“Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
Today's gospel is a most intimate scene. Jesus and his closest followers gather around the table for Passover. This family ritual was likely a cherished part of their Jewish tradition, and now Jesus and his followers celebrate as a family. As they eat, they roll up the bread and bitter herbs and dip it into dishes of the traditional sauce. Jesus, who shares the same dish with Judas Iscariot, announces that one of his closest friends at that table will betray him.
Judas Iscariot is usually portrayed as a dark and murky figure, one who represents evil and betrayal. It's easier to keep him in that caricature, because it's more comfortable if we think that Judas is completely different from us. If he is that evil and that traitorous, we can move him to a different level and never have to face the ways we have betrayed Jesus in our own lives.
On a trip to New York in 2005 I attended a remarkable play that ran only a few weeks. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was loosely staged as a trial for Judas. In the course of the trial, witnesses were called and a case presented to a jury. This time, Judas was not portrayed as cartoon of evil. He was a real, human being and his friend Jesus referred to him as “my heart.” But things went wrong and Judas made some disastrous decisions.
In a powerful moment at the end of the trial, at the end of the play, a desperate and furious Judas confronts Jesus, demanding to know where Jesus was when Judas himself needed saving. Judas screams wildly at Jesus, accusing him of healing and helping everyone else. Jesus even forgave Peter! Why didn't he stop Judas from betraying Jesus? From hanging himself?
After he finishes his emotional speech, Judas turns inward, sitting in a deaf and blind silence. He has withdrawn from everyone and everything. In the last moments of the play, Judas is empty and despairing and unable to see anything - even Jesus who is right in front of him. Judas can no longer feel the healing touch of his friend as Jesus silently and lovingly washes the feet of Judas, his beloved betrayer.
There are times all of us betray Jesus. We don't have lives that are as honest as we want. We gossip and spread stories, stories that “won't really hurt anyone.” We spend too many minutes in church evaluating the dress or beliefs of others. We refuse to forgive those who have wronged us, and we carry our un-forgiving anger like a badge of honor. We speak to our spouses and family members sharply and without the extra love and care that their role in our lives deserves.
Judas' worst decision was believing he could not be forgiven. All of us are forgiven, always. Jesus loves us with our full range of sins. We forget because we focus on ourselves and our sins, rather than on Jesus. We can get wrapped up in our own guilt and our own sense of the importance of our sins. We become blind to Jesus kneeling next to us, washing our feet and loving us from the deepest part of his heart.
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