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Lenten Perspectives—Judas

Good morning, church.  Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 26, and we’re going to start reading in v. 6.

We’re in a season of the church known as lent, which is a time of fasting and waiting.  Fasting reminds us of our dependence upon the God alone.  This kind of waiting, this observance of the church calendar, teaches us that our lives are built around the things God does in the world, that our days are numbered by him.

We’ve decided, through the season of Lent, to follow individual people through the last week or so of Jesus’ life, called passion week, to see through their eyes the events which brought our savior to the cross to die in our place—just as he died in the place of each person in the passion narrative.  My hope is that we would begin to see pieces of ourselves in each of these men and women, so that we might understand in new and more personal ways what it means that Jesus died on the cross for us, in our place and for our sake.

We started by looking at Caiaphas, the hight priest and ruler of Jerusalem, who in order to keep his throne and his priesthood decided to kill the true king and high priest over the people of God.  Jesus, though, took everything Caiaphas meant for evil and intended it for good.  Jesus gave up his throne, bore our shame and sin, became unclean, and died to save his people.

Last week, we focused on the apostle John, the beloved disciple of Jesus.  John, who through Jesus’ death was adopted into his immediate family, taking Jesus’ place.  Jesus died to give John family and a place; so he calls to each of us to recognize in the church our mothers and sons, sisters and brothers.

This week, I want to look at the crucifixion from Judas Iscariot’s seat in the upper room, to know his motivations and his thoughts before betrayal; and hopefully to understand the way in which Jesus died to offer Judas a chance of redemption.

Read with me, starting in Matthew, chapter 26, v.6, and we’re going to read through v.25. [Matthew 26:6-25].  This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.  Pray with me.  Father God, your ways are only righteous; Christ, you let them mock you, and you endure our criticisms still; Holy Spirit, you offer new life to those who grieve you; we pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free.  Amen.

If you’ve been here the past few weeks, you know what I’m about to say, but it may be harder to hear it this week than last: we are Judas, we are just like him.  The things that drive him drive us; his sins are our sins.  We share his mistaken perspective.  We are Judas.

I want to start this morning with a question; and I’m going to ask you to be honest with your answers.  My question is this: what is Judas’ sin?  Where does he start going wrong, what’s driving him to this point where he betrays his friend?  Before this week, I probably would have told you that Judas did what he did out of some combination of cosmic necessity and greed; he was possessed, it was his fate, he wanted the money the priests gave him—but no, Matthew is trying to tell us there is more to it than that, that there is in each of us a pride willing to betray Christ, that we are just like Judas, and Christ died because of our sins, to offer us reconciliation back to God.

When you’re asking why Judas did what he did, there’s definitely money involved.  John’s gospel tells us that Judas kept the apostle’s moneybag, and he would steal from it, like a pastor who, instead of asking his church for a raise, just takes from the offering plate and justifies it to himself by saying it’s what he’s owed anyway.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in just my short time in ministry who come into the church thinking they are talented enough that the church owes them something—a place of leadership or honor, a title, a spot on stage, a salary.

People do terrible things for money, but you need to understand—especially because Judas was stealing from the money given to Jesus, Jesus was worth more alive than dead—thirty pieces of silver would be about a months’ wages, give or take.  It’s not a small amount, but it’s not an enormous amount either—like the recent stimulus payments.  I didn’t send mine back, but we also didn’t really change anything about our life from that.  And notice in the passage, Judas approaches the Jewish leaders and Judas asks them, “How much will you give me to turn Jesus over to you?”  He’s already made up his mind.  He’s already decided to betray the Lord, at that point, before he’s promised any money for it.

This is what I’ve realized in my prep for this series: it wasn’t really about the money.  The truth is—are you listening?  Because we fall into these same patterns of thought.  The truth is, Judas was disappointed with Jesus.  Judas is disappointed that Jesus—who is God incarnate—isn’t more godly, isn’t making a big enough difference, isn’t doing more for the kingdom and people of God.  Judas wants vows of poverty; he wants revolution; he wants the world to change overnight, and he wants to be at the center of it.  Judas gave his life to this, years following Jesus, and he’s disappointed with what Jesus has decided to do, with what Jesus has asked him to do, with how much money and honor Jesus has given to him, with the way Jesus is spending his time, power, and money; he’s disappointed enough with Jesus to be angry.  The text says Judas was indignant.  Indignation, meaning furious anger at injustice, unfairness, inequity.  It was indignation that drove Judas to betray Jesus.

