My semi-regular Sunday synthesis of NPR and morning worship began in my kitchen and a segment on Weekend Edition Sunday called “Reminder: Our Memories are Less Reliable Than We Think.” Charles Fernyhough, a researcher from England, has written a book called Pieces of Light that looks at how memory works and what we carry with us as we go. As he talked about what scientists are learning about memory — and that often we remember things from a third person point of view, he said,
There’s something weird going on with memory. The scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example, that it just records, and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing. And in a way, that’s not surprising, because we see memories as foundational for who we are. We commonly feel that we are our memories; our memories define us. So something needs to change. … Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn’t mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they’re shaped by who we are now. They’re shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are.
His words came back into view as I listened to the gospel reading in church, John 12:1-8, which is the account — the memory, if you will — of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Scholars wrestle over when the gospels were written, but no matter when one dates the documents it stands to reason Jesus was long gone before anyone started writing anything down. Jesus didn’t have an official biographer; no one made transcripts of his sermons and parables. They remembered. And when they remembered scenes like the one described above, they looked through all that had happened in between. In recalling Judas’ words, for example, John couldn’t help but also remember Judas betraying Jesus to the authorities. All the gospel writers have their moments where they remind us Judas was no good from the start. Whether they knew it in real time is indiscernible; when they re-membered the events — when they put the pieces back together — they couldn’t do it without recalling the damage he did that last night in the Garden, and so most every time he is mentioned the writers insert, “the one who betrayed Jesus.”
When I was in high school, I remember my father preaching a series of sermons on the disciples. The one on Judas was titled, “What Have You Done to My Name?” The quote that sticks with me was Dad saying, “He so defiled the name that no one would even name their dog Judas.” Of course, my brother and I tried to name the next three dogs we got after the disgraced disciple. Down two millennia of Christian memories, we have put him back together not as one of the twelve, or the treasurer, or anything else but the one who betrayed Jesus.
Here’s the thing. He wasn’t the only one. Peter denied Jesus three times, even cursing his name, yet he wasn’t remembered as a betrayer. Almost every last one of them deserted Jesus in his final moments on the cross. But when those stories were re-membered, they became wonderful tales of grace and redemption. Peter dove out of the boat and swam to breakfast; Judas jumped from a tree limb and hung himself. I don’t think it’s as simple as, “he was rotten from the start.” Fernyhough said our memories are “by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are.” Such seems to be the case even among the gospel writers.
I realize none of them was writing an exhaustive biography of Jesus, much less the disciples. We get but glimpses of all of the twelve, not full character development. Yet, as I have ruminated during the day, I’ve wondered why Peter thought he could return and Judas didn’t. And then it took me to thinking about a couple of old friends who have gotten written out of my story, though in far less dramatic fashion. Through some recent discussions, I’ve been thinking about friends — close friends — who are not so close anymore. No, that’s too much of an understatement. I’ve wondered what to do about once vital friendships that have grown unessential. I guess I should say I’ve been wondering about my part in the distance. After hearing the NPR segment this morning, I’ve been wondering if how I remember the past creates any possibility for us to find each other or chooses instead to learn to live without them. In a couple of cases, we just drifted apart; in a couple of others, we have some damage to deal with. The task, it seems either way, is whether I want to remember them as a relic of the past or a relationship that matters.
When I read John’s words about “the betrayer,” I wonder how the story would read had Judas had a chance to tell it. And then I imagine Judas walking up on the beach not long after Peter had climbed out of the water. With all my heart I believe Jesus would have fed him and then said, “Judas, do you love me? — Feed my sheep.”
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