Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Sanctity of Judas Iscariot

This morning, Palm Sunday, we read again the story of the betrayal of Jesus. I was struck by this line regarding Judas Iscariot, "and he went out and hanged himself." (Matt. 27:5b) And I listened to how he was called a murder and remembered how the church has despised him over the centuries. He has been held most accursed and surely one destined to be lost for all eternity.

I also shuddered as the reading progresses to the scene before Pilate, where the crowd demands the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate even gives them the choice to pardon Jesus Christ or Jesus Barabbas, which means "son of the father. The crowd demands that Barabbas be set free and Christ crucified. Pilate washes his hands of the matter. "Then the people as a whole answered, 'His blood be upon us and our children!'" (Matt. 27:25) I felt ill to hear this with full knowledge that the church has down through the ages, even in modern times, killed and tortured millions of Jews as "Christ killers." Pious Christians have been moved by this scene countless times to vent God's wrath on their Jewish neighbors.

But how does Judas' betrayal work into God's plan? Jesus knowingly called Judas his disciple. Jesus understood and taught that the Son of Man must be handed over. At the last supper, Jesus identifies Judas as the one who would betray him and and curses him, saying, "The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." (Matt. 26.24) At Gethsemane just before his arrest, Jesus throws himself and prays, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want." (Matt. 26:39) With a second prayer, Jesus consents to the will of his Father when he says, "Your will be done." So it is that Jesus accepts that Judas' betrayal is part of the Father's plan.

Is Judas's role an essential or necessary part of God's plan or an unfortunate mistake? Presumably Jesus could have simply handed himself over and saved Judas from so grievous an error. Why would Jesus not save Judas? Why would Jesus curse him for something within his power to avoid? All he would have needed to do is say to Judas, "I know what you are going to do. I forgive you and will hand myself in in your stead so that you can be with me in my kingdom."

This does not add up for me. It could not have been an accident. Otherwise, Jesus simply failed to be a savior for one of his disciples. Heaven forbid that Jesus should be such an unreliable savior! Rather, Judas's action must have been what the Father had willed for him.

Could it be that the burden placed upon Judas has some redemptive purpose? His soul was condemned to hell, for what? Is there any atoning meaning to this? I believe there is.

Leviticus 16 provides the directives by which the High Priest was to make atonement for the sins of the people. It the biblical template for atonement sacrifice. It clearly prescribes that their be two, not one, male goats presented for atonement. By lots one would be selected for the Lord and the other for Azazel, the wilderness. The one for the Lord would be sacrificed for atonement. The High Priest would then take the other goat by both hands and lay the blood of the first upon it. This blood represented all the sins of the people. Then it would be taken into the wilderness and set free. The purpose of the scapegoat was to bear the sin of the people and carry it away into the wilderness.

If Jesus was the atonement sacrifice, who was the other goat? Could it be that Judas was asked to bear willingly this burden upon his soul? Clearly the church has cast its scorn upon Judas Iscariot. Is he our scapegoat. Clearly this was for him an unbearable burden, whether he played his role willingly or not. Upon handing Jesus over to the temple authorities, he wanted no part in the blood money that was put upon him. He trued to hand it back to the priests, but they would not take it. This blood was his alone to bear."He said, 'I have sinned by betraying this innocent blood.' But they said, 'What is that to us? See to it yourself.'" (Matt. 27:4) Rather than bear that into the wilderness himself, he cast it into the temple and when and hanged himself.

Did this fulfill his role as scapegoat? Perhaps not, the priest themselves had to remove the blood money from the temple, and they bought a field with it for burying foreigners. Perhaps then those priests were the scapegoats. But this is probably reading to much into it. Throwing it into the temple may be seen as enough. The Leviticus formula does not suggest that one scapegoat can pass the imposition on to another. It was his alone to bear.

But what did Judas continue to bear even after disposing of the blood money? What drove him to kill himself? One thing, the last kiss of Jesus. Did Judas kiss Jesus because he truly loved him? I believe so. He willingly accepted the most grievous mission of any disciple because he truly loved Jesus and like Jesus consented fully to the will of the Father. He sacrificed his own soul so that Jesus could make full atonement for humanity. For one was to the Lord and the other to Azazel, one to glory and praise, the other destruction and scorn.

Who among us would be willing to be damned as Judas Iscariot was? And why? Only for love of Jesus might someone so utterly abandon himself to the will of God. The kiss of Jesus may have been his final consolation. This final kiss may betray an deeper sanctity than any of us might be willing to imagine.


The foregoing is midrash, an imaginative and wildly speculative meditation on scripture. It is not meant to be coherent doctrinal statement or even sensible exegesis. For a more concrete moral discussion, we might grapple with how Christians have scapegoated Jews over the centuries. Is it better to say that it ended with Judas and Jesus than to continue to lay our guilt on Jews?