THE JUDAS ENIGMA
"Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me...Surely not I Lord?"
Jesus' journey to Jerusalem has come to an end. As we read the story of the Passover spent with his disciples in the Upper Room we know that by tomorrow evening Jesus will be dead. But Jesus' disciples did not know that, even if they had premonitions of impending doom. They still hoped that Jesus would save Israel from despotic Roman rule and those religious authorities who connived with Rome to oppress the people. But one of Jesus' disciples sharing that Last Supper had already decided that Jesus' was a failure. He should never have followed Jesus in the first place. His name was Judas, a central character in the unfolding drama. For it was on the night in which he was betrayed, that Jesus took bread, blessed it and gave it to his disciples. Judas' proverbial kiss of betrayal stands in stark contrast to that of Mary Magdalene who kissed Jesus' feet a few days earlier and wiped them with her hair. Unlike the twelve male disciples, she intuitively knew that Jesus had to suffer and die in order to complete his mission.
In his Inferno Dante condemns Judas to the deepest place in Hell for all eternity. Yet if you read the many accounts that have tried to explain what Judas betrayal of Jesus, you will know that it is not as straightforward as we might think. In fact, no one amongst the disciples has caused more controversy than Judas; no disciple has been scrutinized by scholars more than him. The story of his betrayal of Jesus is, in short, a disturbing one. After all, why did one of Jesus' own disciples turn out to be a traitor? Surely Jesus would have been more careful in choosing his inner circle of followers. Or did Jesus choose Judas knowing full well that he would betray him, hand him over to the authorities to be put to death, and then commit suicide? That certainly seems the case if you take the gospel texts literally. "One of you will betray me..." and "woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed."
In any case, why was it necessary for Judas to betray Jesus? Was not Jesus going to be arrested anyway? Was Judas simply doing what God had long planned? If so, he could not have done otherwise. He was only doing God's will and surely cannot be blamed for doing so. He was a pawn in the hand of God, which makes God was responsible for Jesus' death, God using Judas to betray and kill his son. What a frightful understanding of God. But such a view also undermines human freedom and responsibility because Judas could not have chosen any other path. It's like saying that the Germanwings plane crash was God's will irrespective of what the pilot did, irrespective of his mental state or his decision to commit suicide and mass murder.
Or is there another possibility that helps us understand the Judas enigma? I think there is, and that the clue lies in the Matthew's comment that this happened "so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled." The problem is that there are no texts in the Old Testament that foretell Jesus' betrayal. So what did Matthew mean? I am not sure. But I think he could be referring to the fact that the prophets who proclaim God's kingdom of justice and peace are invariably rejected, persecuted and sometimes murdered by the rulers of Israel. This was something that Jesus himself declared. We recall his words on the day he arrived in Jerusalem: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who stones the prophets and kills those sent to you!"
Prophets come proclaiming God's justice and peace, as they have done in South Africa and in many places over the years, but those in power generally refuse to listen to them. In fact if you want to know why there is so much intrigue, nastiness, corruption and betrayal in politics, you do not have to look further than the events of Holy Week and the Crucifixion. Just as in Jesus' day the crowds could cry Hosanna one moment and Crucify the next, so today the crowds can cry "we will kill for Zuma" one day and then do everything to destroy him the next. If necessary bribery, betrayal, and corruption are all acceptable in gaining and keeping power. It's the prophets who see through all this political backstabbing and thuggery; it's the prophets who are concerned about justice and peace, not those who win elections on dubious promises or by violent means. If you don't believe me just think about what is happening in Egypt, across north Africa, in Israel-Palestine, in fact throughout the world. Peacemakers are crucified by those who wish to keep power. So back to Judas.
Judas was an idealistic young revolutionary in search of an authentic leader when Jesus called him. He really believed that Jesus would lead a successful revolt against Rome. He really believed that utopia was around the corner and that the Kingdom of God could be brought into being through Jesus, by force if necessary. Judas was committed to getting rid of the corrupt political and religious establishment of the day, and by whatever means possible. And Jesus seemed to be the one who would make this come true, But as Jesus' ministry unfolded, as Jesus spoke about the need for his disciples to be agents of God's justice and peace, about suffering love and service, and as he finally rode into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a warhorse, it dawned on Judas that Jesus' way of going about things would not work, it could not achieve the goal to which he, Judas, was passionately committed. And in his disillusionment Judas was seduced by the voices of those who wanted to get rid of this would-be Messiah. Judas became the victim of failed expectations. He was not a pawn in the hands of God, but a dispensable pawn in the hands of corrupt and violent rulers.
But Jesus' fate was sealed long before Judas decided to betray him. From the moment he began his ministry proclaiming God's kingdom of liberation for the poor and the oppressed, from the moment he challenged the abuse of religion and power until he finally drove out the money lenders from the Temple. Jesus' death on the cross was not a religious event, it was a political act. He was put to death because he challenged the sins of the world that dehumanize people, the sins of violence and war, the sins that lead to poverty, the sins of greed and corruption, of falsehood and hatred, and the sins of those who used religion to justify all this -- these are the sins that crucified Jesus, and continue to do so. And we betray Jesus not when we miss going to church or fail to say our prayers and read the Bible, but when we act in ways contrary to the way of Jesus. And God alone knows how often the church and Christians have done that in the course of history. We have all been caught up in the betrayal of Judas.
But the good news of Good Friday is that Jesus' way is God's way of salvation, liberation, justice and reconciliation. The message of the cross may seem to be foolish and weak, but in fact it is the wisdom and power of God that stands in vivid contrast and contradiction to the way of the world. Mary Magdalene was right. Jesus had to suffer, but that was not because he had failed as Judas thought, it was because he was faithful to his mission to redeem the world.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 2 April 2015