I want to say something about Judas, this man whom the gospel turns its face against. In St John, ‘Judas went out; and it was night’. That says it all. He is the dark face of apostleship, the shadow over that happy band of pilgrims. He deserves his place in his icy pit at the centre of Dante’s hell with the other two arch-traducers of antiquity, Brutus and Cassius where he keeps company with Satan himself. One of the excised verses in our Acts reading quotes the psalm that elaborates on the fate of those who betray their friends. ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’. That is not the worst of the catalogue of disasters the psalm brings down on the reprobate. In Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, there is a memorable scene following Henchard’s downfall. He goes into a tavern where the choir has gathered after church (an honourable custom still observed here at Durham). Out of the window he sees his arch-rival Donald Farfrae. He orders the singers to perform the metrical version of Psalm 109 to curse his enemy. The bandmaster is horrified. ‘Twasn’t made for singing. Whatever Servant David were thinking about when he made a Psalm that nobody can sing without disgracing himself, I can’t fathom.’
Who was this figure whom the tradition makes the object of the psalm’s fierce curse? One of the puzzles in biblical scholarship is why Judas should have handed Jesus over to his persecutors. The modest price of 30 pieces of silver doesn’t seem to explain it. For when he had succeeded in having Jesus arrested, he did not hold on to his gains but threw them down in a burst of self-recrimination. So what did he want to achieve by this elaborately hatched plot with its night-time encounter in the garden and a treacherous kiss? For twenty centuries writers have speculated. An early gnostic codex in Coptic, The Gospel of Judas portrays him as Jesus’s closest friend and ally. He secretly asks Judas to betray him so that through his death, his spirit can be released and the world be saved. So Judas, far from being the traitor, is the willing midwife of salvation, an idea taken up in a great novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, later made into a less great film by Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ. More credible is the idea that Judas was indeed a fervent follower and friend, perhaps a zealot who believed that Jesus had become diverted from his true vocation which was to free Judea from the Romans by leading a violent uprising. His arrest would drive Jesus to orchestrate an insurrection, or else his death would force God’s hand into a spectacular intervention that would herald the kingdom of the saints. Or perhaps he was simply a disappointed man, disillusioned at the apparent failure of Jesus’ mission. In Jesus Christ Superstar he is the real hero of the musical who concludes that sadly, Jesus is after all ‘just a man’. Judas doesn’t want Jesus to risk attracting Roman persecution that will result in a Jewish massacre. Or he comes to think that he is a false messiah. So he hands him over, as he believes he must.
What do we do with this enigmatic figure who has come to symbolise all that is ambivalent, treacherous or just plain bad? Well, for one thing, we should remind ourselves that whoever we are and whatever we do, human motive is a complex thing, hard to be sure about even in ourselves let alone in other people. Why on earth did I do that? What got into me? It would take a lifetime of analysis to uncover and understand the ambivalences deep within us. One of Shakespeare’s most opaque villains, Iago, finds that his burning jealousy of Othello leads him into acts of betrayal that even he himself does not understand, let alone his victim. ‘Why hath he thus ensnared my soul and body?’ asks the wounded Othello. ‘O my people, what have I done to you?’
Our story in Acts tells of how the ‘bad’ Judas is replaced by the ‘good’ Matthias. After the ascension, all seems set fair for a new paradise-era when the Spirit of truth is given. Yet Luke’s does not paint the first generation of Christians as untainted by human deceit: think of the story of how Ananias and Sapphira played false to the faith hard on the heels of Pentecost. In the earliest New Testament documents, Paul’s first letters, we see the shadow that lies across the primitive Christian communities like a cancer dispersing secondaries into every member of the Body of Christ. Dissent, division, pride, greed, the lust for power, ‘envy, malice and all uncharitableness’, the things we pray to be delivered from in the Litany – these are among the ways in which the church has continued to betray Christ through its entire history. They come from the very heart of Jesus’ own society of followers and friends. And they are still among us to this day.
One aspect of this malevolent capacity for evil that has dominated the 20th century and still casts a long shadow over the 21st goes back to Judas’ name, ‘the Jew’. An early, ugly, reading of the gospels identified Judas as the chief culprit of Jesus’s crucifixion. So history has demonised him and often the people whose name he carried, ‘the Jews’ who cried to have Jesus put to death. Anti-semitism originates in the blame ascribed to Judas who took money to betray the Son of God. ‘Blood-guilt’ has coloured some Christian readings of the gospel; some scholars even find it in the New Testament itself. Once established, it spawns a thousand other evils: the Nazi holocaust is only one of them. However compromised Judas was personally or politically, he was flesh and blood like us, as capable of good and bad like us, in need of forgiveness and redemption like us. As Paul says, there is no distinction: ‘all have sinned’.
If we put ourselves inside Judas’ skin for a while, we may emerge with new insights about ourselves. Our betrayals of Christ are a way of talking about our sins: ‘our great refusals’ Dante calls them. What evil might we be capable of if time and circumstance were different? If we had lived as respectable German citizens in the Nazi era, what might we have found ourselves colluding with? Yet however bad or mixed our motives may be, providence can do redemptive things with them. ‘You meant it for evil but the Lord meant it for good’ says Joseph to his brothers after that story of betrayal and capture leads tortuously to its marvellous outcome of forgiveness and reconciliation. O felix culpa! Where life was lost, there life has been restored. At the end of The Tempest Prospero has a marvellous line as he renounces his magic arts. He turns to his rebellious, misshapen slave Caliban who had tried to displace him, and says: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’.
This is what we need to do with the lost, dark side of ourselves that is capable of doing harm; and with the lost, dark side of the church, and with the lost, dark side of humanity. We need to acknowledge it, embrace it rather than banish it, as the father did his errant prodigal son, and Joseph his wayward brothers. For this is how the risen and ascended Jesus always is. He embraces us and acknowledges these things of darkness as his, whoever we are and whatever shame we carry. He pleads the glorious wounds in his hands and side for the lost souls of humanity. God has infinite time to complete his wise and loving project for creation. And he gives us these pledges of love in the eucharist to persuade us that it is true.
Durham, Sunday of the Ascension, 20 May 2012
(Acts 1.15-17, 21-26)