The word indignant only occurs a few times in the book of Matthew.  The first time the Bible tells us the apostles become indignant is when Salome asks Jesus if her sons, Andrew and John, can sit at his right hand and at his left in his kingdom.  Judas has spent years now doing the work of the ministry, day in day out, without ever getting paid, or having the appropriate seat at the table.  And here comes Jesus’ aunt asking if her two sons can have the positions of power when Jesus comes into his kingdom? James and John!?  What is John, like 14?

I don’t think Judas cared about the money they gave him to betray Jesus—I don’t even think Judas intended to keep it—not all of it, at least.  I think Judas’s intention was to give that money to the poor, after he took a reasonable stipend for himself—to make a point—it’s what Jesus should have done with the money wasted on him.  Judas’ betrayal had more to do with the perfume than it did the thirty pieces of silver.

The story we read, of a woman pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ body and rubbing it in—usually called the anointing at Bethany—is one of only a few stories which appear in all four gospels, meaning this is a moment all four gospel writers saw as crucial to understanding the story of Jesus’ life and death for our sake.  And in every gospel, the price of the ointment is mentioned: 300 denarii, which would have been about a year’s worth of wages for a laborer.  This perfume is worth tens of thousands of dollars.  In three of the gospels, the story of the perfume comes just before Judas’ betrayal of Christ.  The gospel of Luke places it earlier, and we’ll talk about that in a moment.

Again, in our passage, Matthew plainly tells us what the disciples’ reaction to the anointing is: in v.8 he tells us “when the disciples saw [the anointing], they were indignant,” both at the woman and at Jesus, himself—indignant, furious.  John’s telling of the event has Judas rebuking Jesus for this, telling him that the perfume should have been sold and given to the poor—and he wants to steal a piece of that—but in what we just read, you can see it’s not just Judas who’s mad; the other disciples thought the same thing.  Everyone was agreed, for a prostitute to take perfume she had bought with her wages and to pour it out on Jesus—it was too much, extravagant, shameful.

Not much about Judas is known before he came to follow Jesus.  Some small clues tell us he was the only one from Judea, from the South where the wealthy and powerful people lived, like being from Southern California or the east coast today—the rest of the apostles were from Galilee, from the country.  Judas was named after a revolutionary who, in recent years, freed Israel from the powers of Rome.  Judas was likely one of the disciples who had started their ministerial careers following John the Baptist.  John the Baptist, who lived on bugs and honey out in the desert, and yet all of Jerusalem poured out of the city to the desert to hear him preach.  John the Baptist, who spoke truth to power, even if it cost him his life.  John the Baptist: the greatest prophet ever to live.

I told you the story of the anointing in Luke comes in a different place in the narrative—some people point to this as a contradiction in scripture.  I don’t think it’s a contradiction or a mistake, I think it’s intentional.  Luke places the anointing story together with the story of John’s imprisonment, when he sends a letter to Jesus asking, “are you the messiah, or should we expect another?” In the passage, Luke is contrasting John the Baptist and Jesus.  John, Luke says, came neither drinking nor eating.  Jesus came eating and drinking, and everyone called him a drunkard and a glutton.  John was extreme—so extreme that people thought he was possessed or out of his mind.  And Jesus, well, Jesus wasn’t extreme enough.  People thought Jesus was a little common, a little worldly.

John the Baptist writes to Jesus from prison and asks him, in the presence of his disciples, including the ones who started out with John, was I wrong about you when I said you were the messiah?  Because you seem to have no interest in freeing Israel from Rome.  John writes, I’m in jail facing execution, and you, Jesus, aren’t doing anything to disturb the status quo.  Aren’t you going to come get me?  Luke places his account of the anointing at Bethany right after this letter is read in his text to show John, imprisoned and beheaded by Herod because he was bold enough to call out the sins of the king, and Jesus, eating at a pharisee’s house and having a prostitute pour oil over him.  The passage ends, in Luke, with Jesus saying: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

When you’re asking what is Judas’ motivation in betraying Jesus—it was greed in part, yes, but also Judas was disappointed in Jesus.  He didn’t understand that Christ desires mercy, and not sacrifice.  Judas despised the light burden of Jesus, because he liked showing off how much he could carry.  He liked being radical and having others look up to him for it.  He wanted a job, a revolution, to be in the center of things—Judas wanted to sacrifice for Jesus, and all Jesus ever offered him was mercy.

