Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
March 24, 2019
Mark 14: 1-11
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
The artist, Cornelia Parker, created a piece of art called “Thirty Pieces of Silver” that we have been looking at throughout this service. It is shown here at York St. Mary and here at The Tate as the artist imagines the thirty pieces of silver that one of the Gospels names that Judas was promised at his betrayal. And she made it like this: she gathered over a thousand silver objects, cups, plates, things that would have been treasures in your home, and she gathered them all and put them in a line and had them flattened by a steamroller. She then arranged these objects into thirty circles that were suspended from the ceiling: a thousand pieces of art, with silver in all, made completely flat. As the description names: plates, spoons, candlesticks, trophies, cigarette cases, teapots and trombones. They are still here, it is still silver before us, and most of these objects were decorative anyway: vases, trophies and silver teapots that spend most of their time on the shelf. And so why does viewing them like this make me have a pit in the bottom of my stomach, as something precious has now been flattened and is now unusable? And here’s how I know it’s good art, because that pit in the stomach feels a bit like the one that is left when a relationship of trust has been profoundly broken, when something precious has been irreversibly marred.
I look at these thirty silver coins and I feel how the artist is telling a story of betrayal. But then I also see this: how some of that brokenness, as those pieces themselves individually are marred beyond measure, when they are gathered together in this art they are transformed again into something beautiful, breathtakingly, that what’s done cannot be undone and yet how it can be transformed into something beautiful, set to beauty on too large of a scale to be set on any shelf and how even this story of betrayal does not end with the destruction, but perhaps starts there, perhaps to tell a story of redemption.
And so, the question we are asking today is: Can even Judas be redeemed? We have been walking through the last week of Jesus and now we come to Wednesday, Spy Wednesday, by far the best name of Holy Week. You could, perhaps, call it Holy Wednesday, if you’re a fuddy-duddy, but why when Spy Wednesday is a completely legitimate liturgical option, brought to us by medieval Christians? So, we’re not talking Latin: it really means “spy.” Because we are looking at the actions not of Jesus today but of those around him: of the authorities who looked for an opportunity, and Judas who gives them one and the woman who gave a gift of great cost in between.
Judas holds a unique place of loathing in the history of Christianity. In the long length of Christian scholarship, Judas alone holds unique distain, contempt and full expectations he is outside the grace of God. I was reading scholars who had done the deep dives on the great theologians of Christian history on exactly how doomed they thought Judas to be. John Calvin names that Judas is entirely shut out of the grace of God. St. Augustin has an entire section on whether Judas had communion before betraying Jesus, as most of the arguments back and forth hinge on which of the two options would have made his further betrayal most terrible. Origen of Alexandria wrote that the real reason Judas ended his life was to see Christ in the other world and beg his pardon, which Origen implied he would not get. And on the more contemporary end, N. T. Wright writes that the tragedy of Judas is real and horrible and lasting.
And let me say that the history of Christian art around Judas is perhaps even more dramatic. Judas has been portrayed with some profoundly anti-Semitic imagery, which I won’t show you today. There is, however, a body of work that picture the Last Supper of Jesus with the disciples where everyone at the table has a halo, except Judas. Can you spot him? Here is another with Judas at the forefront. There are some where they conveniently paint the scene after Judas has gotten up from the table, if you can see the empty stool near the front. Or there is even a tradition of going to the work of making stained glass only to picture Judas with a dark halo. In case you were wondering, the Roman Catholic Church keeps no list of folks who are in hell and so has no official opinion on his damnation.
