lenten journal: forgiving judas


    I’m still turning part of John 12:1-8, the gospel passage from Sunday, over in my head:

    Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the village of Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a supper for him there, and Martha waited on the party while Lazarus took his place at table with Jesus. Then Mary took a whole pound of very expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet and then wiped them with her hair. The entire house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (the man who was going to betray Jesus), burst out, “Why on earth wasn’t this perfume sold? It’s worth thirty pounds, which could have been given to the poor!” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was dishonest, and when he was in charge of the purse used to help himself to the contents.

    As Ginger repeated John’s words about Judas being a thief and using the group’s money as his own personal discretionary fund, I jotted down on my order of service, “Why did Judas get to stay?”

    The first thing I need to do here is issue a disclaimer. I’m not willing to entertain the notion that God somehow placed Judas amongst the disciples because God needed him there for things to play out according to plan. I won’t entertain the idea (well, I guess I could tell it a couple of jokes – but then it would have to go) because it’s not consistent with who I trust God to be. If God is love, then God doesn’t assign people to be villains for the sake of the greater good. Whatever God did in Judas’ life it had nothing to do with betrayal. Now on with the countdown . . .

    The question haunts me because I don’t think Judas was a bad guy. We don’t know much about him beyond what the gospel writers tell us. There’s no back story, no explanation of his mood or motivation. Since the gospels were written after the fact rather than as journals in real time, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus colors almost every reference to him along the way. He begins to take on the same role among the disciples that Bill Buckner plays in Red Sox lore. We would not have had to wait until 2004 to win the World Series if he had not let the ball go through his legs. For years, people could hardly say his name without cursing or crying. And so it is with Judas. But what did they know of him at the time? Did they know he was stealing from their bank account? Why didn’t they give the job to someone else? Matthew was good at accounting. Did they feel he was toxic from the beginning? Did they cough the word “bastard” into their fists every time he walked in the room?

    The past couple of weeks our schedule has shifted to where Ginger and I watch a movie over breakfast a couple of mornings a week. If we don’t do it then, we never get to see movies together. This morning, we watched Half Nelson, the story of a junior high history teacher who is also a crack addict. Here’s the way the web site describes the story:

    Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a young inner-city junior high school teacher whose ideals wither and die in the face of reality. Day after day in his shabby Brooklyn classroom, he somehow finds the energy to inspire his 13 and 14-year-olds to examine everything from civil rights to the Civil War with a new enthusiasm. Rejecting the standard curriculum in favor of an edgier approach, Dan teaches his students how change works ‚ on both a historical and personal scale ‚ and how to think for themselves.

    Though Dan is brilliant, dynamic, and in control in the classroom, he spends his time outside school on the edge of consciousness. His disappointments and disillusionment have led to a serious drug habit. He juggles his hangovers and his homework, keeping his lives separated, until one of his troubled students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him getting high after school.

    From this awkward beginning, Dan and Drey stumble into an unexpected friendship. Despite the differences in their ages and situations, they are both at an important intersection. Depending on which way they turn ‚ and which choices they make ‚ their lives will change.

    Dan keeps talking to his students about dialectics and how opposites bring about change in human history, even as the opposites in his own life pull him apart. He is conflicted, sad, creative, stupid, desperate, sympathetic, and despicable all at once. And so it is with Judas. He doesn’t appear as a single-minded antagonist determined to destroy his nemesis. I don’t think Judas saw Jesus as an enemy or a threat. My hunch is he saw Jesus as naïve and did what he did to force Jesus’ hand into taking more evasive action. Maybe John’s take on Judas’ question about the poor is off the mark. Or, like the crack head teacher, maybe he wanted to follow Jesus and he was a liar and a thief all at the same time. His opposites pulled him to kiss Jesus in the garden and then to commit suicide.