Judas wanted to storm the prison and rescue John, but Jesus continued teaching and healing the sick.  Judas wanted to give more to the poor, and to pay himself a larger salary, but Jesus kept asking him to spend his money in other ways—to feed a crowd; to rent a room during a feast; to provide lamb, bread, and wine for the feast; to pay taxes.  This man is supposed to be his teacher, supposed to be showing him how to follow God, but everything he does is so ordinary.  He’s a good teacher, a miracle worker, but the rest of the time he just seems to want to spend time with people and enjoy himself.

Judas sees the easy yoke, the light burden of Jesus, and he thinks it’s irresponsible to place so little upon people.  Judas thinks he has carried so much of the burden for so long—he deserves something.  He’s earned something.  And you know what?  He has nothing left to learn from this fool who would rather feast with prostitutes than actually do anything that might make a difference.  The man can raise the dead, for God’s sake, and he’d rather eat and drink with all of his friends from some backwater nowhere.

So of course Judas went to the high priests.  Maybe he can make a trade, give them something they want and get what he deserves in return, so the past five years won’t have been totally a waste.  And church, do you see it?  Do you see how he got there?  Do you see how we do the exact same thing?

Have you ever been disappointed with what God has done?  Or disappointed in the calling of God on your life?  You wanted God to rid you of that sin, and here you are right back in it.  To heal that loved one, but he never did.  Maybe you’re like me, and you wanted to be a missionary, reach the world for Christ, and Jesus called you to minister in the same place your family has always been.  Or maybe you wanted to live a radical life for Jesus, and you find yourself with kids and a mortgage and a job, and before you know it your radical life looks a lot like the lives of the people you’ve always thought weren’t really following God.  Maybe you wanted to lead the church, and Christ called you to serve; you wanted to disciple hundreds, and Christ asked you to pour yourself out for one person—say a child, or your aging parents.  You wanted your church to change the city for Jesus, and instead you’re just doing the work.  We get disappointed, indignant.

I had a conversation the other day with a young man who contacted me wanting advice, he said the Lord was calling him to work against human trafficking in the city of New Orleans, and I told him he should join the Vieux and tithe—this is before I was the pastor here—I told him about Inward ministries here, ministering to the women who work in the strip clubs, and I told him about the Friendship House who house people coming out of that life, and I explained some ways he could support those ministries.  He told me he didn’t want anything to do with any of that, because if they were actually going to make a difference they would have done it by now.

I remember during Kaleo last year, spending about thirty minutes telling a mission team about my family’s experience with foster care and adoption, how we saw it as a huge part of our family’s ministry, and I got to the end of what I had to say, and a student raised his hand and asked, “Why are we talking about this?  What does this have to do with ministry?”  He honestly believed caring for orphans and serving your family wasn’t the real work of ministry.  I hope he’s changed his mind.

I’ve met people training to be pastors, servants of congregations, who are utterly unwilling to humbly serve their families; people who evangelize so much that they’ve forgotten what it is to just enjoy a conversation or make a friend; people who tell me they are ready to give their lives for Jesus on the mission field, but who refuse to give even a year serving a local church; people who work tirelessly for peace in their cities, but who are constantly in conflict with the people around them; who spend their days advocating for peace and justice in society, but whose family and friends walk on eggshells around them because they’re so easy to offend; people who advocate for inclusion and acceptance of all people, but then they exclude everyone who isn’t inclusive and accepting enough, which ironically turns out to be most people.

