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Can you believe that I actually CHOSE to talk today about Judas Iscariot? What was I thinking? I was thinking a lot about last month being Mental Health Awareness Month and wondering if it might have turned out differently for Judas if there had been such a focus back in his day. There was no 988 to call, no NAMI to contact, apparently no resources even among that small group of disciples.
And history has tended to villainize Jesus’ betrayer. It’s important for me to reflect on how we put Judas in the “bad person” category. What if it’s not a good/bad dichotomy, but rather a continuum of struggle we all are dealing with in our own lives?
Using today’s long, long reading as a backdrop to Judas’ story, let’s look further at Matthew 27 and see what happens next.
When Judas, who betrayed Jesus, saw that Jesus was condemned to die, he felt deep regret. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, and said, “I did wrong because I betrayed an innocent man.” But they said, “What is that to us? That’s your problem.” Judas threw the silver pieces into the temple and left. Then he went and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the silver pieces and said, “According to the Law it’s not right to put this money into the treasury. Since it was used to pay for someone’s life, it’s unclean.” So they decided to use it to buy the potter’s field where strangers could be buried. That’s why that field is called “Field of Blood” to this very day. This fulfilled the words of Jeremiah the prophet: “And I took the thirty pieces of silver, the price for the one whose price had been set by some of the Israelites, and I gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
Are we so different than Judas? Have we not all done things we deeply regret—harmed others in ways we never intended, through what we did or what we failed to do? For me, families are the place where we wound each other and then learn to heal one another. But in the family of Jesus’ band of disciples, this didn’t happen. It says that after Jesus was arrested, they all scattered. Peter denied Christ as was predicted, and it is only John who is reported to be present at the crucifixion. They were not there for Jesus—or even for Judas or for each other.
Judas wasn’t a bad person. He was one of the original followers of Christ. He was confused about the mission of Jesus—as were many others, I might add—and he wanted to get Jesus to see things more in his hopeful view of a physical revolution against the Romans. Had he seen it differently, I suspect he might have acted differently—which sounds pretty human to me.
At the Holy Thursday service April 6 at First Congregational, there was a narration from Judas. It was powerful for me. I’ll share it here for you, too, to perhaps expand your view of Judas and his struggles.
I was so angry with him! Why wouldn’t he fight? We had so many followers by this time and so many were in Jerusalem right now. Why did he insist on this “blessed are the meek” stuff? I think all along I had hoped that this was the revolution. That we could finally stand up to the Roman occupiers. And he had such power and charisma. Couldn’t he have done anything? This “Son of God?”
I suppose my bitterness finally took over. I had kept it all inside for some time and it had started to boil and rage until I just snapped. If I couldn’t get my revolution, I could get out. I was tired of holding the purse for this motley group of people who gave it away as soon as it came in. And then I discovered I could get out with some money from those dirty Romans . . . .It all happened so fast. They approached me. They had seen me, watched me, perhaps read my indecision, my anger, my separation at times from the group. And it just happened.
And then there I was at the table, his table. Knowing what I had set into motion. All of a sudden, I was flooded with panic and we all sat there. The air felt heavy with fear and unknowing. At the table, again. It reminded me of all the meals in our years together. Sometimes just us, this small band of disciples, but often with someone Jesus had invited to dinner—someone we couldn’t believe, yet again, he was hanging out with. Sometimes it was hard to understand. People who took advantage of others, people who had no interest in supporting him, people who questioned him, people who were beneath him. . . .
And then I realized as he stretched out the cup of wine to me and dipped the bread in it, that he saw right through me, knew my thoughts. . . . He was doing it once again . . . inviting a scoundrel to dinner. Only this time it was I. He was offering to share the cup and break the bread with despicable me. He would never have hurt anyone. He loved us all, even the lowest of the low.
The whole point of the resurrection story—as well as the story read earlier of The Runaway Bunny—is that nothing can separate us from God’s love. But we can lose sight of that, as Judas did, and life can become too hard, too lonely, too overwhelming, and suicide can offer release from the pain of living.
So indulge me here, if you would, with a bit more reflection. Can you imagine the impact of Judas’ suicide on his mother and father, his siblings, his friends? What about the chief priests and elders? Did they feel any responsibility for his death? When he tried to return the silver pieces, did the religious authorities betray Judas? This is sounding pretty heavy, but I think we need to put ourselves in Judas’ circle of grievers—or invite him into our own struggles at seeing the needs of others and offering hope instead of judgment.
This is personal for me, as it may be for some of you. Years ago I ignored a friend’s request that I call a young violinist with the Milwaukee Symphony who was hurting and having trouble reaching out—only to learn that she suicided. I hadn’t called because I felt intimidated by her musical talent and her good looks. We could not help another friend who shot herself in the chest when life became too much and she became too tired to keep trying. Today we grapple with our current crisis of drug overdoses, veteran suicides, and on-going attacks on the LGBTQ and transgendered community . . . . Let’s ask, where do we fit in here? The answer may lie in my favorite prayer which is from the story of the blind man on the side of the road, whom Jesus questioned about what he wanted and who replied, “Lord, that I may see.” That is what I take away this morning—a prayer that we can see the pain around us and respond not with judgment but with love and compassion, that we see where God would have us act and not shrink from what He would have us do, and that we not be afraid to ask for help for ourselves and others, so love can endure and life can flourish.
A poem from someone named Maren honors those who were dear to her and died by suicide and those she loves who have been touched by a dear-one’s suicide. I read it now, thinking of those we have lost and especially of Judas Iscariot, a following of Jesus who failed—and who was failed. I’ll end with her beautiful poem.
Nothing can separate you from Christ’s love—
not your life, or your death;
not angels who did not protect you;
or friends who did not hear you;
not family or beloved or therapist.
Not gunshot or hunger strike,
exhaust fumes or sleeping pills,
tall buildings or subways trains,
car crashes, high bridges, ropes,
or turning your face to the wall.
Not anything else in all creation
will be able to separate you
from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Not your despair or my grief;
not your pain or my anger;
not the letter you left,
or the hearts you break;
not the past or the future;
not pity or excuses.
Not anything else in all creation,
not you yourself—
and never God—
will be able to separate you
from the love you have even now
in Christ Jesus.
And so, dear friends, may we remember the promise of new life in Jesus Christ and live its message all of our days. Amen.