By Dr. Jeffrey K. London
Judas. Judas Iscariot. We find Judas both fascinating and frightening. Fascinating because we don’t understand him, we don’t understand why he did what he did. And frightening because we have a faithful tendency to find our story within the story of the disciples. But finding our story within Judas’ story? We’re not so sure we want to crack that book open. Nevertheless, here we are ready to take a closer look at the disciple named Judas.
Here’s what we know based on our text from Matthew:
We know Judas sought out the chief priests, he initiated the conversation, and asked them how much he could get to betray Jesus.
• We know Judas accepted thirty pieces of silver to do the deed.
• We know that at supper, at the Last Supper, Jesus knew Judas was to betray him but still included him in the supper — in the breaking of bread and the cup of the covenant “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
• We know later that evening Judas led the chief priests and scribes and a crowd of people to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
• We know Judas identified Jesus as “the one” with a kiss on the cheek.
• We know that once it became clear that Jesus had been condemned to death, Judas repented and gave the 30 pieces of silver back to the chief priests and elders.
• And we know that Judas then Judas went out and hanged himself.
• We know the chief priests recognized that the thirty pieces of silver were “blood money” and therefore could not be put in the Temple treasury so they used the money to buy the potter’s field where Gentiles, indigents, and nobodies were buried and now where Judas would be buried.
And here’s what we don’t know based on our text from Matthew:
• We don’t know why Judas betrayed Jesus. Why did he sell him out?
• What don’t know what is the significance of the thirty pieces of silver.
• We don’t know what is the significance of Judas being buried in the potter’s field.
• We don’t know if there is any hope for Judas. Is there any hope for any of the world’s hopeless?
Scholars offer up any number of theories regarding Judas’ motives. Most seem to believe that Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand, that Jesus was moving too slowly for Judas’ taste and Judas thought by turning Jesus in he could jumpstart the overthrow of the Roman Empire.
Another popular theory among scholars is simply that Judas was a greedy thief. He did it for the money.
Still another theory holds that it was Satan working through Judas, that Judas didn’t really have any say in the act. This theory has an interesting counterpart that suggests what Judas did, although wrong, was actually the will of God, and once again Judas didn’t really have any say in the act.
So which one will it be?
As I thought about the answer to that question I found myself wanting to grab hold of whatever theory put the most distance between Judas and myself. I think that’s why a lot of people run to the “devil made him do it” or even the “God made him do it” possibility. But, of course, the real problem with those two theories is that they both do great damage to free will by turning Judas into an automaton.
No, for our purposes today it’s safe to say that the most likely reason Judas did what he did was either:
a) He was a simple thief who saw a chance to make some money;
b) Or he thought he knew better than God.
And of those two possibilities, I favor “b” — he thought he knew better than God. And I’ll tell you why. Because that sin, the sin of thinking one knows better than God, has been with us from the beginning. It’s what got Adam and Eve in trouble and it’s haunted God’s people ever since. It’s what still gets us into trouble today. We usually call it a lack of faith, a lack of trust in God’s greater plan.
This theory builds on the idea that Judas may have misunderstood the Messiah. Judas may have wanted a military Messiah, which was the common view. By having Jesus arrested, Judas may have thought he could ignite the divine defeat of the Romans and establish God’s rule on earth once and for all.
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The irony is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s rule on earth is established. But the enemy defeated is not the Roman Empire but sin and death. The irony continues when we remember the following actions of Judas. First, as soon as Judas recognized that “his plan” was not in God’s plan and that Jesus was now condemned to death because of him — Judas, we are told, “repents.” And then, second, he gives back the thirty pieces of silver and proceeds to hang himself.
How many of you have ever heard that part of the story? How many of you even knew that Judas “repented”? It’s an important part of the story.
