Who Were These Guys? Judas

Matthew 27:1-8

May 25, 2014

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor. When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

            Other than maybe Hitler, has there ever been anyone more evil than Judas? Maybe you can throw in a few others like Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, or Pol Pot, or your favorite serial killer, but do we consider what they did as being as bad as betraying God? Judas will certainly go down in history as the biggest betrayer ever. Who could surpass an evil like turning Jesus over to the authorities so Jesus could be arrested and eventually crucified?

            Actually, the tragedy of Judas’ life is that what he did might not have been an act of evil, but an attempt at good. But we don’t think about Judas as a man of good. And because we don’t, it’s hard for us to dig through what we know about him to discover what we don’t know about him.

            The reality is that Judas is an enigma, a mystery man. The Bible tells us how he betrayed Jesus, but it never really tells us why. And we often don’t ask why. The irony of Judas’ betrayal is that the best biblical scholars believe that he did it to try to help Jesus, not harm him. What the Bible also doesn’t tell us is that before Judas betrayed Jesus, the two of them probably had long talks, and even longer arguments, over what Jesus’ purpose and mission was. I can imagine seeing the dusk of twilight the shadows of the two of them, off a ways from the rest of the disciples sitting around a fire, having heated discussions. Judas is waving his finger at Jesus, and then pointing it back toward Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Jesus is gently pushing down Judas’ hands, calming him while he slowly shakes his head “no.”

            Judas may have had a clearer picture of what Jesus was called to do than Jesus did.  It’s just that God didn’t agree and Judas’ was wrong. Let me tell you a bit more about Judas so that you have a clearer picture.

            First, who was Judas? This is the first mystery. We don’t now much about him. Even his name, Judas Iscariot, is confusing. Scholars aren’t sure if “Iscariot” is a reference to where he comes from (like Jesus of Nazareth) or something else. There is no place called Iscariot, although some scholars believe that the name may refer the southern Judean town of Kerioth. Others say that “Iscariot” sounds a lot like the name of a secret society of assassins bent on driving the Romans out of Israel, and so his name identifies him as one of them. Still others believe that it was a name given to him later, after he died, and that means “liar” in Hebrew. Despite this confusion, there is much more certainty about his political passions. He was a zealot.

            When you hear the word “zealot,” how do you define it? You probably think it means a fanatic, or someone who is over the top politically or religiously. Actually, the word zealot meant something very different in Jesus’ time. Today we might call them revolutionaries or patriots. They were people who believed in the violent overthrow of the Roman government in Israel so that Israel could become an independent nation again. Zealots chafed at their 500 years of foreign occupation under the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and then Romans. Judas was part of a loose collection of zealots who believed in revolution, and this gets to the heart of his arguments with Jesus. He believed that Jesus was the messiah sent to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel. He believed that Jesus was a new David, ready to join his army of angels with an army of humans to raise up Israel again.

            The fact that included a zealot as a disciple tells us a lot about both Jesus’ ministry and how he put together his collection of disciples. I don’t know if you ever heard of a recent book by the acclaimed historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, called Team of Rivals. She talks about the genius of Abraham Lincoln, who constructed an administrative cabinet not only of supporters, but also of enemies and rivals. He wanted to have different perspectives on his team. Jesus created a sort of discipleship of rivals.

            While Jesus didn’t make enemies his disciples, he did do something similar. Looking at the composition of his disciples, they were all so very different. First, take John, James, Peter, and Andrew. I’ve already told you from previous sermons that they were fishermen. I also mentioned that they were previously disciples of John the Baptist. That may not have fully registered with you, but what it meant was that they were all fairly extreme in their beliefs. In fact, by following John the Baptist, they were following an extreme form of Judaism that believed that all of Israel was corrupted by Roman and Gentile influences, and that righteous Jews should limit or end all contact with Gentiles.

            John the Baptist had come out of the Essene movement, the same movement that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were a Jewish sect that believed in the pursuit of purity. They had removed themselves from Jewish society to live in caves and cave-like dwellings near the Dead Sea. There was a reason John the Baptist baptized in the River Jordan. That was the dividing line between the Jewish lands and the wilderness. John would not cross the Jordan because it would lead him to set foot in the corruption of the world. People came to the Jordan to be purified. What does that say about John, James, Peter, and Andrew? It says that they had been pursuing purity, and that they had believed in the separation of Jews and Gentiles.

            Meanwhile, Jesus added two zealots: Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot. They shared a belief that the Romans had corrupted the Jews, but they had a different solution, as I mentioned above. They believed in the violent overthrow of the Romans in order to purify Israel—a concept the Essenes would have rejected because they believed only God could usher in a revolution, not men.

            Then Jesus added Matthew. He was a tax collector. In other words, he believed in collaboration with the Romans. He worked with the Romans. He had few problems with Roman occupation. Imagine what the conversations among the disciples must have been like—some advocating separation, some overthrow, and others accommodation.

