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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Towards a Theology of Judas II: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday

As I said before, I do find the Gospel of Judas theologically troubling. More specifically, I find our use of it theologically troubling.

Judas has long been a villified character. As the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities and (in part) was responsible for Jesus' crucifixion, he has been held up as the example par excellence of faithlessness and treachery. He is portrayed in the gospels as a trusted member of the inner circle of disciples; but he delivered up his teacher, and did so for monetary gain (he is depicted as receiving money from the temple for his deed). After giving up Jesus, he realises the enormity of what he did and takes his own life. (The gospels are not unanimous in the means of his suicide.) There's a lot to villify: this character Judas did something truly awful.

But it is an interesting question just what role Judas played in the story of Jesus, and this interest goes a long way back in the history of the church and theology. The gospels tend to present Jesus as knowing beforehand that Judas would betray him -- at any rate, the gospels know that Judas did. And Jesus still included Judas among the disciples. We could take this as meaning that Jesus really didn't know that Judas would betray him; or -- and I think this is preferable -- we could take this as evidence that Jesus included Judas despite knowing that Judas would betray him.

But what role does Judas and his treachery play then? That is to say, if we believe that the cross is central to the mission of Jesus, and that what happened in the Paschal Mystery (Jesus' death, resurrection, ascension to God, and sending of the Spirit) is crucial to understanding the ways of God with the world -- and as Christians, I believe that we do -- then does that mean that Judas' betrayal was necessary, a part of the divine plan? And if that is true, then does that let Judas off the hook, morally: that he could not have done otherwise, and is therefore not blameworthy for his treachery? And if Judas was merely a -- praiseworthy -- instrument of God, then does that mean not merely that Jesus died, but that God the Father (in some sense) betrayed Jesus through the means of Judas?

Historically, Christians have affirmed the first part of the previous paragraph but not the second half. That is, the Paschal Mystery is at the center of God's ways with the world, but Judas was not compelled to betray Jesus, it was at his own instigation. Moreover, Jesus' death is something that he embraced and suffered, not a suicide that Jesus undertook, nor a betrayal of Jesus by the Father. Jesus' death is something that (other) humans brought about and inflicted on him.

There is much more work to be done here on the issue of human and divine action (and we haven't satisfactorily accounted for it in 2000 years, so why should you expect a blog post to do so?), but perhaps a way to consider it is that God took up the cross. In terms of improvisational theatre (see Sam Wells' excellent book Improvisation for more), humanity offered God the cross, and God accepted it -- indeed overaccepted it. The Father was offered the cross and, to put it crudely, said "yes, right, I'll take that and all that you mean by it. But I will not be satisfied to rest content with what you mean by it. You mean by it a putting to death of my Son, my promised Messiah, a troublesome teacher; I will take it and make of it not merely the death of one person, but a death for many people -- a sacrifice for the world. What's more, this is not the end for my Son, for he will go beyond death, being raised to new life and being given new and greater authority. To quote my servant Joseph, 'What you intended for evil, I will use for good.'(para. Gen. 50.20 )".

There is, as I say, more work to be done here. But I should say something about the troubling theological aspect of The Gospel of Judas and efforts to (perhaps) rehabilitate his reputation.

I do not find the writing itself troubling -- it is simply a group (in part) trying to think through the implications of Judas for Jesus, not unlike what I am doing here. The group were gnostics, a heretical group, and some of their musings went pretty clearly wrong, but in the abstract I don't find the project troubling.

But I do find some of our habits of mind and soul about Judas troubling.

I understand why Judas is an example of treachery. But I have never understood why Judas has ever been a scapegoat.

This is related, in my mind, to the same sort of thing Christians have sometimes done to Jews, scapegoating them for Christ's death, blaming them and even sometimes attacking them for it. This makes no sense to me at all.

For the way that Christians hold the cross as being at the centre of God's plans for the world implies that this sacrifice was God's intention, something willingly taken up for all of us.

To attack or blame others for killing Christ implies that Jesus really didn't intend to die, and that his death swallowed up his plans, rather than being the expression of them. It is a fundamental misunderstanding.

It is also a fundamental misunderstanding because to blame someone else for Jesus' death evades our own participation in it. If we can point at another and blame them -- it's their fault -- then we can sit and believe that we're alright, and if we had been there, in Jerusalem, at that time, things would have turned out differently.

Of course, this is a lie.

And it's also second-guessing God, not a famously successful enterprise.

And in many of our churches last Sunday (Palm Sunday), we were able to be done with this self-delusion for another year, as we were able to participate in the tableau of what happened back there and then. Many of us literally had the words "crucify him!" on our lips. All of us had it in our hearts.

And here we get to the heart of the matter, which might be expressed as the mystery of evil and wickedness, the mystery of how we can reject God -- and also the mystery of how that rejection is used by God for our salvation.

Just as a mystery, evil exceeds any of our efforts to explain it, and even moreso our efforts to explain it away and acquit ourselves. It is not a problem to be solved, as if we could simply find the right technique and get over evil: evil is a mystery which confounds our explanation.*

If we can point to Judas -- or to the Jews, or whoever else -- and say 'There! That's why!' (and by extension say, 'it was him, not me!') then we have entirely missed the point. We have tried to explain away or solve evil, an act which is itself evil.

And this is why some of the talk surrounding the Gospel of Judas is troubling. Not because the writing itself tries to explain evil, but because some of our talk about it -- a defense of Judas, a rehabilitation of Judas -- feeds into our scapegoating of Judas by stating the opposite. Judas was the problem! is how the traditional position is described; Judas was not the problem! counters this new position.** But in fact this back and forth is unhelpful in the extreme. It was Judas; if it wasn't it would have been another one of us. And in one sense, it was (and is) all of us.

Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday -- these all give us a chance to take our place alongside the betrayer (Judas), the denier (Peter), the fearful (the disciples who fled), the envious (the Jewish authorities), the complacent and complicit (the Roman authorities), the cruel and mocking (the Roman soldiers), and the grieving and helpless (the women at the cross). They give us an opportunity to be unflinchingly realistic about the mystery of darkness within us, and to respond in gratitude for the mystery of the great goodness of the cross and resurrection.


* If I am right in this characterisation of evil, then what does that imply for our understanding of what Jesus did on the cross (known as atonement)? It needs more consideration than I can give it here, but it at least implies that the cross cannot be reduced to a formula or technique which we can simply apply to 'get over' wickedness and evil (as if they were akin to a flat tyre or simple chronic halitosis).

** This is not, of course, the main point that the proponents of this document argue.

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