All in the Name
It is a name never found in any baby book. It is not a name that circles round into popularity after years not in use. No one chooses this name because all the best ones have been taken. It is a name that once mentioned requires nothing else be said. The name is “Judas.”
Little is said about Judas in Scripture, especially in Mark’s Gospel. He is a tragic enigma. Matthew, Luke, and John will flesh out his story a bit, but even then, we know little about him. As Mark tells the story, Judas, one of the twelve who followed Jesus, betrays Jesus with a kiss. It was a sign he had set up with the authorities, as if Jesus were a man in hiding. So, soon after Passover dinner, Judas walks up to Jesus, kisses him, and sets the betrayal in motion.
Why? Why Judas? Why not one of the other Twelve disciples? Why not someone else, someone not in the inner circle? Why now? Why not earlier, long before they arrived in Jerusalem? Mark has nothing to say about any of these perfectly reasonable questions. All Mark says is that one of the closest people to Jesus betrays him and does so in the most intimate way, with a kiss.
A few verses earlier, when Jesus and his friends are sitting around the table, Jesus speaks these ominous words, “One of you will betray me and it would be better for that person had he never been born.” I wonder how Judas heard those harsh words. I wonder what happened to Judas after he betrayed Jesus. The other Gospel writers will share some of the popular lore about the fate of Judas, but Mark does not say. In Mark, all we know is that one untimely born betrays his friend and beloved leader. For Mark, that is enough to know about Judas.
I have always found this story fascinating. Peter gets most the press during Holy Week, with his three dramatic denials of Jesus. Judas is offstage almost as soon as he comes on and yet it is Judas, more than Peter, who nags at me, who tugs at my desire to know more.
Over the years, more than a few poets and songwriters have shared my curiosity. The opening scene of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s, Jesus Christ Superstar, features Judas, not Jesus. As a teen, I played the opening song of Superstar, “Heaven on Their Minds” until my old vinyl record started to warp and skip (for the younger folks in the congregation, ask your parents or grandparents what I am talking about). Frightened by Jesus’ growing popularity and its threat to Roman rule, Judas sings:
My mind is clearer now At last All too well I can see Where we all Soon will be If you strip away The myth From the man You will see Where we all Soon will be
Jesus You've started to believe The things they say of you You really do believe This talk of God is true
And all the good you've done Will soon be swept away You've begun to matter more Than the things you say
Listen Jesus I don't like what I see All I ask is that you listen to me And remember I've been your right hand man all along You have set them all on fire They think they've found the new Messiah And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong
I remember when this whole thing began No talk of God then, we called you a man And believe me My admiration for you hasn't died But every word you say today
Gets twisted ‘round some other way
And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied
Nazareth's most famous son Should have stayed a great unknown Like his father carving wood He'd have made good Tables, chairs and oaken chests Would have suited Jesus best He'd have caused nobody harm No one alarm
Listen Jesus, do you care for your race? Don't you see we must keep in our place? We are occupied Have you forgotten how put down we are? I am frightened by the crowd For we are getting much too loud And they'll crush us if we go too far If we go too far
Listen Jesus to the warning I give Please remember that I want us to live But it's sad to see our chances weakening with every hour All your followers are blind Too much heaven on their minds It was beautiful, but now it's sour Yes it's all gone sour
God Jesus, it's all gone sour.
In one, rather long song, Weber explores the many reasons the church has speculated for why Judas betrayed Jesus? Maybe one of those reasons is right, or maybe it is a combination of them, but we will never know from reading Mark.
The late renowned preacher, Fred Craddock, once said about the story of Judas: “The church is at its best when it stops asking, ‘why did Judas do it?’ and instead examines its own record of discipleship” (Craddock, Luke, Interpretation series, p 253). Ouch. I would rather speculate about Judas than look at the Judas living inside me and inside the church I love.
I hate seeing the Judas in me at certain times when I look in the mirror. I want to be the good child seated at the table, eating everything on my plate, not the wayward child of whom Jesus says, “It would be better if you had never been born.” I want to be the Faithful One whom Jesus can count on, not The Traitor who is just waiting to apply that killing kiss. I want to serve a church that is in perfect stride with Jesus, bold and truth-telling, not the church that too often betrays its mission for the sake of security or to avoid conflict. I want to serve the church that Jesus keeps lauding with the praise, “Well done, good and faithful servants,” not the church that too often betrays its identity to keep the customers satisfied, the coffers overflowing, and the pews full.
In the course of my ministry, I have baptized well over 300 infants, youth, and adults. I have never baptized one person named “Judas.” Maybe the last word for Judas and the Judas within us, within the church, is the harsh word of disdain from Jesus. It would have been better had Judas never been born. Maybe Judas ended up hanging at the end of a rope after he betrayed Jesus as Matthew would have us believe. Maybe the Traitor got exactly what he deserved, what we wish for all traitors to get.
Or maybe we need to read on in Mark’s Gospel, even though the name Judas is never spoken again. Maybe we need to hear from the messenger at the empty tomb when he invites all the disciples of Jesus, even Peter, maybe even Judas, to join the Risen Jesus in Galilee and to begin this sacred journey of faith anew.
Maybe Lent then is not simply a season to look honestly in the mirror and repent for how often we are much too much like our namesake, Judas, how often we are willing to betray our faith and our Lord for whatever the reason. Maybe Lent is the season to rejoice that Easter came even to Judas and comes even to the Judas within us and within the church, comes even to those who never thought it possibly could.
Maybe our God is just that good.