Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Judas is a distraction. There. I said it. I’ve been wanting to say this for a very long time. Judas should not get all the attention. There’s some amazing stuff going on with Jesus in the events leading up to the Passover in today’s gospel lesson yet it’s Judas who commands the stage.
There’s that man, Lazarus who’d just come from being wrapped in burial cloths and laid out completely breathless in a tomb. Now he’s hosting a dinner in his home. But it’s Judas who gets the spotlight.
Martha…good old Martha was there. This time she didn’t even complain about doing all the work. Such a dear faithful lady. And there are only two words given about her. Martha served. That’s it. Moving right along.
And there’s Mary, with an unseemly amount of perfumed oil, pouring it on Jesus, head and foot and wiping his feet with her hair. Where did she get all that oil anyway? Expensive oil of nard it was, the stuff that’s only used when a king is enthroned or a person has died. Some say that it was left over after she used it on her brother Lazarus. In other gospels Mary’s act at least gets a nod from Jesus when he said that in the future people would remember the woman who anointed him for his death. But John’s gospel does not say this.
It’s Judas who grabs our attention. Judas knows the market price for the perfume. Judas thinks it should have been sold for the poor. Judas didn’t really care about the poor though. Judas even embezzled money from his fellow disciples. For these things it’s Judas we remember.
All the gospel writers identified Judas early on as the betrayer of Jesus. Each one seemed to feel obligated to include a spoiler alert in the narration. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. But by the way, there are eleven pretty good guys and one bad actor named Judas Iscariot. Details at 11.
Judas is a distraction because he makes such a good target. Judas is so bad he makes the rest of us look good. Want to know what sin, the devil, and Satan look like? Look at Judas the betrayer.
When this is where we land, the good news sort of fizzles out. We feel no personal connection to that past event of the passion of Jesus. We merely tell the story of how Jesus died, with Judas as the villain, and wait for Easter’s resurrection with vague appreciation.
Isaiah must have had a similar experience in Israel’s annual re-telling of the Passover story. It’s time to remember the Passover again already? God opened the waters, we walked through. The bad guys, Pharaoh’s warriors all died. Yeah right. But here we are in exiles in Babylon. So what’s the big deal?
Isaiah said, wait! Not so fast. This isn’t some dry dusty memory. God’s character is revealed in the events of the Exodus. God does not act according to any human set of rules. God’s presence is revealed in new things, unexpected things. The Passover story is not God’s last word.
This would be realized in a whole way as Israel’s exile in Babylon came to an end. When God does a new thing, people are set free for new things too.
Paul also experienced God doing a new thing. He wrote to the Philippians about how he learned from Jesus to let go of his past: his pedigree and all that privilege. Only then was it possible for Paul’s future to unfold in a new and exceedingly liberated direction.
The resurrection became very real and immediate for Paul. From then on nothing could intimidate him, not the Roman prison from which he wrote to the Philippians, nor his probable death as a follower of the way of Jesus. Paul was all in for the resurrection life.
In the same way we can’t just say that Jesus died because Judas betrayed him, and be done with it. It’s not just a story set in the distant past. It’s about God’s liberating character and our response to God.
John packs more into this gospel story than we expect, too. It’s no accident that things begin six days before the Passover. Into the old story of the almost-finished creation, God will bring a new seventh day that begins with the final rest of Jesus.
Also attached to the number six is a theme of urgency because God commanded Israel to forgive all debts in the seventh year. So what happens in year six? Anxiety over not getting back what is owed, and strong-arm tactics to get accounts paid up. An old story that leads to violence. Yet God will do a new thing by forgiving humankind’s debt and trespass for the death of God’s Son.
Yet we focus on what Jesus said to Judas. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus was reciting God’s instruction in Deuteronomy, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy in your land.’” Jesus was drawing everyone’s attention to his nearing death but his words are twisted around to justify not caring for the needy poor.
And John shows us still more new things that God is up to. Mary anointed Jesus not only for his death, but also as the final and eternal king of all people who love God. For this she was criticized, the old way of demonizing women. But Jesus defended Mary, not regarding rules about impurity and purity, shame and honor. This is God’s new thing in a community formed by, and growing in Christ. God is up to great stuff yet it’s bad guy Judas who gets remembered.
Actually, the gospel writers were conflicted about Judas. They didn’t agree on how, where, or when he died. Did he choose his role or was he chosen? And all those references to scriptures being fulfilled? They fail to line up with actual texts. The things we think we know about Judas comes from mixing together all the gospel versions of his story.
Perhaps all we can say about Judas is that he did the best he could. Jesus said his betrayer would know great woe and even regret being born. But at no time did Jesus condemn him. And that left open every option for the love of God to do a new thing. Which is not only good news for Judas, but for each of us too. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.