Summit Presbyterian Church
March 28, 2010
Luke 22: 14-23
Betrayals Major and Minor
Jesus said, "But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table." Twelve hands on the table - (let's assume everyone has a hand on their lap) in addition to Jesus. Twelve pairs of eyes, looking around at each other. Twelve voices asking one another, "which one of us could it be who would do this?"
Because we've heard the whole story, we know the answer: Judas! As all the other disciples were wondering who it could be, wondering perhaps, if they could be the one, Judas must have been thinking of his conversation with the chief priests and officers of the temple police. The chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, and Judas had offered to find a way to hand Jesus over to them. They were greatly pleased, Luke tells us, and agreed to give him money. So while Jesus was passing around the bread and the cup, while the disciples were looking at each other with suspicion, Judas might well have been pondering how he'd betray Jesus to the authorities when no crowd was present. Later that evening, he would lead a crowd to Jesus at the Mount of Olives, and would approach Jesus to betray him with a kiss. The chief priests and temple police took him away to be tried, and he would be crucified by the Romans. After his death, according to Luke, Judas felt no remorse and did no repentance; he brought a field with the money he was given. It was in that field that Judas suddenly swelled up and burst open in the middle, with all his guts falling out - a field that became known to the residents of Jerusalem as the field of blood. Other gospel writers have a slightly different take on Judas, but in Luke's telling it's a fitting end to a villain who handed Jesus over to a terrible and agonizing death.
But although Judas may have been the one to hand Jesus over to the authorities, his is not the only hand on the table that will betray Jesus. There's also Peter. Peter tells Jesus at dinner that he's ready to go with him to prison and to death. But Jesus knows otherwise: he tells Peter that the cock will not crow the next morning until Peter has denied him three times. And Peter does deny Jesus. After he's arrested, Peter follows from a distance, and then joins others at a fire in the courtyard of the house of the High Priest, where Jesus is being held. Over the course of the night, three people will look at Peter in the firelight and say "this man also was with them." And three times Peter will say, Woman, I am not, or Man, I do not know what you are talking about! After his third denial the cock crows -- and Luke says that at that moment Jesus turned and looked at Peter. At the friend and disciple who now claimed not to know him .
But Judas and Peter are not the only hands at the table to betray Jesus. The 10 others? Once Jesus is arrested, they disappear. They don't even go with Peter to the courtyard. Perhaps they were in the crowd that followed Jesus to the place where he was crucified, or perhaps they were among the acquaintances who stood at a distance, watching these things, but Luke doesn't name them. Whether they were standing by watching, or hiding in their houses, their inaction, their silence, would betray Jesus. They didn't even try to recover his body -- Joseph of Arimathea, a righteous member of the Council, would do that. Nor would they try and find where he had been laid, or bring ointments or spices for his burial -- the women would do that: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James. The 10 others? They abandoned him.
So, with those twelve hands on the table, we see the full spectrum of betrayal. From knowingly sending a friend to torture and death; to publicly denying him; to hiding and remaining silent. We don't know what drove the disciples to act this way. Luke says that Satan entered into Judas, and we know he got money for his deed; but that doesn't explain why Judas let Satan in, why he turned in the first place. Was it simply greed? Did he become disillusioned with his Jesus and decide he was a blasphemer - was this a principled betrayal? Or, was Judas just a pawn in some grand scheme of God as some people - not Luke - have suggested? We're told even less about Peter's state of mind or the others, although it's easy enough to guess. Fear, perhaps, for their life or freedom. More likely they just feared the shame and humiliation of being identified with a person under suspicion. They probably told themselves there was nothing they could do, that they were better off, even Jesus was better off, if they lay low. We know about those kinds of rationalizations. We make them ourselves, all the time.
But even if we knew the motives of every disciple, even if we could explain the psychological factors behind not only their betrayals but our betrayals, from major to minor, from the glaringly evil to the merely hurtful -- we'd be left with the question. Why do human beings do this? Why is it that we betray our spouses and cheat on taxes and spend money on luxuries when neighbors in Haiti or in Philadelphia go hungry? Why is it we continue to fill up our gas tanks or throw away cell phones with hardly a thought to the harm we're doing creation? Why is it that parents abuse their children? Why are human beings so sinful and rebellious, why is there so much sin and suffering in this world that God called good?
No theologian, no philosopher, no poet, no biblical scholar, has come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. People have proposed theories -- from original sin to the claim that evil is only an illusion, but no one has come up with an answer that satisfies the longing, and the agony, in that question. On this side of eternity we can only see in a mirror dimly. But as Christians we do say this: That when God created human beings that could and would betray each other, when God created a world that included suffering, God didn't just sit back and watch. God didn't leave the suffering for others.
We proclaim that God suffered, in the passion and death of Christ. Not just in a God-like way, whatever way we may imagine that to be: virtual rather than physical, empathetic rather than first hand, distant rather than close-up. We proclaim that in Jesus on the cross God suffered as human beings suffer: human beings who are physically tortured and hurt, human beings who know the hate of enemies and the betrayal and abandonment of friends. God suffered as a human being because Jesus was human. But at the same time we insist Jesus the Christ was God -- God didn't delegate that suffering to a human being, a human son separate from God's self. God did more than have sympathy pains. God took that suffering into God's very self.
This claim of a suffering God has led to more questions and counter questions, answers and theories about why God did this and what it accomplished. These theologies of atonement, of pardon and sacrifice, are helpful and enlightening although no single one is fully satisfactory: again, now we see through a mirror dimly. But the church everywhere has agreed on this: that God in Jesus Christ went to the cross out of love. That Christ came to us in love, and suffered and knew betrayal, out of love. In the words of Paul, the proof of God's amazing love is this: while we were sinners, Christ died for us.
My prayer, for you and for me, is that we can sense, that we can feel and trust in that love, as we follow Jesus to the cross. Next Sunday, on Easter, we'll proclaim that death and suffering is not God's final word. In the Easter season and beyond we'll talk about how we are called to respond to the good news of the resurrection, to grow in faith and hope and goodness, so we're not mired in sin. But on this Palm Sunday, and in the coming week, we just stand in awe before this fact: God loves us enough to eat at table with Judas and Peter, and all those other hands who would betray him, including our own. What wondrous love is this.