This is a lot of emotional energy on one person, so we’re going to give you something else to look at while we continue. What is it about Judas’ action in Jesus’ story that casts him in this dramatic sense? For in case you were wondering, every disciple that is painted here, even the ones with halos, denied Jesus. After all of their promises when Jesus is there before the trial there on the cross, they are not there. These are not our paragons of courage and fidelity; they run away afraid. And Peter, the disciple we are set up to empathize with, denies Jesus three times and yet is still up there with a halo. Judas is not the one who sentenced Jesus to death. Judas is not the one who flogs him, who mocks him, who nails him to the cross. There are many people who materially harm Jesus’ body more, and so why is it that Judas holds this unique place in the Christian story? It’s because of the power of betrayal; betrayal is a harm that can be done uniquely by someone you trust. Betrayal is a crime whose currency is trust. Judas is consistently named as one of the twelve disciples, one of the ones who was called from the beginning. Judas as one who travelled with them, wherever they went; he was trusted in community. It said he was trusted with a purse, with the coins. Jesus who was there for all of the closest teachings and through it all and so somehow a kiss of betrayal from one of the twelve causes more pain than the blows of a stranger. So we know that betrayal is one of the most painful emotions we can know. Betrayal hits the places that are the most intimate in us, the places where we have known trust, the places where we have dared to let our guard down, the places where we felt safe.
I think back: I had a professor in college that a group of us considered a mentor and who betrayed that trust. And I think back and how, at the time, even to see her cross the campus made my body go on high alert: I got this pit in my stomach and my mouth went dry and I felt this anger and shock and fury caused by seeing her across the field, seeing her open a door. And I know for many folks the stories of betrayal we hold in our lives can be among the most painful, as a friend who didn’t live up to that friendship, or a colleague or a co-worker turned into an adversary, where a romantic partner or family member had a profound breach of trust, or a leader or someone who you trusted who proved unworthy of the title. These are profoundly painful stories to live and to tell for there is the harm of whatever was actually done, the cost of the action itself, but on top of that there is the breach of trust that calls into question the belief that friendships are trustworthy and that there are places you can be safe and what you can be left with is a body that is on alert in places that used to be at home.
And so, from this perspective I understand the darkened halos, the strong words and the history of condemnation, for perhaps it was inevitable that with Jesus’ bold proclamations in the temple and overturning the tables and challenging the authorities amidst the brutal regime of Rome, perhaps it was inevitable that he would be put to death. But, did it have to be a friend that would hand him over? Did it have to be done with a kiss?
What do we know about Judas in the Bible? Some name him as holding the money for the group. All four gospels name him as the one who organizes a time for Jesus to be handed over to the authorities, when the crowds were not there. All four gospels name that betrayal with a kiss. One names that Judas, when he saw that Jesus was to be condemned to die, tried to return the money in profound remorse, but when it was not accepted two stories say that he either ended his own life or that his life was ended for him in gruesome need.
So why did he do it? Some of the gospels say he did it for money, for thirty silver coins. Some say the devil took him over. Some even, in trying to emphasize that Jesus knew what was to come, make it sound like Jesus told them to get on with it: “Go and do the thing that you intend.” And scholars and artists and authors and more than you can name have tried to fill in that gap left in holes in the narrative, as how could one who was so trusted, so close to Jesus’ ministries, betray him?
For ultimately the story doesn’t answer the question of how to reconcile a position of trust with an action that is contradictory to trust, for betrayal is trading something that matters, a trusting relationship, for something that is smaller and lesser, to trade connection for convenience, to trade love for lust, to trade meaningfulness for money, to trade camaraderie for ruthless competition, to take a treasure and to flatten it into something that is now lost. And if you are on the other side you know that slap in the stomach, that blow to the heart, that wind out of your lungs that the new world where trust you have weaved is in tatters around you. And I understand why I might be tempted to give the person on the other side of that a permanent mark on their record: no halo for you.
But what if, in some way, you find yourself on the other side? It is something I hold in a lot of seriousness that the more you are trusted, the more places you have built up meaningful relationships, that there are more places you are going to be human and screw up and in some way betray that trust. More often, I am guessing if you are the one betraying you probably thought you were doing something else. Most of us don’t set out to betray someone’s trust. And whatever excuse we might try to take out and shine for the occasion, sometimes when it’s all over and you saw their face you realized that something beautiful was broken. And as much as we would like to caste ourselves as a stalwart and trustworthy, we are every day in the midst of these webs of relationships and trust and we know that trust can either be eroded by actions that are small and one after another, and we know we cannot name ourselves immune from those actions that would sever trust in one fell swoop. It is people who are just as human as us who have done actions of great betrayal and somewhere in our hearts there is a risk that in the right conditions, at the right moment and in the right way there is a way we could follow in their terrible footsteps.
