READ : Mark 14:43-45
And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away safely.”
Mark 14:43-45 rsv
I’ve been thinking a good deal in preparing this message about Judas – Judas Iscariot. You probably know his story. Judas is the most notorious traitor who ever lived. King David had his Ahithophel, Caesar his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, but no other name has ever etched itself in infamy like the name of Judas. He, the one-time disciple of Jesus Christ, has become for all the world the chief symbol of treachery.
WHAT JUDAS DID
Think with me about what this man did. As treasurer of the apostolic group, he consistently stole from the common funds. When a grateful woman, as we saw last week, poured precious ointment over the head of Jesus, Judas protested that the ointment should rather have been sold and given to the poor. That is, he feigned a concern for the impoverished while seeking his own advantage. He listened to Jesus, his master and teacher, speak on that last night of someone who would betray Him, and then went out brazenly to do it himself. He conspired with Jesus’ worst foes. For thirty pieces of silver, he handed Him over to die. And it was his idea to identify Jesus to those who would capture Him by the sign of a kiss. In the darkness of Gethsemane, he went up to Jesus, saying “Hail, Rabbi,” embracing Him as though he were a faithful friend. Judas went along as the soldiers led Jesus away to mockery, torture and death.
Is there any wonder that Judas is so universally despised, that Dante pictures him in the deepest recesses of hell? “What a monster he was!” we exclaim. “How could he do such a thing?”
HOW IT CAME ABOUT
But was he always so? There must have been a time when this man Judas showed promise. From among many would-be followers, Jesus chose him – after much prayer – to be one of the twelve. He must have been trusted by the band of disciples, as they placed their resources in his hands. And at the end, after he had betrayed the Lord, Judas was stricken with remorse. He felt so wretched about what he had done that he took his own life. But before that, he had gone to the authorities who hired him and tried to give back the money he had been paid. He confessed to them and to the whole world, “I have betrayed innocent blood.” And so he bore his witness to the integrity of Jesus.
Judas was not a monster. He was a man, made in God’s image, precious in God’s sight. He was someone called by Jesus, trusted by Jesus, befriended and loved by the Lord. Jesus sought to the last to win Judas, stooping to wash his feet, warning him of his spiritual peril, yearning over him even as he went out into the darkness.
What can help us to penetrate the mystery surrounding this man? How can we understand, at least in a measure, what he did, why he became a traitor, and how he could resist such moving overtures of love?
Someone suggests that Judas’s problem was money. Perhaps so. “The love of money,” the apostle Paul reminds us, “is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). In pursuit of it, he goes on, “some have wandered from the faith and spiked themselves on many a painful thorn.” Perhaps Paul had Judas in mind when he wrote that. Judas, eager to possess, found himself possessed. The money he was called to manage became his master. For the sake of it, he cheated his brethren. He despised in others actions that were truly generous. For thirty silver coins, he sold the best friend he ever had. His career is a sobering witness to what covetousness can do to a human heart.
But remember, after Jesus had been arrested, Judas didn’t want the blood money. He tried to give it back. And when the authorities wouldn’t take it, he threw it on the ground before them. Covetousness was a terrible snare for Judas, but I don’t think it was the ultimate reason for his fall.
Far most sinister was the deceit that crept into his life. In order to steal from the common treasury, he had to start by lying about what was on hand. That must have happened again and again. Have you ever thought about how every kind of evil either begins with deceit or involves it somewhere along the line? We have no idea, any of us, what we open ourselves to when we knowingly tell an untruth, when we misrepresent the facts. Someone has said that “every lie, great or small, is the brink of a precipice, the depth of which nothing but Omniscience can fathom.”
The Bible speaks of Satan, the devil, the enemy of God and man, as “the father of lies.” Every time we compromise the truth, every time we knowingly deceive, we open ourselves to evil’s frightening power. We invite, as it were, the arch-Deceiver to dwell with us.
In a sense, it’s commonplace to say that one lie leads to another. We find ourselves needing to multiply falsehoods in order to shore up the first one we tell. But this is more than a matter of tactics and embarrassment. It becomes an inner compulsion. The more we lie, the more we find ourselves driven to deceive. It becomes the consistent pattern of our relating to other people, desperately hard for us to break. And it so affects us that we find it increasingly hard to distinguish any longer the false from the true.
If we had any idea of the dangers to which it exposes us, we would tremble at the thought of starting out on a pathway of falsehood. We would shrink from the least of lies. People learn to tell big lies by starting with little ones. Spouses sometimes move toward adultery by slow degrees. Every step along the way involves fresh concealment, fresh deceiving of the one they have pledged to love best.
The more we lie to people, the less we like them. We commonly end by despising those we have deceived, or even doing them ill. Did something like that happen with Judas? Was it that long-continued habit of lying, that pattern of deceiving, that made him the man he became?