The thirty pieces of silver are important too. The gospel of Matthew has the chief priests conferring and saying to one another, “It’s not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is the price of blood” (27:6). And then the gospel of Matthew includes a quote from Jeremiah (which is actually a misquote that probably comes from Zechariah. But we’ll save the details of that for another time). The quote is this, “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him upon whom a price had been set…and they gave them for the potter’s field” (27:9-10).
The original context of this quote has the prophet Zechariah indicting the Temple authorities for corruption by depositing tainted money in the treasury (Zech. 11:12-13). Which seems eerily similar to what the dilemma the authorities face here with regard to Judas. Purchasing the potter’s field allowed the authorities to avoid putting the money in the treasury; it allowed them to get rid of the money and Judas’ body in a place where no one was likely to ask any questions.
But the significance of the potter’s field goes deeper. The potter’s field was clay ground. It wasn’t any good for growing crops or sustaining life. The only thing it was good for was clay. The potter would go there to get clay to make useful things, to turn the useless into the useful. And because the potter was the only one to go there, it was also the place where Gentiles, indigents, and unclaimed nobodies would be buried — in the clay.
Now doesn’t that strike you as fascinating? On the very day that Jesus was crucified and died, on that day Judas is buried among Gentiles, indigents, and the unwanted and unclaimed. Aren’t those the very people Jesus is said to have died for in the first place?
Remembering too that every detail mentioned in Scripture has meaning, isn’t it fascinating that Judas was buried in the potter’s field? Several times in Scripture God is said to be like the potter who works and re-works the vessel until it seems good to Him. Could the potter’s field symbolize Hope by suggesting to us that maybe, just maybe God wasn’t finished re-shaping and re-molding the broken vessel known as Judas?
This is the point at which the fascination with Judas turns to fear. On the one hand, we kind of like the idea that God’s grace could extend even to the likes of Judas. But on the other hand, we know God is just and righteous so wouldn’t justice and righteousness demand Judas’ eternal condemnation?
This is frightening for us because we don’t want a pushover, wishy washy God who forgives everyone, right? But neither do we want a God whose grace cannot save even those whom we have labeled as “hopeless.” And as soon as our minds start going off in all those different directions, we suddenly realize we are doing it, we are acting like we know better than God, we are acting like Judas — and that can really frighten us.
I mean, what Judas never realized, what he couldn’t imagine was that perhaps, just perhaps the plan God had in mind was bigger than anything he had ever thought of. After all, Judas was not the only disciple to betray Jesus due to limited understanding. Peter famously denied knowing Jesus three times. But the resurrected Jesus allowed Peter the opportunity to repent by expressing his love for Jesus three times — and then it was off to the races, it was time to live God’s plan for the whole of the world!
The same is true for us. God’s plans are always bigger and better than our plans. I assure you, God’s plan for YOUR life is bigger and better than anything you’ve come up with so far.
The questions is, do you have the faith to risk believing that? The question is do you trust God enough to let the plan actively unfold? The question is are you willing to repent and be the clay in the potter’s hands that is re-shaped, re-formed, re-enlivened?
It’s been fascinating to develop this character sketch of Judas, but in end the only thing we really know is that in life and in death Judas, like all of us, belongs to God. And we can trust that God will do what is just, what is righteous, and what is grace-filled, not only with Judas, but with all of us who daily repent and believe.
The challenge is to resist pretending that we know better than God. The challenge is to stop trying to force our limited, short-sighted plans upon God and open our lives up to the impossible possibilities of God!
The challenge is to believe that not only does God have a plan for each of us, but that God’s plan for us is bigger and better than anything we’ve yet to come up with on our own!
Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner ends his character sketch of Judas by conjuring up an image bigger than any we may have ever dared to dream. Now mind you, it’s just an image — but Buechner dares to imagine a dark place where two old friends, both of them a little worse for the wear, meet. And after all that has happened it is now Jesus who gives the kiss, and this time it is not the kiss of death.1
1Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (Harper and Row: New York, 1979), p. 83.
Scriptures quoted from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2012, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.