Palm Sunday, 2017
For me, and maybe for you too, Holy Week always provokes more questions than it answers. Does nonviolence ever win? Does God let Jesus suffer? And what about life after death? More questions than answers. And this morning we dig into one of the most provocative, the most compelling and the most dangerous stories there is. At least in the Gospels. And that’s the story of Judas, or the story of Judas and Jesus. The questions come fast, and furious.
|Chris Cook: "Judas Kisses Jesus"|
In the story most of us learned as kids, and most of our churches have told at least once a year, Judas is Jesus’ betrayer, the one who sells him out to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver. The trusted friend who becomes a traitorous fiend. He’s not the only one who betrays Jesus, of course: most of the others let him down too. They fall asleep when he asks them to stay awake. They run from the cross when he needs company. But Judas is singled out—throughout the long history of the church—as Jesus’ most deliberate betrayer, as his most sinister defector. “And he brings a company of Roman soldiers and some guards from the chief priests. And they all come to the garden carrying lanterns, torches and weapons.” Judas is the eye of the storm.
But this singling out of Judas—whether it’s the biblical narrative or the theology of the church—has had devastating consequences for both the church and our Jewish friends and neighbors. In particular. For generations, after all, Judas has come to embody what many Christians imagine is the stereotypical Jew: duplicitous, treasonous, conniving and most definitely greedy. Yes, Judas the greedy Jew. Judas the Jew who sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. No matter that the whole band of disciples, the whole crowd of followers and friends were Jews: Jesus, of course, and Peter and James and John and Mary and Martha and all the rest. No matter that they were all Jews. Judas is remembered, in certain parts of the tradition at least, as the Jew who betrayed Jesus. As the Jew who sold him out.
And I think it’s so important for us—for Christians like us—to be honest. Especially now. Especially in this world. Especially during Holy Week. I think it’s so important for us to be honest about the ways in which our tradition can be manipulated and misrepresented to cause harm. And with this story about Judas and Jesus, anti-Semitism is so easily passed from generation to generation in the church. Fear of the other. Contempt for Jews who don’t see the light. Distrust of their motives. With this story about Judas and Jesus, we risk embedding anti-Semitism in our most treasured stories, in our most beloved traditions. So yes, it’s important for us to acknowledge the dangers in our own tradition, and the temptation (even among Jesus’ friends) to hold other traditions and other believers in contempt. It’s a universal temptation, perhaps; and through the centuries, our Jewish friends and neighbors have paid a terrible, terrible price for Christian weakness and ignorance.
For a long while, I’ve been drawn to the writing of Amos Oz. And I imagine some of you have enjoyed him and read him as well. Amos Oz writes so thoughtfully about the Jewish experience. He writes honestly, even searchingly about the origins of the Israeli State; about the beauty and mysticism at play in his Holy Land. And his poetry and prose are deeply, deeply affecting. So I stumbled into his latest novel, Judas, without really knowing the story, but trusting that he would deliver.
It turns out that Amos Oz has always loved New Testament stories about Jesus and his compassion, and the parables Jesus tells, and the generous methods of his teaching and encouraging. He’s always found Jesus sweet and compelling and familiar in a Jewish kind of way. But Amos Oz has never quite made sense of the anti-Semitism, the fear of Jewishness that seems to roll through Christian history and in the story of Jesus and Judas in particular. So he sets out to write a novel that wrestles with that story and with the dynamics of betrayal and love and faithfulness. It’s a great book, a provocative story; and like Holy Week in the church, it raises more questions than it answers.
Parenthetically, I should add that Amos Oz has himself been called a ‘traitor’ of late, in his own country, by his own countryfolk. In advocating for Palestinian statehood, and in criticizing his own government, he’s been accused of betraying the Jewish state. So he’s interested, even invested in how it is that some are labeled ‘traitor,’ ‘betrayer,’ ‘enemy.’ How that works—and what that means.
The central protagonist of the novel is a curious young man named Shmuel Ash, whose academic career is interrupted by financial misfortune. His primary interest is in Jewish ideas about Jesus. I want to read for you just a couple of passages from the book—hoping to entice you to take a copy home today. And in this first scene, Shmuel is explaining his interest in Jesus to another Israeli friend. And she asks him an obvious question: “Are you a Christian?” [Judas, p. 115].
“I’m an atheist,” he says. “Three-and-a-half-year-old Yossi Siton, who was run over and killed while he was chasing his green ball yesterday not far from here, on the Gaza Road, is sufficient proof that there is no God. I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus was God or the Son of God. But I love him. I love the words he used, such as ‘If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!,’ or ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death,’ or ‘Let the dead bury their dead,’ or ‘Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?’ I have loved him ever since I first read his teachings in the New Testament, when I was fifteen years old. And I believe that Judas was the most loyal and devoted of all his disciples and that he never betrayed him, but, on the contrary, he meant to prove his greatness to the whole world…”
So it is that Shmuel Ash begins to re-work, re-interpret, re-tell Judas’ story. And in a way that retains its complexity, its sorrow, its tragic edges; but also acknowledges Judas’ humanity, his decency and even his love for Jesus and all that he stood for. Remarkably, through Shmuel, Amos Oz is giving Judas back to the church, back to Christian tradition, not as a stereotype, and not as a conniving traitor; but as a believer who believed in the superhuman powers of Jesus, as a lover who wanted Jesus to save the whole world, as a champion who trusted that Jesus could do no wrong. Judas is mistaken, of course, as Peter is mistaken and James and John and you and I are. We’re all mistaken from time to time. Amoz Oz gives Judas back to the church, not as a greedy Jew, not as a nasty stereotype, but as a human being. As one of us.
