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Thought for the week - 3 April

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."

The name of Judas Iscariot is forever associated with treachery and betrayal. The word Judas has entered into the English language as a description of one who betrays his friend. This is, of course, because it was Judas, one of the twelve who betrayed Jesus into the hands of the authorities. Even before his betrayal the gospel of St. John depicts Judas as an untrustworthy person: "he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it." Whether he was or not we do not really know; but by the time the gospels were written, the treachery of Judas was not just seen in his betrayal of Jesus, but was read back into his earlier dealings.

But why did Judas really betray his friend? Was it really for thirty pieces of silver? Did he really betray Jesus for the worst of all possible reasons - for the money? It is not without possibility. It is surprising what lengths people will go to for money, to what depths of treachery they will sink.

There is an old tradition which holds that Judas was the nephew of the High Priest Caiaphas, and that it was he who persuaded him to act as his agent in bringing about Jesus arrest. Why Caiaphas should need such an agent is not explained. In any case Jesus was quite open in his comings and goings. The authorities knew exactly who Jesus was and would have had no difficulty in recognizing him without Judas' help.

Judas has always fascinated me. I have always felt that he is a much more complex character than we are led to believe. I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that perhaps his treachery, though still treachery, was for misguided, but nonetheless good reasons.

Although it is by no means clear, it is possible that a clue to his treachery might be found in his name, or rather title, or nickname, Iscariot. The word is possibly connected with the Latin word 'sicarius' which means a 'dagger-bearer', or 'knifeman'. The Sicari were fanatical Jewish nationalists, freedom fighters who sought for the overthrow of the Roman oppressors, using violence if necessary. It is possible that Judas belonged to such a group. And certainly another of the twelve, Simon the Zealot, belonged to another such group of nationalists.

Such groups had particular messianic expectations. They believed the messiah, or Christ, would be a warrior king like David, who would unite his people in overthrowing the detested Roman overlords. Could Judas Iscariot have seen in the unlikely person of Jesus, the David who would liberate his people? It is certainly interesting that one of the charges bought against Jesus was that he claimed to be 'the king of the Jews'.

Against this background the action of Judas might become more explicable. Was he trying to force the hand of Jesus to bring about the long awaited liberation? At the beginning of Holy Week there was a large crowd hailing Jesus as the King of the Jews. At the end of the week they were calling for his blood. Was the crowd disappointed because Jesus had not fulfilled their expectations? Was Judas disappointed that this expectation had not been fulfilled? He was more than horrified. He was filled with remorse that his actions had brought about not the triumph of his friend, but his death. And so Judas kills himself.

Judas had made a terrible miscalculation based on misunderstanding. He had failed to understand the nature of Jesus' messiahship. But, then, as the gospels make clear, so had the other apostles. Peter, when Jesus told him that the messiah must suffer and die was appalled. "Lord, this must not happen to you!"

We can never know or understand the motives of Judas. But perhaps we can see that there is something of Judas in us. All too often, like Judas, or for that matter like Peter who also betrayed his master, we want Jesus on our own terms. We want him to conform to our view of him. We want to identify him with our own particular cause. We want to arrange things so that Jesus follows us, rather than we follow Jesus. In other words Judas is the person who has his own way of doing things, his own plans, his own policy and style, and yet who wants to enlist Christ in his support. Look at Church history to see how this has been going on. Look at the way Christ has been interpreted: the revolutionary, the communist, the catholic, the protestant, the black, the white, the poor, the outcast. First identify your cause and then enlist Christ in its support. I suppose we can all fall into this trap. The trap of forming Christ in our own image. He is one of us.

But that of course is not the way of things. Rather, we are to form ourselves in the image of Christ. And what image of Christ is it that we are presented with in the Gospel? On this Passion Sunday as we look to Holy Week and Good Friday the image presented is clear. The way of Christ is not the way of political blue-prints, strategies or plans. It is the way of the cross, the way of the servant. Perhaps Mary understood this better than most. She knew what she was about when she anointed the feet of Jesus with the precious ointment, thus arousing Judas' indignation. In her heart Mary knew the destiny that Jesus was to accomplish in Jerusalem. "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial."

Mary understood Jesus. When her sister Martha complained that Mary was not doing her share of the domestic duties Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better part sitting at his feet. And so now she anoints those same feet with the precious, fragrant oil as they set out on the journey to Calvary and death on the cross.

The way of Christ is the way of the Cross. But it is the way that leads to victory and triumph. And so even on this Passion Sunday when we look to the sufferings of Christ we have our hearts set on Easter when Christ was raised from the dead that all our betrayals and denials might be forgiven.


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