Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve Apostles, and the one who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, has become a byword in English for a betrayer.
None of us is a stranger to betrayal. It is a particularly painful experience because it comes at the hand of someone we trusted; someone we thought would look out for us; someone we loved, and believed loved us. We must consider that one of the sufferings that constitute Jesus’ passion must have been that he was betrayed by one of his close friends, a member of his inner circle.
For my Holy Week devotions this year I have been reading At The Cross: Meditations on People Who Were There by Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart (IVP, 1999), two fine scholars from the University of St Andrews. I highly recommend it.
Their meditation on Judas is particularly insightful. Although they admit that Judas’ deed was a dark one (“there is no getting Judas off the hook”), they assert the paradox that his betrayal was a necessary act: “The structure of the Gospel plot demands it.”
And it is quite true that Jesus speaks repeatedly, not only that he will experience death, but that he will “be given up” to death. So Judas is the instrument of that happening, and therefore an important player in the narrative of the passion, what I like to call “the drama of redemption.”
But though Judas plays his part in the drama, the Christian tradition has pretty consistently painted him to be an utterly despicable character. I have been ruminating on this, since it raises many questions, some of which I will leave to others to address.
But with the help of Bauckham and Hart, I have two thoughts to share about his role.
The first is Judas’ solidarity with all of humanity. We are all, to some degree or another, betrayers. There are the big betrayals, of course, like marital infidelity or financial shenanigans like the recent ones by Bernie Madoff. But there are also the little daily betrayals where we break trust with those we love and care for, and in this case Judas is not so different from all of us. His sin is different in degree and not in kind.
My second thought follows from the first, and that is whether Judas can be saved? The Christian tradition has generally said no. Perhaps I have fallen under the spell of Karl Barth’s alleged universalism, but I believe in a God whose mercy is so vast that there might be a place for Judas in it.
I don’t make the move to dogmatic universalism, because the separating of the “sheep from the goats” is God’s job and not mine. I think I have also been influenced by a fine dissertation I read this summer by Jason Goroncy, in which he asserts convincingly that the trajectory of P. T. Forsyth’s theology should (but doesn’t) lead him toward dogmatic universalism, a belief that all will ultimately be saved. I still don’t know whether I am there yet, but I have been ruminating about the “love that will not let me go.” As a theologian of the cross and the atonement I would be the last to limit its power and scope. Who can say where the saving work of Jesus Christ ends?
Is this another scandal of the cross? It just might be. Have you noticed that in many of our theological discussions about who is in and who is out with God, we naturally gravitate toward the extreme cases: Hitler, Stalin, and, of course, Judas. This lets us off the hook. But it shouldn’t. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
One of the most powerful and poignant moments for me every Holy Week is when I come to the line in the passion hymn Herzliebster Jesu where the congregation sings, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.” That pretty much settles for me the ever vexing question of who killed Jesus. Yes, the Romans, but they were stand-ins for all of humanity. Still, from the cross Jesus forgives his murderers, and by extension, us.
So if I can be saved, can Judas be saved? I am not the one to say, but I am intrigued by what Bauckham and Hart do in their meditation. They end with a poem that speaks to this very point, an “imaginative construal between Judas and Jesus in death, which ironically brought Judas much closer to his master than any of the other disciples, as they hung on their respective trees.” I am reassured that I am not the only one who sometimes has to turn to a poet when the language of theology reaches its outer limit:
The Ballad of the Judas Tree
In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time
I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemn him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first
by D. RUTH ETCHELLS
These mediations are particularly significant to me since they were developed for a Good Friday service at St. Andrew’s, St. Andrews, Scotland, very near to where we lived, and where we sometimes worshipped, during our sojourn there in the Spring and Summer of 1995. Alas, we left a year too early to hear them there, as they were done in 1996 and 1997.
(At The Cross: Meditations on People Who Were Thereby Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, InterVarsity Press, 1999)