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Readings: 7th Sunday of Easter

08 May 2015


Loved and lost: Conscience, Judas by Nikolai Ge (1831-94)

Loved and lost: Conscience, Judas by Nikolai Ge (1831-94)

Acts 1.15-17, 21-end; Psalm 1; 1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19

O God the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

THERE is something profoundly uncomfortable about the presentation of Judas as Jesus's betrayer. He is chosen to be one of the twelve, although he is "a devil" (John 6.70-71), and by the time Jesus gathers his friends for a final meal, the determination to hand Jesus over is already upon him (John 13.2). During the meal, Jesus distinguishes between those he has chosen to live and serve one another (John 13.12-17) and the one who will fulfil scripture by eating with him and then turning against him (John 13.18; Psalm 41.9). Challenged by Peter to identify the traitor, Jesus gives Judas a piece of bread (John 13.25-26); finally, as he prays for his chosen followers (again alluding to scripture), Jesus speaks of Judas as "the one destined to be lost" (John 17.12).

All of this seems radically opposed to the image of the good shepherd (John 10), or to the message of the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son (Luke 15.1-7, 11-32). As the good shepherd, Jesus asserts his power to lay down his life and take it up again (John 10.17-18). As the narrator of parables, he teaches that no human life is beyond the reach of divine love and mercy.

Brendan Byrne, in his reading of John's Gospel, notes that "this tension between divine choice and action on the one hand, and human responsibility, on the other, was something that biblical writers were far more at ease with than we are today "He suggests that, "without canceling human responsibility, attributing such failure to divine action was a way of seeing it enclosed within a wider divine plan of salvation and hence not necessarily foreclosed to a more positive final outcome. It is all ultimately a way of saying that, despite and indeed through human failure, God and God's grace will have the last word."*

But that does not necessarily mean that a longing to know what lay at the root of Judas's action is part of a contemporary understanding and sensibility and, therefore, just a distraction from more important questions. If we retrace the events leading up to this last evening, three stand out: the anointing of Jesus's feet by Mary at the meal in Bethany (John 12.1-8); the washing of the disciples' feet (John 13.1-20); and, after Judas's departure, the giving of the new commandment to love one another (John 13.31-35). What Judas failed to realise was the complexity of love. He could not see its costliness and its refusal of limits, expressed in Mary's extravagant use of precious perfume. Nor could he see love's humility as Jesus washed his feet. Worst of all, we assume that he could not let himself be loved, or let himself imagine the agony to Jesus in losing one of his close followers. Instead, he converted all this into a commercial transaction: the price agreed with the chief priests.

That potential to put ourselves beyond the love of God surely lies within each one of us, not because God has decreed it, but because we have chosen it. Only minutes after Judas's departure, Jesus foretells Peter's denial (John 13.36-38). It could have been any of the twelve, which is why, in his last prayer, Jesus implores his Father to keep them safe in the world. They were given into his trust, and he is giving them back into God's keeping as he com-pletes the work he will do alone. John does not provide a version of the Lord's Prayer, but through this final evening Jesus has taught his followers all its articles. Now he urgently prays that, in a world hostile to their message (John 17.14-16), they will be delivered from "the evil one" (John 17.15; Matthew 6.13).

The election of Judas's successor looks businesslike and undramatic by comparison, as Peter calls for candidates who can witness to Jesus from his baptism to the resurrection. It is a way of resuming the story after the resurrection, and shows the 11 living in the confidence for which Jesus prayed (Acts 1.15-17, 21-end). Luke's characterisation is doubly sensitive; for he presents a restored Peter, who understands Judas enough to say with compassion, "he turned aside to go to his own place" (Acts 1.25).

As Pentecost approaches, we pray that the Holy Spirit will "strengthen us" and that we will find our own place "where our Saviour Christ is gone before" (collect of the day). 

* Brendan Byrne SJ ,Life Abounding: A reading of John's Gospel (Liturgical Press, 2014)

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