And here's his retelling, Amos Oz’ retelling of the last days of Jesus’ life [Judas, p. 151]:
“If thou be willing,” Jesus prayed to God in Jerusalem at the time of the Last Supper, “remove this cup from me.” But Judas strengthened and encouraged his spirit: would he who walked on water and turned water into wine and healed lepers and drove out demons and raised the dead be unable to come down from the cross and so make the whole world believe in his divinity? And because Jesus continued to fear and to doubt, Judas Iscariot took it upon himself to manage the crucifixion. It was not an easy thing to do. The Romans took no interest in Jesus, because the land was full of prophets and wonderworkers and crazy dreamers like him. It was not easy for Judas to persuade his priestly colleagues to bring Jesus to trial: they did not consider him any more dangerous than dozens of his doubles in Galilee and other out-of-the-way regions. Judas Iscariot had to pull strings, to exploit his connections among the Pharisees and the priests, to win over hearts and minds, perhaps to pay some bribes, to arrange for Jesus to be crucified between two petty criminals on the eve of the sacred festival. As for the thirty pieces of silver, they were invented by Jew-haters in later generations. Or maybe Judas himself invented them so as to complete the story…
Judas Iscariot was therefore the author, the impresario, the stage manager, and the director of the spectacle of the crucifixion. In this his detractors and calumniators down the ages were right, perhaps more right than they imagined. Even when Jesus was dying in terrible torment on the cross, hanging hour after hour in the blazing sun, the blood flowing from all his wounds, and the flies swarming on them, even when they fed him vinegar, Judas’ faith did not waver for an instant: it was surely coming. The crucified God would arise and shake himself free of the nails and descend from the cross and say to all the people falling on their faces in astonishment: love one another.
I intend to write Amos Oz a letter this week, and I want to thank him for giving us a human Judas and a human Jesus. As Amos Oz tells the story, Judas invites you and me to consider the mistakes we ourselves make, even the ways we overestimate the power and the powers of Jesus. So long as our Jesus is a superhero to us, we miss his call to loving and compassionate service. So long as our Jesus is invulnerable and invincible and impenetrable, we imagine faith should do the same for us. We tilt away from sacrifice and suffering and nonviolent resistance to evil and injustice: if Jesus was a superhero, maybe we should be superheroes too. But in the gifted prose of a novelist, in the generous retelling of Amos Oz, Judas misjudges Jesus, not in contempt but in love, not in greed but in devotion. He wants Jesus to fix it all. He wants Jesus to prove God right. And isn’t that a trap we all fall into from time to time? Don’t we all want Jesus to just fix it all?
I’m going to write that letter to Amos Oz this week. And I’m going to tell one of our generation’s great Jewish novelists that this Christian preacher bought ten copies of his book and gave them out on Palm Sunday. I think he’ll appreciate that. I hope he will.
As we move into this Holy Week together, I want you to think about the whole week as a practice, as our Christian practice. Easter’s not about Jesus fixing everything. And Easter’s not about Jesus proving that our version of God is better and smarter than everybody else’s version of God. Easter’s about a practice, a practice that includes washing one another’s feed and breaking bread to feed the world. It’s about a practice that includes kneeling by the cross and grieving for violence and injustice and suffering everywhere and anywhere around the world. And it’s about a practice of diving into cold waters, early as the sun rises, Easter morning, celebrating second chances and new life and holy opportunities. Easter’s not about an impenetrable Jesus, an invincible Jesus; Easter’s about a loving Jesus, a servant Jesus, a lover and friend who calls us to kindness and to vulnerability, to compassion and to brokenness, to prophetic courage and to selflessness.
Jesus chooses this life. He’s not following a script. He’s not working out some kind of equation for salvation. There are Christians out there who believe that God set it up this way, that God sent Jesus to die a miserable death, that God needed Jesus’ bloody sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. I say: bunk to that. Jesus isn’t following a script, and he’s not playing out the wrath of a vengeful God. He can’t be. No Jesus chooses (as a human being) to love his enemies, and he chooses (as a human being) to suffer with the poor, and he chooses (as a human being) to forgive those who curse him and whip him and take his life. And Jesus chooses to wash their feet and sing them songs, and he chooses to weep with them when death comes close. You see, Easter’s a practice for Jesus, too. A human practice, touching on the mysteries of God.
So what’s ahead for us—for you and for me, I hope—is a week of practice and experimentation and maybe even curiosity. What happens when we pattern our lives after his life? What happens when we ask the big questions, and expect complicated, even disorienting answers? What happens when we worship God not with big gestures, but with little acts of service and kindness and justice? What happens when we wash one another’s feet as an act of prayer? As faith itself?
These questions lead to more questions, but all these questions lead to God. This we know. All these questions lead to God. They may not and should not convince us of our own righteousness. They may not and should not convince us of God's purposes, God's intentions, God's plan for everybody else. But these questions chart a course for a deeper kind of living and more courageous kind of caring and a generous kind of discipleship. If Easter means anything, if Jesus still matters, if Christian practice is still relevant, these questions are everything. And they all lead to God. Because God is good.