    Judas was not the only one who betrayed Jesus that night. Peter denied even knowing Jesus even as he stood almost within earshot of where Jesus was being questioned by the religious leaders. He denied Jesus and he cursed him and then ran away and wept. Peter was his own bundle of contradictions. Yet Peter got to live through his shame and find himself bathed in forgiveness at a beach side breakfast as Jesus asked, “Simon, do you love me?”

    He never got to ask Judas that question.

    Judas got to stay because Jesus called him to be a disciple just like the other eleven. To say he was called to be the catalyst for Jesus’ death cheapens and distorts what it means to be called of God. Jesus saw something in him that Judas, evidently, couldn’t see. I have no doubt, had Judas lived, that Jesus would have said to him, “Judas, do you love me?”

    And I can hear Judas answering much like Peter, “Lord, you know my heart, despite what I have done. Yes. I love you.”

    In my mind’s eye, they embrace as Jesus says, “You, too, feed my sheep.”

    I trust, somewhere beyond what we know as time, they got to have that conversation.



    1. Hey Milton, don’t know if you have ever read Pete Greig’s recent book ‘The Vision and The Vow’ (he was one of the founders of the 24/7 prayer movement) – he has a very interesting, challenging chapter on Jesus’ reaction to Judas and what might have happened if Judas had only waited for a few days… Definitely worth a read! This guy has put an excerpt from the book in his blog: http://nozza.voxtropolis.com/2007/02/01/judas-what-if/


    2. Milton,
      I look forward to reading your posts every morning while my son prepares for school. They are sometimes entertaining, and often challenging. I pray that God blesses you and Ginger in unimaginable ways.

    3. Hi, Milton.
      This is a compelling piece, especially in light of the earlier post that featured Jesus healing the invalid at the pool at Bethsaida. When Jesus asked the man “Do you want to get well,” an intersection between the man’s will and Jesus’ sovereignty was created. Jesus met him where he was, but the man still had to “cross the street.” It seems that any encounter with Jesus is like that. We are called but not forced. No doubt Judas was called to be a disciple. Perhaps this is just more about Judas failing to set his will completely aside, much in the same way that many of us embrace Christianity by placing one foot in the river of God’s grace and mercy while, just in case, keeping the other firmly planted on what we think is the dry ground of personal freedom.

      I, too, do not think Judas was created for the purpose of betraying Jesus. I think Judas betrayed Jesus and later killed himself because he never completely immersed himself in the river, leaving himself open for just the kind of terrible act that led to Jesus’ betrayal and to his own death. It is a sobering story.

    4. I’ll never forget seeing the passion play in Oberammergau over 30 years ago. Still vivid in my mind is the scene in which “Judas” realizes what he’s done. His anguish was excruciating and palpable and made an impression on my heart that I have never forgotten. We could all be Judas.

    5. Milton – You nourish my soul in so many ways. Thank you.

      On the topic of book suggestions, have you heard of: Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles. Check it out on amazon. I’m reading the chapters where she is a cook and your face keeps appearing before me.


    6. Milton,
      I’m sorry for leaving this kind of comment on your post— but, regarding the post you left with me this AM, the beans were cooked in a home made sofrito. I just didn’t know what I was making until I read your post and looked it up.

    7. Milton – Betrayal is a huge theme in my life; and in seeking the way of mercy and grace, while living in reality, it is the example of Jesus and Judas that I look to. I, like you, cannot believe that Judas was ‘set-up’ bu God. And I totally and completely love how Jesus served Judas, whilst knowing that Judas would be the one to betray him. It is more than I can live; and yet it is so good, so Christ-like. Yeah – I can hear Jesus saying – You, too, feed my sheep. Just like I hear Him say it to me.

    8. Milton,

      This was a great read. About this time last year, I began to question the blaming and harshness towards Judas. I could never understand how a preacher could condem the man to hell and then say it was all part of God’s plan. It’s nice to know that I am not the only one who thinks Judas wasn’t SOL. Thanks.


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