Sitting with the twelve at the Last Supper, Judas is listening to Jesus talk about one of them who will betray Him. He doesn’t blush. He gives no evidence of being the one. In feigned innocence, he rather asks like all the others, “Lord, is it I?”
He lets Jesus wash his feet, while he plotted all the time to destroy Him. And it is Judas’s own suggestion that the sign by which Jesus will be identified to the soldiers is a kiss. There in Gethsemane, Judas can speak words of endearment, can offer a token of friendship, even as he takes part in a judicial murder.
Was it perpetual lying then that made him a man so totally false? Perhaps. But what happened after Jesus’ arrest shows us that Judas had not lost all capacity to discern the truth. He could say in all truth that Jesus was innocent. He could acknowledge having betrayed Him. Deception proved deadly for Judas, but it wasn’t the final flaw in his life.
JUDAS AND JESUS
What was most mysterious and most tragic about the life of this man appeared in his relationship to Jesus, his encounter with the One from Nazareth. Judas, close to Jesus as he was, never really knew Him, never truly trusted Him, never opened his heart to the Lord’s great love. He heard from Jesus’ lips all that the rest of the disciples heard. He watched the same miracles. Judas, remember, saw sick people healed, blind ones given back their sight. He saw the paralyzed walk again and even the dead return to life. But all of that never won his allegiance.
Judas lived in the company of the twelve, in daily fellowship with Jesus. He was a man called, trusted and loved, with whom Jesus shared His heart. But somehow, all this which eventually led the other disciples to become such heroic, faithful servants of God did not have the same effect on Judas. While they grew, he seems to have shriveled. While their hearts opened up increasingly, his became more and more closed. While they received new life from Christ, he died by his own hand.
What if Judas, after he had acknowledged his wrong, and left the money on the temple floor, had gone looking for Jesus? What if he had come alongside Him on the way to Golgotha, pouring out his heart, admitting his treachery, appealing to be forgiven? Who can doubt that the mercy of the Lord would have been extended toward him then? How the angels about the throne of God would have rejoiced if this sinful wanderer Judas had come back from the far country of his covetousness, his deceitfulness, his hideous betrayal! There is more than enough grace in the heart of the Lord to welcome back a million Judases, if they will only come to their senses and turn their faces toward home.
But that’s what Judas couldn’t do. Peter, after denying the Lord three times with oaths and curses, could go out and weep bitterly, but still be there with the others at the cross, in the Upper Room and when the Lord appeared on Easter night. He could say three times over out of brokenhearted trust and gratitude, “Lord, You know that I love You.” But Judas apparently wanted nothing to do with his fellow disciples. He had nothing to say to Jesus. He died in the deepest loneliness that can be imagined.
Friends, there’s a lot about this that no one understands. Surely I don’t. I don’t know how someone could live for three years in such close association with the Son of God and then deliver Him over to die, then betray Him with a kiss. I don’t know how Judas could resist so many gifts of grace, so many tokens of God’s faithful love. Thinking about him puzzles me, saddens me, frightens me. I can’t dismiss him as an inhuman menace, an evil dragon. I know that he too is a man, a man like me. I’m vulnerable to the same craving to possess, the same temptation to deceit, that proved so dreadfully compelling for Judas. It would be foolish as well as self-righteous for me to say that I could never fall like that, that I could never stoop to what he did.
Troubled as I am with Judas, I can’t cut him out of the Bible story, can’t pretend that he didn’t exist, can’t act as though his story couldn’t be somehow repeated. Judas is a standing reminder to us that we can be very near to the kingdom of God but not enter it, that we can see marvelous things, hear great truths, and yet not have our lives transformed. We can encounter Jesus, interact with Him, even know that He’s a good man and still die a hopeless death.
But as surely as I know that Judas’s evils could be mine, far more surely do I know that they don’t have to be. I can turn to the Lord whom I have failed, denied and in some ways betrayed, and, acknowledging my sins, can receive His gracious forgiveness and experience the renewing power of His Holy Spirit. And so can you. That’s the good news I offer you today. Maybe you’ve been around Jesus for a long time; you’ve heard these things, you’ve been in the church, but you’ve never committed yourself to Christ, you’ve never come near to Him with a breaking heart, acknowledging your sin and appealing to Him for forgiveness. Oh, do that today. Or maybe you’ve never heard about Him before and this is your day of opportunity to trust Him and commit Your life unreservedly to Him. Take advantage of that opportunity. Friends, He is a Savior for you from all your coveting and all your deceitfulness, and even from the worst treacheries of your heart and life. Repent, turn to Christ, and live!
Prayer: Father, may every one of us who shares in this program today be sobered by the story of Judas. May we turn from all the deceitfulness in our lives. May we confess our sins to You, trusting in Your great mercy in Christ. May we become indeed the disciples of Jesus. In His name. Amen.