We see the things God is doing in the world through his church, and we get disappointed.  God has never been extreme enough for us.  Why doesn’t he stop the evil in the world?  Why doesn’t he perform more miracles?  Why doesn’t the church evangelize more, or disciple more, or give away more money, or talk more about this or that issue?  We should be up in arms, we should be out in the streets, we should never be silent, never patient, we should never rest.  We’re just like Judas.  We think God owes us, and if he doesn’t give it to us, we take it.  We’re disappointed with the ways of God, with his timing, with the people he chooses to use, with how normal and humdrum they are—we’re disappointed, and from time to time we’re indignant.

How do you think you would have reacted to Jesus allowing Mary to pour that expensive perfume over Jesus’ head?  I think we would have reacted the same way his disciples reacted.  A third of us would have grumbled about how the church uses its money; another third would have been offended at being in the room with a prostitute; and the rest of us would have been offended that we were eating dinner with a pharisee.

The truth is, when we exclude the prostitutes or the pharisees from our fellowship, we’re making a silent assumption that we, unlike them, deserve to be here worshipping.  We’re more sanctified than they are.  We are more extreme; we have a better understanding of what it means to work for the kingdom.

We’re just like Judas.  We look around at the light burdens Christ places on people, the kinds of sins he forgives, the people whom he allows to serve his church, the patience he has with them and with the building of the kingdom of God—and we begin to despise him for it.  We take it out on this or that person, but really our problem is with Jesus.  How can he work with those people?  Why would he save them?  When is this hum drum workaday nonsense going to be done and we can get on with the real work, when will I finally prove myself in his eyes, so we can get on with making a difference for the kingdom?

We are just like Judas. But then, if we are just like Judas, we have to realize that Jesus died to offer Judas a chance at reconciliation, and so if we’re Judas, then Jesus died to offer us a chance at reconciliation.

I know I said earlier that thirty pieces of silver is not a significant amount of money, but that money is significant in understanding what God is doing in and through Judas’ actions in our passage.

Thirty pieces of silver was about the going rate of a slave in those days, if you were going to sell your brother from his home to labor in foreign lands—which might remind you of another group of twelve who sold their brother as a slave for about a month’s wages.  In the Old Testament, this is exactly what happens to Joseph.  And Joseph is in jail for a while, then he is raised up out of jail and seated at the right hand of the king.  From that position, he advocated for the family of God, the very brothers who sold him, that they would be saved from death.

And Joseph doesn’t just save his brothers, he runs to them, breaks down crying, and throws his arms around them.  He reconciles with them, brings them back into his family, gives them a land and an inheritance among his own.

Judas sells Jesus for a months wages into the hands of people he knew meant to use and eventually kill him for their own gain.  And just like Joseph’s brothers, eventually he realizes what he’s done, he’s overwhelmed with guilt and fear of what God would do to him.  Instead of giving the money to the poor, or using it for himself, he tries to give it to the temple as what’s called a guilt offering.  In the Old Testament, this kind of offering was proscribed if someone had sinned, and was seeking reconciliation back to God.

But the priests in the temple reject his offering.  They won’t take it.  They essentially tell Judas, there’s no way for you to reconcile yourself back to God, and overwhelmed, he hangs himself on a tree—in many ways a death similar to the death he had condemned Jesus to die, and I don’t think that’s a mistake either.

Jesus’s death offers to us all what Judas was trying to achieve by giving his silver to the temple: reconciliation back to God.  We, like Judas, have sinned, and there’s no way for us to reconcile to God on our own—no amount of money we can give away, no works, no penance.  If we try to make our own way back to God, we will end up like Judas, martyrs of our own doing, hanging on a tree trying to earn what in Christ is freely given: reconciliation back to God, his arms around us and his tears of joy welcoming us into his land and inheritance, just like Joseph.  Reconciliation back to God and back to our brothers and sisters.

My invitation today is to see your own part in what Judas has done, see your own indignation at being grouped together with those sinners we so despise, be they prostitutes or pharisees.  And instead of trying to atone for yourself, look to Christ who forgives without cost.  If you are able to see yourself under the weight of sin, too, then you can welcome his light burden instead of resenting it in the people around you.

I think if you came to him, this brother of ours, and asked him just to save you, or just to forgive you—he would not only save you, but throw his arms around you in tears, and welcome you into his name and inheritance, his hope and his future.  Pray with me.