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Sermon for Good Friday, 2015: Why?
“If you had the chance to talk to anyone, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be? There was a time when that question was pretty standard in job interviews. I’m not sure what the prospective employers thought they’d find out by asking it – but to me the follow-up question is much more important. I’d want to know why you’d choose that person. Because to me the “why” is what really matters. If we pick a “good” person, is it because we want to be like them or because we think we’re already like them? And what does it mean if we pick a “bad” person? Is it because we want to learn how not to act or because we enjoy seeing people doing bad things we’d like to do?
Or maybe we’re motivated by a simple desire to find out why these people did whatever it was they did. We want to know why someone would throw herself on a bomb or take a bullet to save someone else. We can’t imagine why someone would kill millions of people simply because of the color of their skin or the name of their God. We are tormented with questions. “Why’d you do it”? “What were you thinking”? “Do you still think you did the right thing”? We care about them because we think that knowing why they did suggest extreme things might tell us something about ourselves. Knowing why might help us figure out how to make better decisions. Understanding why might be a step toward forgiving others for things they have done to us. Maybe if we knew why we’re in so much pain, we could start to heal. We believe that there’s a reason for everything, and if we know what it is we will be safe. Perhaps that’s why today, on a day filled with sorrow and pain – on a day of deep darkness – on a day focused on death, when I think about who I would talk to if I could pick absolutely anyone I find myself wanting to ask why – why he was different than any of his friends – why he was willing to sacrifice everything he had – why he did what he did. Why he betrayed Jesus.
For many of us church-going folk, Judas Iscariot clearly falls into the category of “bad guy.” After all, we think, Judas didn’t just betray his best friend for money, he got him killed. And his best friend wasn’t just anyone. His best friend was the son of God. Judas is so famously bad that Dante named an area in the ninth circle of hell after him. His very name has become a slang word for
But what do we really know about him? It turns out to be not much. He never appears in Paul’s letters, which predate all of the gospels. He’s not mentioned in the gospels prior to his betrayal of Jesus. Unlike many of the disciples, Judas has no origin story – no story of how he was called to be a disciple. Even Judas’s name was common in first century Palestine. In fact, there is at least one other Judas called by name in the book of Acts. There are many theories about the meaning of his last name too. In ancient Palestine, a man’s surname indicated who his father was, or potentially where he was from. But some scholars believe that “Iscariot” is actually a play on words meant to identify him as Jesus’s betrayer. Others think it was just a clue as to what he looked like. But we don’t know if any of them are right. What we do know is that the popular idea that Judas was Jesus’ closest friend and most loyal disciple is not found in the Bible. Sorry, but “Jesus Christ Superstar” was only loosely based on the gospels.
Most importantly, we don’t know why Judas betrayed Jesus. There are differences in how Judas is portrayed in the four gospels. Mark’s gospel says Judas betrayed Jesus, but doesn’t offer any explanations as to why he did it. The next gospel, Matthew’s, provides a bit more information. In it, the Sanhedrin offers Judas money to betray Jesus – but the gospel writer stops short of saying that’s why Judas did it. Matthew’s gospel is the earliest to acknowledge that after Jesus’s death Judas felt so guilty that he hanged himself.
The author of Luke offers a different reason for Judas’s betrayal: “Satan” entered into Judas’s heart and compelled him to betray Jesus. In the Book of Acts, which was probably written by the same person as Luke’s gospel, Judas is punished by God for his betrayal when he buys a field with the silver he earns for his betrayal and promptly dies there after his body breaks open and his innards fall out.
The most recent gospel also has the most detailed account of Judas’s actions.
According to the Gospel of John, “The devil put it in [Judas’s] heart” to betray Jesus – and Jesus knew it. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him, and when Judas is identified as the one, Jesus orders him to go and do quickly what he needs to do. John’s account is actually more consistent with a fifth gospel – one that is not found in our Bible – than it is with the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Judas, written in the second or third century and found in the twentieth, is a “gnostic” text which provides a much different version of Judas’s discipleship. The Gnostics were a Christian sect that believed that salvation was not about faith or works, but about secret knowledge passed down from Jesus to his followers. In the Gospel of Judas
(which was not written by him), Judas is the hero of the story. He understands
Jesus and believes in him and his teachings. That’s why when Jesus asks Judas to betray him, although he doesn’t want to, Judas does it. So for the Gnostics and some Enlightenment scholars (and Andrew Lloyd Webber) Judas is a victim too.
It’s hard to know what to believe. You can see why I’d like to sit down and talk to him.
Of course, asking Judas directly about what he did and why he did it probably wouldn’t help us figure out the truth either – because people lie and we have ample reason to believe that Judas in particular cannot be trusted. It’s also quite possible that Judas himself isn’t sure why he did it. Maybe none of us can ever really be sure. Because sometimes we just don’t know why things happen. Sometimes we don’t even know why we do what we do ourselves. Sometimes we simply don’t know what to do. It’s at those times – those scary, hard times – that all we have is what we believe – not what we think – not what we know – only what we truly believe. Because authentic belief is beyond rationality. If we genuinely believe in something – if it is stamped on our hearts – it is too much a part of us for us to explain “why” we know it to be true. That’s why they call it
“faith.” And what Christians believe – what I want you to believe – is simply this:
God is the reason “why.” God is the reason for the darkness – and the light. God is the reason for death – and for life. God is the reason Judas did what he did. God is the reason Jesus did what he did. God is the reason. “Wait patiently for the Lord,” the psalmist tells us – be strong, and let your heart take courage; believe and you too shall see the goodness of the LORD” – and you will understand why.
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