas. He has always captured my imagination and wormed his way deep into my heart, probably dating back to the time I first read Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. Kazantzakis wrote The Last Temptation in 1951. In 1988, Martin Scorcese made a film version of the book starring Willem Dafoe. Both the book and the film were tremendously controversial when first each appeared, largely because Kazantzakis and Scorcese made Jesus a little too human – a tortured soul, deeply conflicted between fulfilling what he believed to be God’s purpose and his desire to live a more human life, in love and lust with Mary. You can imagine what religious orthodoxy and conservatism thought about imagining Jesus as a sexual man. In any case, my favorite aspect of Kazantzakis’ re-imagined life of Jesus is his characterization of Judas as Jesus’ dearest and oldest friend. Moreover, Kazantzakis imagines that Jesus asked Judas to turn him over to the Romans – that Jesus could see no other way to fulfill God’s purpose. Kazantzakis imagined that Judas was tormented by the request, that he anguished over what Jesus asked of him. It was his guilt that he caused the death of his friend that drove him to kill himself.
The stories about Judas in the gospels are very different. John could barely stand him while Luke is somewhat more sympathetic. There is an interesting thread of Biblical scholarship that believes John wrote his gospel as a commentary on Luke’s gospel, an explanation, even a corrective in some places. David Trobisch, former New Testament professor at Bangor Theological Seminary is a subscriber to this theory. John wanted to be sure the early church got the meaning of Luke’s gospel right, but in doing so, John may have wildly altered Luke’s intent. Why does that matter? It matters because most Christians think of Judas the way John told us to think of Judas – that he was a thief, a betrayer, a weak man with an evil heart. Maybe he was. But maybe his story is a little more morally ambiguous.
Thinking of Judas the way John wants us to think, makes me wonder why Jesus chose Judas as a disciple in the first place. And why was he given a seat of honor, reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper, as John suggests he was? Did Judas change during those years he accompanied Jesus? Who was he before he signed on to the Way? What happened to him, that he would betray his Messiah?
If you choose Judas as your prayer/imagination character, you don’t have to go as far as Kazantzakis did, by imagining Judas as Jesus’ dearest friend, fulfilling, against his will, what Jesus asked him to do. That’s a stretch, even though it’s a powerful literary image. But, if you choose Judas, try to imagine looking at Jesus’ through Judas’ eyes. Listen to Jesus through Judas’ ears. Think of Judas as the keeper of the purse. In other words, Judas was the treasurer of the movement. He would have been the one who kept track of the contributions, who approved expenditures for food, for charity, for travel. For your imagination purposes, ignore John’s assertion that Judas had been stealing from the fund himself. That was John’s imagination at work. Rather, think of a time when you might have been a treasurer of an organization’s resources, or your own family’s checkbook. Have you ever served on a finance committee? Have you ever been responsible for overseeing a budget? Have you ever been in a conversation with anyone about spending money? Have you ever questioned whether an expenditure might be too lavish?
I’ve prayed with, for, and about Judas for a long time, and I’ve come to some conclusions. I think Judas believed he was doing the right thing when he challenged the extravagant expenditure for ointment. I think Judas believed the ministry to which the disciples had devoted everything and for which they had sacrificed everything was going down the wrong path, that alienating the priests was not right, that spending so much money on luxurious oil was a waste, especially when there were so many mouths to feed. I think Judas deluded himself into thinking that he alone was responsible for fixing Jesus’ increasingly dangerous ministry – after all, was he not the holder of the accounts? I think Judas believed that if he didn’t set things right, no one would, and disaster would soon rain down on them all. And how should he have interpreted Jesus’ strange and enigmatic words – “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Judas is a complicated character in the original Christian drama, complicated and, to me at least, sympathetic. I actually love him a little bit. He makes me remember that we are all complicated packages with emotional scars, obligations, passions, and regrets. Some of the mistakes we have made were deliberate but not many of them. For the most part, we’ve done the best we could with what we had to work with. Perhaps we have been too strident in our opinions about some things – too opinionated. It’s possible we jumped to conclusions before knowing the truth. Occasionally, we have cared more about ourselves than others so we have missed important clues. It is possible our self-righteousness has made us intolerant, impatient, and disapproving. Perhaps we have felt that something needed to be done to correct a situation so we stepped in, never imagining our intervention would be hurtful or just plain wrong. I imagine we all think we’re doing the right thing at the time, even though the consequences of our words or actions are devastating to others.
In other words, we have all been Judas. Of course, our imaginations reject that possibility quickly. No, we think. I would not have betrayed Jesus! Even if I had disagreed with what he was doing, I would not have betrayed my Savior.
Judas is, for me, one of the most sorrowful figures in all history. When he realized what he had done, he couldn’t live with himself, with the reality that his passion for what was right had brought about something very, very, wrong. He is despised, buried in the field called Blood.
I may not have convinced you that Judas is a sympathetic character. You may not be able to find it in yourselves to forgive his misguided and catastrophic act of self-righteousness. You may think it is something of a waste of time and the preciousness of the Passion story to dwell on Judas’ role. You may be right. But let me suggest something to you as we prepare ourselves to walk with our Christ into Jerusalem, into the desecrated temple, into the upper room, into the garden of Gethsemane, into the halls of Pilate’s justice, to Calvary’s desolate hill, and to the tomb. Let me suggest that we all, every single one of us, needs to learn how to be more forgiving. Every one of us. We need to look at the person who has come to the end of his rope, and we need to learn how to love him. I may be wrong about Judas, but I am right about this. None of us is as prompt to forgive as God wants us to be. Since that is true, and since I am your pastor and I preach to you what I need to hear myself, let me just suggest to you that if you could allow Judas into your hearts, if you can empathize with his anguish, before and after he betrayed Jesus, if you can cut for him a loving tombstone to place in the potter’s field of your imagination and write on that stone words of love and forgiveness, you will have taken a big step toward understanding why the empty tomb matters. Amen.