Day 240: Matthew 26:50

Be quick about it, friend!

Jesus has finished praying and he’s ready to face the worst.  He sees Judas coming and tells his disciples,Look, here is the man who is betraying me!”

Yes, the dirty deed has already been done, the die already cast.  One of Jesus’ disciples has already teamed up with the chief priest and the elders to betray Jesus.

Then one of the twelve disciples—the one named Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What will you give me if I betray Jesus to you?” They counted out thirty silver coins and gave them to him. From then on Judas was looking for a good chance to hand Jesus over to them. (Matthew 26:14-16).

It’s not clear to me exactly what the nature of this betrayal was.  Maybe Judas gave them inside information that could be used against Jesus.  Maybe he gave them a list of instances where Jesus violated Jewish law.  Maybe he gave them a list of hostile witnesses.  Somehow he must have done something to help the chief priests in their efforts to get rid of Jesus.

Not much is actually known about Judas.  The Biblical accounts of both his betrayal of Jesus and his death vary significantly among the four Gospels.  This is one of those cases where they can’t all be right.  Wikipedia succinctly summarizes the various accounts of the betrayal:

There are several explanations as to why Judas betrayed Jesus. In the earliest account, in the Gospel of Mark, when he goes to the chief priests to betray Jesus, he is offered money as a reward, but it is not clear that money is his motivation. In the Gospel of Matthew account, on the other hand, he asks what they will pay him for handing Jesus over. In the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John, Satan ‘enters into’ Judas, causing him to offer to betray Jesus. The Gospel of John account has Judas complaining that money has been spent on expensive perfumes to anoint Jesus which could have been spent on the poor, but adds that he was the keeper of the apostles’ purse and used to steal from it.

And, as usual, the lack of detail has allowed theologians to come up with a lot of their own theories about Judas, many of which vindicate him:

  • Judas hoped Jesus’ arrest would initiate a revolution against the Romans.
  • Judas was acting as defender of the people because he feared Jesus’ presence was making the Romans angry and this would cause a backlash against the Jewish citizens.
  • God made him do it because it was part of God’s plan.
  • Jesus made him do it because it was part of God’s plan.
  • Judas was predestined for damnation so he couldn’t help being a jerk.
  • Judas was “outing” Jesus as gay. (Hence the kiss).  As if Judas wasn’t hated enough already.

Actually there is a lot of argument about whether or not this betrayal actually happened.  Many theologians and Biblical scholars think that the whole episode may have been an invention within the venerable Jewish tradition of Midrash, defined here by Wikipedia:

Midrash is a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.  The purpose of midrash was to resolve problems in the interpretation of difficult passages of the text of the Hebrew Bible, using Rabbinic principles of hermeneutics and philology to align them with the religious and ethical values of religious teachers.

While today we would call this kind of literary intervention a corruption of the truth, the Jews regarded this as a legitimate approach to illuminating spiritual truth.  The fact is that the Jews back then had a different approach to things.  They had a different concept of what was “truth.”   When interpreting Jewish literature one always has to remember that when interpreting the Gospel it’s not the details that are as important as the overall message.  It is satisfying only when one accepts it at face value and that all of the various accounts contain an element of essential truth.  It’s that way with the entire Bible.  Superficial nit-picking will get you nowhere. #legalism#.

Back to the story.  Jesus has finished praying at Gethsemane and he says to his disciples, Look, here is the man who is betraying me!”   Here’s what happens next:

Jesus was still speaking when Judas, one of the twelve disciples, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs and sent by the chief priests and the elders. The traitor had given the crowd a signal: “The man I kiss is the one you want. Arrest him!”  Judas went straight to Jesus and said, “Peace be with you, Teacher,” and kissed him.  Jesus answered, “Be quick about it, friend!”

Once again, this whole kiss thing as a means of identification seems strange.  Jesus had certainly had been making a spectacle of himself since his arrival in Jerusalem.  It’s not like he was hiding or even keeping a low profile.  I would have assumed that hundreds, if not thousands of people would have been able to identify him.  But I have to dismiss this kind of thinking as nit-picking.  So I cut just cut off that train of thought.

What I do find significant is Jesus’ kindness.  He calls Judas friend because he loves his enemies (Day 34).  To Jesus, reaching out with love to messed up people like Judas was all in a day’s work.

It may not have ended well for Judas.  In the Books of Matthew and Acts he commits suicide.  His demise isn’t mentioned in the other books of the Gospel.  Here is what it says in Matthew:

When Judas, the traitor, learned that Jesus had been condemned, he repented and took back the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned by betraying an innocent man to death!” he said. “What do we care about that?” they answered. “That is your business!”  Judas threw the coins down in the Temple and left; then he went off and hanged himself.

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “This is blood money, and it is against our Law to put it in the Temple treasury.” After reaching an agreement about it, they used the money to buy Potter’s Field, as a cemetery for foreigners. That is why that field is called “Field of Blood” to this very day.

Then what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true: “They took the thirty silver coins, the amount the people of Israel had agreed to pay for him, and used the money to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord had commanded me.” (Matthew 27:3-10).

Matthew’s account is generally considered to be based on a very obscure link to the Book of Zechariah (11:4-17).   There is a completely different description of his death in the Book of Acts.  Both descriptions smack heavily of midrash.  Which is OK.

My own theory about Judas?  My own little attempt at midrash?  What jumps out at me is his name, Judas.  To me, in the midrashic tradition, it points back to another important Judas in Jewish history – Judas Maccabeus.  His story and exploits are recorded in the Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Judas Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus was the son of a Jewish priest who led a successful revolt against a foreign king who attempted to impose the Greek religion on the Jews.  The king erected statues of Greek gods in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and prohibited the Jews from performing their priestly duties.  Judas initiated a military rebellion in 167 BC and three years later the Temple was purged and worship was restored. Judas Maccabeus was remembered as one of the greatest warriors in Jewish history along with Joshua, Gideon, and David.  His restoration of the Temple is commemorated every year by the Jews at Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights.”

After the Temple was secured the Judas continued to fight for Judean political independence, which was eventually achieved.  Success was short lived.  The Romans took over the area about twenty-five years later and Jerusalem was once again controlled by foreigners.

So, my own little midrash would be that Judas is a symbol of the zealotry movement in Jesus’ time that was plotting to achieve peace and independence through armed rebellion against the Romans.  Of course Jesus disagreed with this traditional warlike approach to things.  He taught that passive resistance and reliance on God was the only path to true peace.  And when it came to Jewish history Jesus was right.  Before Jesus was born the rebellion by the Maccabees only resulted in a short period of peace and independence.  Similarly, after Jesus death, the zealots secured Jerusalem for a short period before it was completely destroyed by the Romans.  Jewish independence doesn’t happen again until after the holocaust and World War II.  The Jews didn’t fight the Germans and many of them died, but in the end they got what they always wanted – and independent Israel which shows no signs of being overthrown any time in the near future.  Judas, in my own little midrash, is a symbol of the notion that war is the way to achieve lasting peace.

Finally, I reflect on the words of Judas at the time of this betrayal: “Judas went straight to Jesus and said, ‘Peace be with you, Teacher.’ and kissed him”.

These words, “Peace be with you,” are the first words that Jesus speaks after the resurrection. It seems to me that Jesus and Judas wanted the same thing.  They both wanted peace.  But then again, isn’t that what we all really want?  We just can’t seem to agree about how to get there.

What does this scripture say to you?

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