The story goes that when Judas learns that Jesus was to be crucified, he tried to give the money back. He brought back the money and tried to give it to the authorities, trying to have a do-over, trying to start again, starting to hit rewind. He tried to give the money back but the money fell flat on the floor and there was no way to take it back. The authorities would not accept the money and what was done was done.
On the other side of betrayal there is not a way to erase; there is not a way to undo. If there is a way forward it is the hard way of repentance, of remorse, of standing and waiting for forgiveness and then, through small actions, one after again, building up trust one moment at a time, one commitment at a time until, perhaps, there is something on the other side.
I admit I am a bit uncomfortable with the universal consensus of Judas’ damnation, even if it is me and a handful of others against thousands of years of Christian thought and it is both because I want to name the profundity of Judas’ betrayal. I don’t think I want to end my sentence there. I don’t think we can faithfully put him on a box on this side, completely unlike the betrayal of all the other disciples and including disciples like us. For what would we have invested in having someone over there that we can point to and say, “They have done worse than us,” who we do not identify with the same way as Peter or the other wayward disciples but one who somehow is on the other side and unthinkable and now unredeemable. Do we then get the idea that no matter how bad I am at least I didn’t betray the son of God, because that guy’s a bad dude?
I don’t mean to put us in a state of saying, “Well now, let’s all feel guilty for betraying the son of God.” But in these interconnected webs of trust and pain and betrayal where we must live our lives, trust can be so beautiful and the loss of that so painful. And sometimes on the other side we get grace, where remorse and forgiveness and the hard work of building up trust again sometimes we get a glimpse of the new covenant God promises. Sometimes we get a glimpse that God can promise resurrection, even for a people as broken as us.
And so, to Judas, I don’t wonder if I would have the strength to forgive Judas, for I have smaller slights of betrayals that I still hold. But I give thanks that for God, God’s lavish forgiving grace, that God can teach me what grace can look like, that even in the midst of loss and pain, that even if one was to end their life, that is no match for God’s love, for God’s grace. We hear from the Scriptures the promise that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord.
And so it is my prayer that God’s love can reach us even here and it is why, in part, although Christian art may only have images for Judas with coins and the kiss and the death, I hold in my heart that God’s grace can give us a picture of what might be instead.
I would like to close with words from Frederick Beker. He writes this:
“Anyway, whatever Judas’ reasons were, the whole thing went sour for him soon enough. Slipping out of the Last Supper before the party was over he lead the Romans to the garden he knew his friends were planning to adjourn to afterwards and said to lay low until he gave the signal. It was dark by the time the others showed up. And maybe for fear that he might scare them off if he used any other method, the way he showed the soldiers which one to jump was by kissing him. That was all he had been paid to do and as soon as he had done it there was no earthly reason why he shouldn’t have taken off with his laundered cash and found a place to spend it. But when the time came he wasn’t in the mood. There are several versions of what he did instead, of which the most psychologically plausible seems to be that he tried to give the money back to the ones who had given it to him and went out and ended his life. This time there doesn’t seem to be any ambiguity about the motive. There is a tradition in the early church, however, that his suicide was not based on despair but on hope. If God was just, he knew there was no question of where he would be heading as soon as he breathed his last, and furthermore, if God was also merciful he knew that there was no question either that in last ditch efforts to save the souls of the damned that God’s son, Jesus, would be there, too. Thus, the way Judas figured it, hell might be his last chance he would have of making it to heaven. In any case, it is a scene to conjure with, where once again they met in the shadows, the two old friends, both of them a little worse for wear after all that had happened, only this time it was Jesus who was the one to give the kiss and this time it wasn’t the kiss of death that was given.” Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2019. All rights reserved.