Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
A sermon preached for Palm Sunday at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, 4/9/17; Matthew 21:1-11; 26:14- 27:66.
The theme of betrayal runs deep through our readings today. As a congregation, we were both the voices who excitedly welcomed Jesus with “Hosannas” as our long-expected Messiah, and the voices who rejected him as a criminal and blasphemer with shouts of “Let him be crucified!” What does this tell us about the possibility within us, within humanity, to turn on each other in this way, so quickly, so easily? Our Passion narrative begins immediately on this same note of betrayal: “One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray Jesus to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.”
And of course, we are given that chilling scene of Judas’ kiss, what has become our classic, iconic image of betrayal—betrayed with a kiss. And we generally imagine it unfolding with a kind of cartoonish simplicity: there’s the villain, obviously evil from the get-go; the brave and noble hero; and the sinister plot. But is this what we’re given in Matthew’s gospel? It’s certainly the image of Judas and Jesus that many of us have received, and it reflects a good deal of Christian artwork: the dark, demonic, and sometimes outright anti-Semitic depiction of Judas juxtaposed with the Aryan, divine Christ—archetypes of the cosmic forces of good and evil.
This is what we get in Matthew’s gospel, right? Well, a quick glance at the surface of the text might seem to agree with this image. Matthew is ever-ready to remind us that this is Judas, THE ONE WHO BETRAYED HIM. And at one point in the text, Judas actually becomes nameless, simply referred to as “the betrayer.” Have no doubt about this one folks. Can’t you see the black, hooded cloak, hear the treacherous voice, see the villainous scar across his face, there to tip us off that he’s the bad guy? While Matthew leaves little room to guess who the villain will be—this goes way beyond foreshadowing—we have to keep in mind that this is all written after the fact, the betrayal projected back from the end to the beginning of the story.
Back when this all started, Judas didn’t go around wearing a nametag that said “the one who will betray him.” He didn’t actually wear a black, hooded cloak or have a villainous scar across his face to signify to everyone just who he was. No, at the beginning, Judas was just another one of the guys, one of the intimate, inner twelve no less. And if we read the text closely, Matthew, as ready as he is to remind us of what Judas is going to do, actually gives a fairly nuanced understanding of what led to this turn of events. Backing up just a few paragraphs in the narrative, we find ourselves at the anointing in Bethany. A woman has just broken open an expensive bottle of ointment and poured it over Jesus while he sits at table.
The text continues: “But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? 9For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me […].’ Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?’”
Matthew seems to be drawing an explicit connection between this event at Bethany and Judas’ decision to betray his teacher. Suppose Judas, along with the other disciples, was angered by Jesus’ extravagant wasting of this expensive ointment that could have been sold in order to benefit the poor. It seemed that Jesus was getting a bit self-absorbed, losing sight of the mission. And aren’t the disciples right? Aren’t they simply following what Jesus had been teaching them all this time? Isn’t he the one who said “if you would follow me, sell all you have and give the money to the poor”?
Judas is acting on principle—a principle he learned from Jesus. Maybe he had been questioning Jesus for some time—a move here, a decision there—and this was simply the final straw. Maybe Judas hoped to make up for Jesus’ error with the thirty pieces of silver he earned. That could feed and clothe a good number of people. Seen in this way, Judas doesn’t seem to be Darth Vader or Lord Voldemort at all. We see this most clearly in his shock when Jesus is sentenced to crucifixion—he repents and returns the thirty pieces of silver, apparently having anticipated only temporary imprisonment, not execution.
The more we poke around into the odd scriptural hints regarding Judas and the reasons behind his betrayal, the more human he begins to appear—similar to the chief priests and elders, whoit seems genuinely thought they were looking out for their people by having Jesus arrested. At the end of the day, perhaps all of these folks were just trying to do what they thought was best in a complex, confusing, and messy world. Perhaps we can’t chock Judas’ actions up to simple selfishness or pure evil. Maybe there are no clear villains in this story.
But we like to have our villains. We like to know that it’s because of those Muslims, those Trump-supporters, those bleeding-heart liberals. Those clear villains whose motives are obviously wrong-headed and evil. It makes life so much easier. But what if instead of vilifying, we opened lines of communication? We tried to understand the other’s humanity? What if the villain is that very breakdown of connection, compassion, and communication infecting both camps?
It is all too easy for us, two-thousand years this side of the Resurrection, to vilify those who played a role in Jesus’ death. But by digging just a little beneath the surface of the text, we begin to see much more clearly the humanity of these characters that our overly familiar and pious cardboard cutouts have flattened away. And in that there is real hope for us, because, remember, we are these characters. We are the ones shouting praises and then “Crucify!” Maybe we simply know and love Barabbas, an old friend from our childhood, and can’t stand the thought of him being killed. Again, is it as simple as it looks? The people in those original crowds were no more two-dimensional cartoon characters than we are here today.
And that infamous kiss of betrayal… what if we don’t see cosmic good and evil colliding here, but instead only a reminder of the hard, broken, and confusing choices we’re all faced with? What if this is what our salvation through the Cross is really about? God coming to us, loving us, finding a way to save us, to make us whole, in and through our own broken choices and mistakes? Not villainizing us, but embracing us in our flawed humanity?
Jesus, knowing all that he knows, doesn’t pull back from the kiss. He says “Friend”—and I believe he means it—“Friend, do what you are here to do. I know this has been a hard decision for you. I know all of your options have seemed broken.” Theologians debate the necessity of Judas’ actions, whether or not they were a part of the divine plan. Was free will involved, or were these events predestined? But these all seem to be the wrong questions to me.
Instead, I sit with that tragic word “friend”—“Friend, do what you’re here to do.” And I jump forward to Judas, wracked with regret and despair at the death of his friend, fumbling between sobs to tie the rope around his neck. How dare we ask such questions in the face of such pain? This is not the time for theology.
There is an old legend, recounted by Madeleine L’Engle, that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a dark, deep pit. For thousands of years he wept in repentance, and when his tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. For another thousand years he simply contemplated that point of light, until finally he began to climb towards it. But the walls of the pit were dank and slippery, and he kept sliding back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back to the bottom. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb again. After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into the upper room—where there were twelve seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We could not begin the meal without you.”
What if the truth is that we’re all in the pit together, and we all need each other’s support, connection, communication, understanding, to climb out, and the meal can’t begin until every last one of us is seated at the table? I don’t want to offer an easy answer to this question of Judas, nor downplay the very real forces of darkness and evil in our lives and in the world. But I do want to call us to look for the humanity hidden beneath the surface of the text, and hidden beneath the surface of those we too easily vilify in our own lives and in the world.
As we move into these days of Holy Week, and towards the saving mystery of the Cross—the Cross that unmasks our black-and-white thinking, our vilification, our ignorance and lack of compassion—as we move towards the Cross, remember that we are the ones who shouted “Crucify him!” and that even still he waits for us, unwilling to begin the meal until every last one of us is seated at the table.