Matthew 27: 3:10
A talk by the Canon Chancellor, the Reverend Canon Dr Mark Hocknull, first given in Lincoln Cathedral on Sunday 12 March 2017.
This second Lent address turns us from the luminous story of the woman who anointed Jesus to the very dark and uncomfortable story of Judas, and we are going to have to struggle if we are to move beyond the normal ways in which the Christian tradition has interpreted the story of Judas. So, to lighten the load a little and to provide a little mystery for you to ponder along the way.
Which character in the Harry Potter stories has a story that is most like the story of Judas? I’ll come back to this later and give you my answer, but for now we’ll just leave the question hanging as we turn to consider Judas in all his dark fascination.
I have two questions which I’ll explore this evening:
Why did Jesus choose Judas to be one of the twelve?
Why did Judas betray Jesus?
Our first point of struggle then is why did Jesus choose as one of his closest friends someone who would betray him? Was it a mistake, or the result of some kind of death wish on Jesus’ part? Matthew Mark and Luke are all clear and united in their insistence that the choosing of the twelve was very deliberate. They were selected after much thought and prayer. It was a careful decision, not made lightly or carelessly. Mark tells us that Jesus went to a special place of revelation, a mountain, and summoned the men that he wanted. All four of the gospels want us to understand that Jesus deliberately chose as one of his disciples someone who would betray him. Judas is identified from the beginning as the one who betrayed Jesus. But does this mean that Jesus knew from the beginning that Judas would betray him? That Judas was the one and the only one destined to betray Jesus. Implying that there is something of the demonic about Judas? This is certainly how John sees Judas. John has Jesus describe Judas as ‘a devil.’
I think that seeing Judas in this way, as different from the others and different from us is too easy an answer. It means we can blame Judas, use him as a scapegoat and reassure ourselves that we are not like him. But Lent is a time not for sending a scapegoat into the wilderness, but for going into the wilderness ourselves and facing up to some difficult truths about ourselves. We are all, like Judas capable of deceit and betrayal. Judas’ story invites us to acknowledge and face our own dark side, and bring it to the light. All of us are capable of evil. Jesus chose his disciples, not knowing that Judas would be the one who betrayed him, but knowing that one of them would.
There is something in this about the nature of friendship. Friendship entails risk and being willing to be vulnerable. By being willing to enter into partnership with twelve fallible followers, one of whom will betray him, another who will deny him and all of whom will desert him, Jesus shows that he is willing to take the risk, no matter what. There is no alternative. The Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims must be embodied in real human relationships and so Jesus gathers around him twelve fallible human beings, no different to you and me, one of whom betrays him. But the risk has to be accepted, for without it there is no possibility of true love and growth to maturity. This is love’s expense. God chooses to give life and love even to those who will betray him.
So if it could have been anyone of the twelve who betrayed Jesus, we arrive at our second question. Why did Judas betray Jesus?
Matthew seems quite clear on this. Judas’ motivation was greed. We are told that Judas asks the Chief Priest what they will give him to betray Jesus and that they weigh out thirty pieces of silver. Perhaps there is a warning here. Even the most intimate of relationships and loyalties can be blighted by greed. Somehow, Judas’ love of money comes to take the place of his love for Jesus to the point where the two become incompatible and the one destroys the other. Certainly we should not play this down, but neither should we turn the story of Judas into a cheap morality tale. Greed does corrupt. It perverts our sense of who we are. Instead of seeing ourselves in relation to our friends and relationships and allowing those to define us. We identify with what we own or how much money we have. Our sense of responsibility becomes distorted from seeking to do what we can for God and for our neighbour to seeking to gain and retain as much as we can for ourselves. This is why many Christians fast during Lent or give things up. It is a way of stepping back from material things in order to discover the primacy of spiritual things.
All this is true, but there is a much deeper dynamic going on in the story of Judas. And it is here that the parallel with the Harry Potter character emerges. The character I have in mind is Severus Snape.
At the end of The Half-Blood Prince Snape is revealed, finally in the eyes of readers, as the Judas we’ve always suspected him to be when Snape kills Dumbledore.
But all this is turned on its head in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, when we, in the last moments of Snape’s life, discover that Snape’s betrayal was actually a part of Dumbledore’s plan. And the plan had a salvific purpose as it was meant to save the soul of Draco Malfoy.
Judas may not be a hero, but he had a vital role to play in our salvation.
The Gospel writers are all clear that the betrayal of Jesus is something that had to happen in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. Jesus was destined to be handed over. The greed of Judas is a trigger that enables the divine plan to unfold. To put things bluntly without the betrayal by Judas, there would have been no Cross of Christ and therefore no salvation for the world. Judas’ actions are as vital as Jesus’ own willingness to embrace the cross. Judas is a vital part of the story. Even the fundamental flaw of Judas is enfolded into the story of salvation and used for Good.
If Judas is no different from us, then the same must also be true of us. Our stories too are to be enfolded within the big story of Christ and the salvation of the world. Part of living the life of faith is to learn to read our own stories in the light of the story of God in Scripture.
If we have the courage to take a calm, unemotional, objective view of Judas, we might discover hope. Here is a man who, though deeply flawed was used by God in the story of the world’s salvation. Recognising that Judas is little different from us might just give us the courage to acknowledge our own dark side, but in recognising it, also find the hope that in Christ it can be folded into his story and so be redeemed.
The tragedy of Judas is that he couldn’t live with what he’d done, and so he failed to see the true significance of his actions. He failed to see them redeemed by the Cross of Christ and so in life he never received the forgiveness and new life that certainly would have been his had he been alive to meet the risen Jesus.
The lesson for us from Judas is that nothing and no one is beyond the reach of the love of Christ.
The Canon Chancellor will continue his series of Lent Talks at Evensong on each Sunday of Lent. Evensong on a Sunday begins at 3.45pm and is held in the Choir of Lincoln Cathedral.