            Getting back to Judas, if you remember the image I gave of Jesus and Judas having passionate conversations in the background, they would have been about Judas’ belief that Jesus was called to overthrow the Romans. Judas was convinced that Jesus’ calling was to be a sword-bearing messiah, raising an army of angels and zealots. Judas’ betrayal was actually his attempt to force Jesus to accept his messianic mantle. Judas wanted to force Jesus to stand up and start the revolution. In his own zealot mind, betraying Jesus wasn’t a betrayal. It was a call to action. He would have been convinced that by bringing soldiers there to arrest him, people would have responded the way they often do when a revolutionary leader is arrested. They would have risen up in protest, and Jesus would have been at the center, leading the Jews to glorious victory. The problem is that Judas’ vision wasn’t Jesus’ calling.

            Judas didn’t intend to have what happened happen. He did not intend for Jesus to be tortured and crucified. He did not intend for his betrayal to lead to Jesus’ death. He did not even imagine that resurrection was possible, and so he killed himself before he had a chance to discover a deeper truth. There is a belief, though, in the ancient Jewish legends that after Jesus’ death he descended into Hell, where a repentant Judas was lifted to Heaven. Remember that in our passage Judas did repent before killing himself.

            Judas offers a powerful example of the dark side of religious zeal. There are some really important lessons Judas teaches us about the nature of religious life and religious calling. Let me share some of them.

            The first lesson is the most crucial for so many religious people: Just because you are certain doesn’t make you right. On both the religious right and the left there are many zealots who are so sure that they know best what God wants, and because they are, they have no problems betraying God’s will in order to achieve what they think is God’s will. Throughout Christian history there have been so many movements, on a large and small scale, that were so certain of their rightness they would use any means necessary to accomplish their goals; even if it went against Jesus’ teachings and God’s will.

            The most obvious example of this is the Crusades. They were an attempt to recapture the Holy Lands from Muslims. They were a terrible period of Christian abuse and corruption. A great example of this is what happened in the first Crusade (there were twelve in all). The Byzantine king, in 1096, had encouraged the kings and nobles of Europe to travel through Byzantium to the Holy Lands to recapture Jerusalem. Many people responded to the call, but most only got as far as the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. Seeing no way to actually get to the Holy Lands from there, they pillaged Constantinople and the surrounding areas before returning to Europe. The first Crusade led to an attack on fellow Christians.

            Another example of certainty leading to wrongness was the period of Christian inquisitions. For three centuries during the Middle Ages, Christians persecuted each other in the attempt to route out heretics. The worst was the Spanish Inquisition, where Muslims, Jews, and enlightened Christians were often brutally tortured in the attempts\ to force conversions or get rid of heretics.

            Even great and good Christian figures weren’t immune to this kind of certainty that begets wrongness. Martin Luther, late in his life, was shocked by a widespread peasants’ revolt that was actually inspired by his own writings and Protestant beliefs. Thousands of impoverished peasants revolted in order to raise their standards of living. Luther wrote a pamphlet permitting the crushing of the revolt. The result was that between 100,000 and 300,000 peasants.

            Also, John Calvin (the namesake of Calvin Church) ended up giving permission to have one of his friends, Michael Servetus, burned at the stake. Servetus denied the doctrine of the Trinity, and Calvin believed that the threat of death would cause him to recant. It didn’t. Of course, Calvin, as great as he was, often led with certainty, whether he was right or not.

            Basically, being certain religiously is not the same as being right. Being passionate about a cause doesn’t make the cause right. Take a look around you. Where do you see people being absolutely certain but also wrong? Now, after you’ve done that, look inward. This is much harder: What are you certain about, but may not be right about? Be honest. You’ll find something.

            The second lesson from Judas is a simple one, although I have to admit that it’s a scary one for me to mention on Memorial Day because of people’s patriotic passions. Here goes: don’t confuse God and country. Judas did, and it led him to betray Jesus. I’m not saying that God doesn’t care about our country. What I am saying is that too often people mistake one for the other. They believe (as John Winthrop said about the founding of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony) that America is meant to be a shining city upon a hill (misquoting Matthew 5:14). So they believe that anything America does must be God-ordained. That’s both hubris and confusing God and country. I believe God is involved in our country, but that does not mean that our country is God, nor that defending everything American is defending God.

            The final lesson is this: Don’t try to force God to do what you want. Instead, seek and do what God wants. Too often, when we seek God’s will, we aren’t really seeking God’s will. We are seeking what we want God to will for us, and we are mistakenly asking God to confirm what we’ve already decided. We do this when we pray to God, asking God what God wants, while secretly looking for proof that God wants what we’ve already decided.

            Judas is a great example of the dark side of faith, and so we need to learn from him important lessons: don’t confuse our certainty with God’s rightness, don’t confuse God and country, and don’t try to force God to do what we believe is right.