Teaching Time: “Someone at the table…”
I loved comic books when I was a kid. Batman was my favourite. Superman was less interesting to me. He was too perfect, and too powerful. For characters to be interesting, they need a basic humanity. They need to have weaknesses, character flaws, ambiguities.
My kids and I watch Marvel’s Agents of Shield together. Who here is a fan? For the uninitiated, Shield is the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division, a kind of secret super-spy police force,that has unimaginable high-tech, and deals with really big threats, like aliens, and monster robots, and mutants that use their power for evil.
The agents of Shield look and act like regular people. They don’t wear capes, or even name tags that identify them as heroes. Early in the series it was established Shield had been infiltrated and taken over by evil-doers, except for a few small, scattered groups. Of course, the episodes of the series give a lot of attention to our good guys. But they don’t always behave like good guys, and there is a changing cast of characters, and enough double and triple crossing going on that it can be very difficult at times, to tell who is on what side. It’s not like watching a hockey game, where both teams act pretty much the same, but you can tell the teams apart by the colour of their jerseys.
Most of the time, whether it is Shield, or real-life, the players in the human drama are not wearing team jerseys. It is not always easy to tell who is on what side.
It’s that way for me when I read about the people around Jesus. When I look closely at the stories, I see characters with good qualities who make big mistakes, and I also see characters who we might expect to be bad guys, but who have more to them just schemy fingers and an evil laugh.
There is comfort in that for me, to be reminded people are more complicated than comic book heroes and villains. Life is not always black and white; right and wrong; good guys and bad guys. Sometimes we are people who choose life and sometimes we are people who make poor choices.
This morning we are looking at Judas. In the gospel reading we heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”
Many of us have heard the story more than once over the years, and know Judas is the one who takes a bribe from some temple officials. We may assume Jesus is talking about him, and that Judas switched sides, and traded in his Team Jesus jersey for one from the temple priest’s team. Judas accepted thirty pieces of silver for his role in the plot of the temple priests. But did Judas know the implications of what he was doing?
The story in Mark’s Gospel moves on from the Last Supper, to the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas pointed to Jesus, so the guards could arrest him. It moves to Jesus’ conversation with the high priest Caiaphas, and his temple cronies, and leads to the moment when Jesus is handed over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. Pontius Pilate allows the crowd to decide Jesus’ fate, and it is the crowd who call for Jesus to be crucified.
We who have grown up with the story may connect the dots and make a straight line from Judas pocketing the bribe to Pilate handing Jesus over to be crucified. But we can look at the beginning middle and end of story all at once. For Judas, at the beginning of the story, there was no way to know how things would play out. He can only see what is happening right around him, in the moment it happens.
Perhaps Judas thought it would be a good for Jesus and Caiaphas to have a conversation. Maybe he hoped they could clear the air, resolve some differences, and find a way to work together. Maybe Jesus could have ended up with Caiaphas as a disciple. Judas had seen Jesus attract, and befriend Roman soldiers and Jewish tax collectors, and demon-possessed raving lunatics. People from many backgrounds had been surprised, and changed by the love that shone through Jesus.
If Jesus had been able to reach Caiaphas’s heart, who knows what changes could have happened at the Jerusalem temple. The Jesus movement could have received official recognition. Maybe the high priest would have put them on the temple payroll, or issued them team jerseys!
Thinking in those terms, what harm would it do for Judas to accept a small fee for arranging the meeting? Judas is often portrayed as the disciple’s treasurer, and managing their money could not have been an easy job. Maybe he took the money, and meant to give it to the common purse.
We don’t know what Judas was thinking, or feeling, or what his hopes, and dreams, his illusions and self-deceptions might have been. Only he knew what story he told himself about his own life, to guide his decisions, and help him live with his choices.
Perhaps Judas was trying to do something good and it went terribly wrong. Maybe he was afraid for his own life and thought if he pointed his finger at Jesus he would be protected. Maybe Judas was impatient thinking that Jesus needed to be doing more… at a faster rate.
We don’t really know enough about Judas to judge him. Can he really be held responsible for what happened to Jesus? Did the high priest really need Judas to point out which one was Jesus? Lots of people would have known Jesus. It was his growing fame and influence that was the problem, and the reason he had the attention of the temple authorities.
Judas would not be the first or last person in human history to get into something, and think they knew what they were doing, and then discover they were in trouble. A danger with scape-goating Judas, and labelling him as the evil one who caused all the problems, is that it lets everybody else off the hook. Scape-goating allows us to be judgemental, and feel superior to another human being. No real good comes of it.
The temple priests might have looked at Jesus the same way, thinking life would be better for them if they could just get rid of him. Life is far more complicated. Every person is a complex mix of motives and ideas and emotions. There is no such thing as a person who is totally evil, or totally good.
Jesus knew that. On the night described in today’s gospel, when Jesus said one of those gathered at the table would betray him, he did not send anybody away. Jesus welcomed them all, and shared the cup of blessing and the bread of life with each of them.
That’s really good news. Jesus welcomes all complicated and mixed up people to his feast, to share in God’s love. You, and me, and Judas, and everyone else. Amen