Judas - Holy Tuesday from You Are Mine by David Walker
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. MATTHEW 26:14–16
I’ve never warmed to the notion that Judas was simply a thief. The idea that he followed Jesus in order to keep the common purse and siphon off donations for his own benefit feels deeply implausible. Would anyone really give up three years of their life and submit themselves to the demands of discipleship for that? And is it really likely that he could have lived among his fellows undetected over such a long period?
I find it much more likely that he became disillusioned, his rift with Jesus coming very late in the day, leaving him feeling that he was the one betrayed. I’m drawn to the depiction of him as one who shared the hope that a leader would rise up to deliver Israel from the yoke of Rome and who followed Jesus as the one he expected to be that man. After all, that’s what many in Jerusalem believed was about to happen when Jesus rode into town on a donkey. But it failed to happen. The momentum that was built up on the Sunday, and perhaps carried over into the cleansing of the temple, dissipated over the next few days. It looked like Jesus was backing down from the role Judas wanted him to assume – unless, that is, someone forced his hand.
On that night in Gethsemane, when Judas greeted Jesus with a kiss, I suspect that he was more shocked than anyone when his master accepted arrest, chided Peter for cutting off the servant’s ear and allowed himself to be led away. This should have been the moment that compelled Jesus to resist and become the spark for the revolution long awaited. But it wasn’t. Judas had failed to understand that the kingdom of Jesus does not belong to this world. He had superimposed his own agenda on Jesus, and it had failed. No wonder his reaction was to go off and take his own life, hardly the response of a mere money-grabber.
As soon as I became interested in Jesus in my teens, I discovered that almost every strange group with outlandish ideas had developed a narrative that explained how Jesus really belonged as one of their own. Much of it was so wacky as to be harmless. Not many are likely to be convinced by the argument that Jesus was a space-travelling alien, for example. But not every appropriation of him is something we can be content to ignore. It is noticeable that some of the most extreme right-wing views expressed in Britain, across Europe and beyond come cloaked with a rationale that they are the defenders of Christianity. In my younger days the enemy would have been the communism espoused by the Soviet Union. Curiously, when the Iron Curtain fell, instead of disappearing, this worldview simply found itself a new enemy in Islam. Jesus does not need such warriors to defend him, any more than he needed an army in Jerusalem.
I can spot these appropriations of Christ most readily in the agendas of those with whom I heartily disagree. I need to be more careful in order to find them woven into causes with which I have sympathy. I have high regard for the words and works of Christian leaders and communities in South America who first gave us what came to be known as liberation theology. I do believe that Jesus wants all people to be free and that we miss the point if we entirely make that a matter for heaven rather than a cause for determined action on earth. But then I need to watch out for signs that I am confining Jesus purely to a political role, one that he expressly rejected when the devil offered it to him on a mountaintop at the start of his ministry.
It’s hardest of all when the appropriation takes place within me, when it is my personal agenda that I am requiring Jesus to sign up to as a condition for my following him. I don’t want to identify with Judas. I don’t wish to believe that I belong with him, among those who betray Jesus. And yet sometimes that is exactly where I fit into the story, because I’ve done the same as Judas did. I’ve come to Jesus with my own agenda and tried to force him to fit within it.
I know that I do that, because I am a far-from-perfect human being. While I see such behaviour more readily in others, I know that I cannot be exempt from it myself. The focus for today, then, should perhaps be not on the sins and errors of others but on our own. What are the things I do or believe that amount to imposing my agenda on Jesus? Am I sometimes guilty of saying to him, ‘I will follow you but only as long as it is by this particular route or to that specific destination’?
Heavenly Father, forgive me the times when I have betrayed the trust of others. Help me to be loyal and trustworthy and to follow not my own agenda but where you would have me travel. Amen
David Walker is Bishop of Manchester. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC radio, including the Daily Service and Sunday Programme. His interest in Christian belonging has grown from his involvement in the Housing Association movement and his membership of the Franciscan Third Order. He is also the author of God’s Belongers (BRF, 2017).