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[Chalice] On Judas [Chalice]

Presented Good Friday, March 29, 2002, to Quincy's Ministerial Alliance by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

This afternoon for the next three hours my brothers and sisters in the ministry will attempt to take us deeper into the minds and the personalities of the major personages involved in the events of this week we call Holy. As we try to imagine what Pontius Pilate or Peter or Judas, for example, might have been thinking, we will all be involved together in what is probably best understood as the work of theological imagination. What we will be doing is obviously highly speculative, imaginative, and personal, and we will all probably find ourselves agreeing with some of the speaker's views and disagreeing-maybe even strongly-with some views expressed by myself and the other ministers. But as we do so, as we get our theological imaginations going and find ourselves agreeing and disagreeing, assenting and rejecting, let's remember the ethical wisdom of our Jewish brothers and sisters, as older siblings in the faith as Pope John Paul II has called them. The Rabbis in the Talmud describe the sacred scriptures as embers, and when you read them and try to interpret them you breathe life into them and make them kick up again just as a fire that has burned down will kick up again if you breathe on it. So I will try to remember and perhaps we all should together that the exact same thing that someone says that you or I disagree with may be just what kicks the fire back into life in someone else. The rabbis would want us to understand that the important thing is not that we all agree, reach consensus, become the same theologically and think with the same mind and in the same logic; the important thing is that we breathe on the embers and that the fire kicks up.

What would you say about Judas? Would you want to speak about Judas at all? When I got a call from Bob on behalf of the ministerial association he explained that we were all speaking on the personages involved in Holy Week. I asked him what my choices were and he said, Well, we've only got one left. So it seems no one wants to speak about Judas. That was ok with me because Judas would have been one of my first choices, not that it is obvious at all or even clear what there is to say about Judas.

Judas certainly could be and has been understood as something like a pawn of fate and destiny. Jesus's story has to play itself out the way it does. There has to be a betrayal, a Good Friday, a crucifixion. These are all within God's plan. God's plan for salvation required all of this, including a betrayal, a betrayer, and Judas you are it. And so the real live Judas, the man, disappears behind this terrible role he is destined to play. And his very name becomes another word for betrayer, for traitor, as in that famous quip by Oscar Wilde, where he says: "If every great man has disciples, why is it always Judas who writes the biobraphy?"

But Judas as the pawn, the person destined to play the role of betrayer in the great drama of salvation history, this makes Judas seem more like a character out of classical Greek drama rather than a character from the Bible.

Judas could also be seen as the embodiment of absolute evil, a devil in disguise or a man inhabited by Satan. This is another common way of interpreting Judas, but this view has to encounter at least one big difficulty: the fact that according to the Gospel of Matthew Judas has so much remorse for what he has done in betraying Judas that almost immediately he runs off and hangs himself. That seems like an odd thing for a completely evil person to do. If Judas were completely evil, you'd think he would be right now at the foot of the cross making fun of Jesus, laughing with some of the others in the crowd, enjoying himself watching Jesus suffer. Perhaps there is a complexity to Judas's character we cannot comprehend, a Judas neither pawn of destiny nor evil incarnate, but more ambiguous and more human. Perhaps Judas was just a man who did not understand, who thought he understood but really didn't understand, which would of course make him only human, all too human.

Perhaps Judas was a true believer, believed that Jesus was the real Messiah that was going to free his people from the oppression of Roman rule and domination. But Judas was also confused by all of Jesus' talk of love, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. Perhaps Judas was getting really impatient waiting for Jesus to get political and revolutionary. Perhaps he thought if he delivered Jesus over into the hands of the Roman authorities that that would finally make things happen. Perhaps he thought that if Jesus felt the violence and the power of the empire on his own body that that would finally kick him into gear and he would kick up and kick the Roman authorities into pieces. Perhaps when delivered Jesus over to the Roman authorities he believed that Jesus would rouse himself in his mighty anger so that Judas thought to himself: "Now we are getting somewhere."

Because Judas did not understand. This is not that to say that he wasn't smart. Judas was probably plenty smart. He was the treasurer of the group, and you don't choose as the treasurer someone who isn't smart. If you want something figured, something added up or divided, something maybe on a pie chart or a spread sheet, Judas is your man. He's smart, but he didn't understand.

He didn't understand because he thought of Jesus and the Roman authorities within the same logic, a logic based on power, authority, force, and ultimately on violence. Perhaps Judas reasoned that Roman rule was based on power and violence and that Jesus would use power and violence to overthrow it. Because Judas didn't understand that Jesus was bringing into the world not another political power, and not another rule based on violence, but another logic altogether, one based on forgiveness, love, and above all on peace and nonviolence, a logic you can never arrive at through force, power, and violence.

Perhaps Judas never understood. Even after the betrayal, even after Jesus does not resist violence with violence and opens the way to peace and nonviolence, still Judas doesn't understand the other logic. Judas still thinks within the one logic of power and violence, and so the only thing he can think to do when Jesus refuses the logic of power and violence is to turn that same logic upon himself. The only thing that Judas thinks is open to him, the only way to think, the only thing to do is to be violent toward himself and destroy himself. Judas's last violent act shows the extent to which he simply never understood that there was another way, another logic, and that Jesus was that other way, that other logic.

2000 years of Good Fridays and the world still seems to be too stuck in the only logic Judas knew, the logic of power and violence. But those who stand at the cross know we are called to think within the other logic, the logic of peace and nonviolence. Despite ourselves, we can be so dominated like Judas by the violent logic of the world that we need constantly to be reminded that there is always another logic open to us. This may be why Paul says to us: "Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds" and even stronger when he says: "I die daily."

Poor old Judas. He understood only one logic in this world, and he applied that to himself when he destroyed himself, and he died once, irrevocably. But Paul call us to another death, the death of holiness, when he tells us that we need to die to the logic of power of violence rather than let it destroy us, and he tell us quite honestly and intimately about himself: "I die daily."

©2002 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2002. On Judas, /talks/20020329.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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