April 2, 2021


Mark 14-15

“One of the Twelve”

Thank you to our readers this morning, for sharing the story of Jesus’ passion and death according to the Gospel of Mark. There is a lot packed into that reading, and this weekend would be a good time for us each to slow down, read it again, and reflect on all that Jesus and his followers experienced in his final hours.

But this morning, I want to focus on “one of the twelve.” Yes, that is the way that Judas Iscariot is identified again and again in chapters 14 and 15 of Mark’s Gospel. He was “one of the twelve.”

Right off the top, we are reminded that Judas was not the devil incarnate. Judas was not an evil man who had infiltrated Jesus’ inner circle like a spy with a devilish plan. Judas was “one of the twelve” who had responded to Jesus’ call, who had followed him on the way, learned from his teaching, witnessed his miracles, and participated in his mission for several years.

My interest in thinking about Judas during this Holy Week was piqued when our Lenten Book Study drew attention to his part in the story. New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, pointed out that Judas is the betrayer in all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion, and that as we go from Mark (the earliest of the Gospels to be written) to Matthew, to Luke, and to John, Judas looks increasingly malevolent.

In Mark, the repetition of the phrase “one of the twelve” serves to remind us that Judas began as an exemplary disciple – one of the small group that formed Jesus’ inner circle of trusted friends. As Matthew tells the story a little later, Judas now has a motive for the betrayal. With the addition of receiving 30 pieces of silver for the information that he gives about Jesus, his motive is identified as greed.

The author of Luke explains the horrible thing that Judas did by suggesting that he was possessed. “Satan entered into Judas,” we are told. And in John, he is portrayed as a thief who stole from the common purse, in addition to the fact that “the devil had put it into his heart to betray Jesus.”

It is noticeable that the Christian tradition develops towards finding some reasonable explanation for why Judas did this terrible thing. He wasn’t a good person like the other disciples, or he was deeply influenced by the power of evil.

Perhaps that is easier for those of us who read the story – so that we can dismiss the possibility that we are like him in any way. We are more like the women who provided for Jesus during his ministry and who at least stayed with him watching from a distance as he was crucified. We are more like Peter, who though he denied Jesus when he felt threatened and vulnerable, at least came back to him in the end and became one of the great apostles of the church.

After beginning to think about Judas, I came across a webinar last week with the Jesuit priest, Father Christoph Wrembek, who recently wrote a book titled, “Hope for Judas?” (with a question mark) which I found very helpful. Just like Levine, Wrembek notes that Jesus chose Judas as an apostle, so he must have been worthy of that calling. And Judas was put in charge of the common purse, so he was likely recognized as bright, intelligent, and competent.

His name, Judas Iscariot, literally means “Judas from Cariot.” And Cariot was a little village east of Hebron which is no longer there. So, although Judas is “one of the twelve” he is a little different from the others in the group. While most of them came from Galilee by the sea and worked in the fishing industry, Judas came from the desert. It makes you wonder about how he fit into the group. Did he feel different, on the outside, excluded somewhat from the community because of his different background and culture? It’s hard to say.

But Father Wrembek is adamant in his assessment of Judas after reading, researching, and reflecting on his part in the story. Although all of the apostles misunderstand, mess up, and fail to stand by Jesus as he is arrested, tortured, and killed, Judas gets more than his fair share of the blame for what went down.

Wrembek insists that none of the apostles wanted Jesus to die. Remember how when Jesus told them that he was going to be killed, they objected strongly? Remember how Peter refused to accept Jesus’ fate? Did you notice in today’s Gospel story how one of them pulled out a weapon and attempted to stop Jesus’ arrest with violence and force? In John’s account, it’s Peter that does that.

Perhaps Judas also hoped that Jesus would establish the Kingdom of God through force and power. Jesus has the power to heal and do miracles, so he must be able to use that power to become the King of Israel or even the King of the world.

Wrembek suggests that Judas handed Jesus over, not in order to betray him, not because he wanted him to die… but in order to give him the push he may have needed to show his power and take over. Remember those two disciples on the Road to Emmaus after Jesus died? They admitted they were looking for a Messiah like that also: “We had hoped that he would be the one to free Israel…” they said to the stranger who walked beside them.

Judas is not so different from the rest of Jesus’ friends, and he’s not so different from us when we get things wrong. Even with the best intentions, we sometimes do more harm than good when we start to believe that we know better than others, when insist on our own way, and stop listening to those who are being affected by our delusions that we alone can solve the problems that we see around us.

