Among my vivid early memories is a betrayal. I was in seventh grade, at a middle-school Halloween dance, dressed in the football uniform I’d borrowed from the boy I liked. The year prior, my best friend—the most cherished friend of my youth—moved away. But that weekend she was in town and showed up at the school dance expecting to surprise me. I imagine the planned surprise cast a certain image on her mind: the two of us laughing together as we danced, or walking around the school building telling secrets as we used to do. She came dressed as a clown in full costume and make-up; she could have dressed as Medusa and she would have looked adorable. As it was, she sat on the side of the gym alone for nearly an hour as I flirted with the guy I liked, tried to impress my new friends who weren’t nearly as worthy as she, and heartlessly neglected her. Worse still, the boy whose football uniform I wore had been her crush for years. At one point, noticing she wasn’t around (and likely keeping a side-eye on her knowing I was being a lousy friend), I left to find her—only to encounter her at the pay phone calling her brother to come to the rescue. Though her clown eyes were weighted with tears, her makeup was intact. I asked my friend to please stay. But it was far too late.
I have read that the strength of memories correlates with the strength of emotions experienced when memories are formed, and the flood of chemicals those emotions evoke. And I expect I remember this long scene in such stunning detail (the color of the football uniform and of my friend’s costume; the feel of the outdoor air when I went to find her) because I felt intense regret afterward. Scalding, painful regret. I barely remember the football player, who faded to a tissue-thin memory decades ago. But this friend, she is paramount. The best friend I’d ever had, and I betrayed her that night, sacrificing her feelings to gratify myself and assuage my voluminous insecurity. There are other such recollections shining on the canopy of my memory as if edged in the neon of remorse—because they are also times I betrayed someone I loved.
Thus, it isn’t hard for me to empathize with Judas. Who, if we are being honest, has not been a betrayer? Among today’s lectionary readings:
John 13:21-32 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples–the one whom Jesus loved–was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
During Holy Week, Judas has traditionally been the whipping boy, the one we are permitted to loath—like the “bad guy” in a simplistic Hollywood movie. But that is not how Judas is betrayed in the passion stories. If on closer reading we are inclined to empathize with him (and some mock this tendency), it is because the stories themselves portray him as a somewhat sympathetic figure.
There is a great deal of diversity in the Gospel narratives about Judas.1 But all of them include some element that should stoke our compassion—if only the fact that Peter, who betrays Jesus three times by denial, ultimately fares so much better than Judas, as do the other male disciples who hide away in Jesus’ hour of need because they are afraid. If only the fact that in some of the accounts, Judas seems to be “chosen” and gets possessed before he does his dirty deed, as if he’s a pawn in a cruel cosmic plot outside of his control. If only the fact that Judas, in some cases, is portrayed as looking out for the poor.
Judas is a literary character, which is especially noticeable in the Gospel of John, a gospel so well-crafted as literature. Even if the passion stories are for many people more than stories, they are still stories, with curated details, intentional plots, and sculpted characters. So as a sacred story or myth (meaning a story whose truth is much weightier than literal facticity), what might the Judas stories be telling us? Generally speaking, I think sacred stories, or myths, are instructive, both showing us how things are and telling us who to be. What are the Judas stories showing us, and who are they telling us to be?
There are probably many answers, but I’ll focus on one. Judas does reveal to us an aspect of ourselves—of all of us. At some point in time, we will all be Judas. Sometimes it will happen in very direct ways, such as in my direct betrayal of my young friend. Perhaps we want something and we allow ourselves to hurt someone we love in order to get it. But there are more subtle forms of betrayal, ways we choose our own self-interest or safety over what we intuit in our heart of hearts to be true.
For example, maybe we have sidled up to some truth or to someone palpably in touch with goodness. We are attracted by the way the person or persons risk honesty, the way they look at others with acceptance and love. But we tune in only from the sidelines. We listen to the stories people tell of their experiences and they resonate as true; we feel pangs of resonance when we hear how people, animals, planet are suffering under systems of domination, and the sacrifices some make to help mend the gap. But we also aren’t sure if we can make sacrifices to be a part of the necessary change. Certainly we don’t risk speaking up. Sometimes we are just too comfortable. We don’t want to give up our favored habits that ultimately perpetuate injustice or contribute to environmental destruction. Or we don’t want to reach out to heal hurts because we know people’s struggles will inconvenience us. Sometimes, serious pain or disruption will result if we listen to our gut and follow a truer path for our lives. Maybe we’ll be rejected by those close to us, those we depend on for our financial survival. Maybe we’re afraid of losing the person who takes care of us. Maybe we are simply afraid of rejection by our tribe.
Judas as a character is a stand-in for all who hovered around the Jesus Movement but couldn’t bring themselves to pay the cost it required of them. Because face it, it was going to be a very costly path, a far more immediately costly path than most of us will ever have to face. None of us know what we would have done if we were in that room in Jerusalem at the end of the first third of the first century, even if Jesus was the best friend we had ever known.
Instead, we are nearing the end of the first fifth of the twenty-first century. And I think we can all admit we have hard choices to make too. Sometimes as we face those choices, we are akin to Judas. We choose to gratify our immediate desires (more comfort, more stuff, more professional success, more safety, more money, more power, more personal liberty…) even if it causes suffering to those who come after us—to the very planet all life depends on. The trouble with scapegoating Judas, as religious people are traditionally wont to do, is that we miss the insight behind Judas and the stories woven in his wake—insights into the human condition, into ourselves. Everyday we face choices that are either honoring generations of creatures to come or betraying them for the sake of our own safety and comfort and pleasure. The Native American principle of considering the consequences of our actions to “the seventh generation” comes to mind.
Judas shows us who not to be. But if we can’t see how much we, all of us, tend to be like him, we miss the point entirely.
1 As Elizabeth Musselman succinctly summarizes (See: https://www.lstc.edu/lstc-life/chapel/sermons/details-121):
“The common thread in the Judas narratives is that he betrayed Jesus, handing him over to the authorities for crucifixion, but when it comes to the details there’s not consensus even among the gospels. For example, in Luke and John, Judas is possessed by the devil. In Luke and Mark, Judas betrays Jesus to the chief priests before they offer him money; in Matthew, he betrays Jesus in order to make money; in John, Judas doesn’t make money from the betrayal but had been stealing from the common purse all along.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss; in John, Judas hands him over in passive silence. In Matthew, Judas repents and hangs himself after returning the 30 pieces of silver to the temple. In Acts, Judas uses the money to buy a field, in which he immediately falls down (or swells up, depending on how you translate the Greek), bursting open in the middle with all of his bowels gushing out.”