Friday, 6 April 2012

The Day That Judas Died

Some Good Friday Thoughts
6th of April, 2012

The Day That Judas Died

Radio 4 offers a wide range of sometimes brilliant comedy, of which perhaps the most brilliant over more than forty years has been “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”. One time, the panellists were asked what a list of famous people, including Judas the Betrayer, had in common. It turned out, they were all red-heads. “Good heavens,” said that eminent Biblical Scholar, Barry Cryer, “Judas is carrot!”. Of course, there’s not a shred of evidence for this, and if anything Christian art portrayed Judas as a redhead not because he actually was, but because red was the colour of the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Sorry, redheads, I know you have enough to contend with already.)

It’s hard to feel that history’s judgement on Judas has been entirely fair. Dante, I believe, put him in the seventh and coldest pit of hell – with Brutus, amongst others – because he betrayed a friend, and most Christian art and homiletic has taken the same line. In the Eucharist we have for many years heard the words “who in the night that he was betrayed …”, but as William Vanstone pointed out in one of his masterly, sedate, sad, beautiful, books, “The Stature of Waiting”, the more proper translation is “handed over”. Jesus wasn’t betrayed into doing anything, he let himself be handed over. That is the real meaning of “the Passion”, not a lot of rushing about by hot-headed gingertops, but the complete opposite of “action”, a letting go, into a world of heart-breaking vulnerability, which leads to his trial, torture, and the cross.

The Gospel accounts lay the blame for Jesus's crucifixion squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish authorities, and yet crucifixion was not a Jewish punishment, and if the two thieves crucified with him were robbers, death was not the penalty in the Jewish law. This was a battle with Rome.

There is a school of thought – you can find it in Nikos Kazantzakis’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, but it is older than that – that far from being a money-grubbing traitor, Judas believed so passionately in Jesus’s mission that he wanted to force his hand; that he believed the salvation of Israel meant its liberation from the Romans, and was prepared to push Jesus into unleashing angelic armies to force the Romans into the sea. There is no evidence for this either, but it makes sense of Jesus’ mysterious last words to Judas in the Garden, as recorded by Saint Matthew – “Friend, do what you are here to do” (26:50). Would he call a traitor, “friend”?

And just suppose the conjecture is right, that Judas meant good to come from his actions, disguising as financial greed a much bigger and more devastating plot for the salvation of Israel, two questions come to mind: what was he hoping to get out of it? And what if he hadn’t done it?

Maybe Judas was one of those people who likes to play his part, to think that he can one day be a big fish in a big pond, by getting the moment right, by forcing circumstances to happen. Did he envisage becoming a chief priest in that new Temple Jesus had promised to build in three days? Perhaps by lineage he was debarred from being a priest in the old one, but he knew it was a nice little earner and he would surely not be debarred from the new, and he would have liked the dressing up? Perhaps he just hated the Romans so much that he longed for his people to know freedom for the first time since the days of Solomon? Perhaps he just wanted to see the teacher he had followed and loved live out the fulfilment of his own vision? If you back the right horse, you might not be the jockey, but you still look good.

But what if he’d backed another horse, and his winnings were more than 30 pieces of silver in a first century lottery? What if he’d thought, oh, just let’s wait and see, what can I do anyway? What if the fuss of Palm Sunday – which in any case must surely have been the rumpus that sealed Jesus’s fate with the Roman Authorities – had died down? Maybe Jesus and the disciples would have gone back to Galilee, started a kibbutz, settled down and led normal lives. Perhaps Jesus would have married the Beloved Disciple (controversial, but it’s been said before!) or Mary of Magdala (as my friend Alan would dearly wish was the case), and died in his bed with his socks on. What then? Would we still have had salvation? Surely God can’t have actually needed the death of his own son, his own self, to guarantee us that? Of all the offensive Christian doctrines, the “penal substitution theory of the atonement” is the most loathsome: the idea that God needed to be sated by innocent blood for the sins of mankind. Such a God would be a monster, and to use the word “love” in his regard would itself be a blasphemy. Did Jesus need to die?

Judas didn’t stay around long enough to find out how wrong he was – if money was not his motive, although the story says he regretted even that, returned it, and hanged himself (Acts says he blew up). Ever since, suicide has been regarded as one of the gravest sins and even, in English law, a crime until the 1960s (reflected in the severe penalties for those who assist a suicide to this day). Yet surely even Peter the Denier could not have felt and expressed a more bitter, a more desperate, remorse.

Let us not judge Judas – as Jesus will not judge those of us who do impetuous and foolish things, with good intentions, and no real understanding. And let us spare a prayer for him, too, because the prayer is for ourselves, and all frail, fallible, humanity.

“Friend, do what you are here to do”. From tragedy, God wrought a glory far more than even Judas, in his vainest moments, anticipated.

“Here might I stay and sing.
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.”

Four men died that first Good Friday.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
April 2012