I've occasionally met people who have very strange names (like the time in college when I was introduced to two sisters named Rainbow and Sunshine–I can take a guess at how their parents might have looked in the 1960s), but one name comes to mind which I've never heard of a parent giving to their child: Judas. I'm sure there is an exception out there somewhere, and I hope that his parents either weren't English-speaking or just didn't know this story very well, but–thankfully–not many parents choose to give their sons the name of the most well-known traitor in the history of the world.
Even if you've met someone named Judas, the name itself has strong roots. It was a common name for Jewish boys in Jesus' day. Two of the twelve disciples had the name, plus one of Jesus' brothers. Judas, Jude, Judah–even Jew and Jewish–all come from the same name/word and all point back in Israel's history to one of Jacob's sons. In Jesus' day, it was a heroic name with royal implications. Judas Maccabaeus successfully led a revolt against Israel's oppressors a couple centuries before Jesus was born. Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the Romans during Jesus' boyhood, which was crushed brutally.
But ever since the day we're considering in this reflection, somewhere around Wednesday of the last week of Jesus' life, the name Judas brings to mind evil, darkness, and the worst aspects of the human heart.
He was part of the group from the beginning of Jesus' public career. Despite how artwork through the centuries has portrayed him, there was nothing about Judas that made him stand out as the obvious choice for "Most Likely to Betray God's Anointed." He was one of the group, hoping that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting. He was there passing baskets around to the crowd when five loaves of bread and two fish had fed thousands of people. He saw the sick healed, demons cast out, and the dead raised to life. He was there when Jesus taught, and could undoubtedly sense that it was like no other teaching he had ever heard.
Though speculation abounds and all kinds of possibilities exist as to why Judas went to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?" and then accepted the deal for the price of thirty pieces of silver, we can never know what went on inside of him.
Still, I'll add my own speculation to the mix: perhaps something about the previous few days had convinced Judas that what he had hoped Jesus would accomplish was ultimately not going to happen. Yesterday, we mentioned how–even though the tension in Jesus' interactions in the temple was so high–apparently, most of Jesus' followers still didn't foresee what was coming nor understand the warnings he had given them about it. That is, except for one woman, who showed her understanding by anointing Jesus for his burial while he was sitting at a supper with the twelve.
Maybe, after all, that woman wasn't the only one who understood. Maybe Judas did by that point as well. Or possibly her actions at that dinner and Jesus' response to her were what allowed Judas to see what, by then, was inevitable: this man, whom they had thought was the Messiah–their deliverer–was going to die, and apparently that was even what Jesus had expected for some time. Jesus spent the last couple of days in the temple picking a fight that he intended to lose.
In the minds of almost everyone who had followed Jesus to that point, realizing this would have meant that he could not have been who they had hoped. The Messiah (the real one) would deliver, conquer enemies, restore Israel, and rule as king; anyone who would head knowingly into his own defeat and death therefore could not be God's anointed one. It would be nearly impossible to think of anyone executed before coming to power as being the long-awaited king.
We are fools to think we would have caught on any more quickly than the rest of the disciples. They simply had no framework for understanding Messiah-ship that looked like what Jesus was about to do. Perhaps that clicked a bit sooner for Judas than it did for the others, and as soon as he realized it, he therefore had to get out. (Surely he realized that if Jesus was going to die, his followers would become targeted as well, and there was no reason to go to the grave with a failed Messiah.)
I don't know how much Jesus knew about Judas when he chose him to be one of the twelve. The gospels seem to be clear that Jesus knew during his time with the disciples that one of them would turn away, and John even says that Jesus knew from the beginning who would betray him.
Regardless of the timing–whether Jesus knew what Judas would do from the first time they laid eyes on one another, or if it was some time after that–considering the relationship between the two of them makes me tremble for a couple of reasons.
First, I realize that I am not so far from Judas as I would like to think. Jesus has utterly disappointed me at times, when I counted on him to do things he said he would do, and then they did not happen. I have never wanted out as Judas did, but I've also had a remarkably easier time of following Jesus than in his case. Of course I like to think that if I was at the Last Supper, I would have been the one reclining close enough to Jesus to whisper a question in his ear, but it's just as likely that I would have been the one who dipped the bread in the bowl with him.
The other part of it that makes me shudder–and want to spend some time on my face before God–is to realize that regardless of when Jesus knew what he knew about Judas, Jesus loved him. Jesus kept him around, shared his life with Judas. He washed Judas' feet. He passed bread to Judas, saying, "Take it. This is my body." Then he passed wine and said, "This is my blood..." Only after all of these things did Jesus tell him, "What you are about to do, do quickly."
Judas had his feet washed. He ate the bread. He drank from the cup. Then he left to go make his deal with the chief priests.
And Jesus loved him.
A Prayer for the Day:
Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]