But why then, does Judas suffer such a terrible fate, if he’s not really any worse than the other disciples or the rest of us? Each of the Gospels finishes Judas’ story a little differently, as the tradition develops, and the Evangelists try to answer the wonderings of the early Christian communities about what happened to him.

In Mark’s Gospel, Judas simply disappears, and we don’t hear about him again. In the Book of Acts which follows up on Luke’s account, Judas buys a field with the money he received, and he has a deadly accident there. It is a gruesome fall, with his body split open and guts spilling out – seemingly a just end for one who betrayed his Lord to a horrible death.

In several Gospels, Jesus pronounces “woe” on his betrayer, and says that it would have been better for him not to have been born. And in Matthew, Judas shows that he feels that way himself. In obviously deep regret and stricken with guilt, he throws the coins he received back into the Temple, and then he goes out and hangs himself.

Why the difference between what happens to Peter and what happens to Judas? I mean, we’ve already noted that they’re both chosen, both gifted followers of Jesus who have given their lives in service to Jesus and his mission. They both make mistakes and get things wrong, but Peter has the opportunity to receive Jesus’ mercy, to try again, to repent of his errors, and fulfill his calling as an apostle. Not so for Judas.

Wrembek notices that while Judas gives in to despair, desperately choosing to end his own life, Peter gives in to Jesus’ mercy instead so that he can leave behind his disastrous mistakes and accept another opportunity to love as Jesus loved him.

And one of the differences might be related to the fact that Judas was left alone. And at least the way John’s Gospel tells the story, even when Peter was in the midst of denying Jesus and pretending that he did not know him, the Beloved disciple John was with him.

Was John’s faithful accompaniment what got Peter through the horror of recognizing his own failure until he could discover the power of God to forgive him? Could Judas also have been saved, had someone loved him enough to stay with him through those two awful days?

Father Wrembek’s book is titled, “Hope for Judas?” and he is quite sure that there is hope for him, and for all of us who do disastrous things and feel like it might have been better for us had we not been born.

It seems to me that the first source of hope we might find is in one another. When faithful people of God walk with each other through the most difficult days of our lives – when we show by our presence that the despairing ones among us are indeed loved, and valued, and chosen by God for a purpose.

And the ultimate source of Judas’ hope and ours is God’s own covenant love for us that will not falter no matter how far we have strayed or who else has given up on us. We’ve been talking about God’s covenant relationship with human beings all through this Season of Lent, and we’ve seen again and again how God stays faithful to the promises even when we fail, and how God keeps on adapting and changing to help us learn to love in return.

Wrembek believes that God is faithful and committed, even to Judas, even beyond death, because Judas is not the devil incarnate. Judas is “one of the twelve,” chosen and called by God, made in God’s image for relationships of love and goodness.

He reminds us of Jesus’ parables about the lost things, and how God is ever more determined to do what is necessary to seek out and save the lost, including folks like Judas.

Remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son (or the Lost Son)? The Father in the story waits expectantly at home, and when the son realizes that he can come home, the Father welcomes him with open arms, joy, and celebration.

But, you may ask, what does God do when the child doesn’t know that they can come home? God doesn’t just wait at the gate, but God goes out looking for the lost one.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep tells us that the Good Shepherd leaves the 99 and searches out the one who is lost. That sheep just cannot find it’s way home alone, but it can cry out in despair so that the shepherd finds it and carries it home again.

But, you may ask, what does God do when the sheep cannot even cry out – when the lost one does not even know that anyone would care? God doesn’t just listen for the cries, but God takes the initiative to find the lost one that doesn’t even know that it needs finding.

The Parable of the Lost Coin tells us that the woman sweeps her whole house until she finds the coin that has been lost. And when she does, she calls her friends and rejoices because the lost has been found!

With Wrembek, I cannot accept the conclusion of so many throughout Christian history who have condemned Judas to hell, or given up on him as one controlled by the power of evil or the devil himself. The God that I have come to know in Jesus Christ is a God whose love and mercy never fails, who is faithful to the covenant, and who is determined to seek out and save the lost.

When I’m in that place of lostness, I’m so grateful for that assurance. And when I’m not, when I am safe in the embrace of my loving God, I’m reminded that God has a purpose for me, and a part for me to play the search team. After all, each one of us is “one of the twelve” who are chosen and precious to God.