Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Betraying Jesus

Betraying Jesus
Matthew 26: 26:20-25, 31-35[1]
I think most of us like to see ourselves as basically trustworthy people. We like to think that when we say we’ll do something, we do it. Being reliable is part of being good and honest, and I think most of us at least attempt to be that kind of person. Of course, we all fall short. We promise more than we can deliver. We let certain details slip amidst the barrage of information that comes our way each day. The more we have on our plate, the easier it can be to forget to follow through on something we promised to do. That doesn’t make us dishonest, it just makes us human.
But there are also times when we say things that we really don’t have any intention of carrying out. We may or may not be fully aware of it, and we probably would rather not have to admit it—especially to ourselves. It’s difficult and painful to face the truth that all of us at times can betray the trust that has been given to us. It is even more difficult and painful to face the fact that all of us at times have betrayed a trust. I would say, in our defense, that I doubt most of us normally set out to do so. But the hard reality is that being human means that we don’t always live up to the commitments we make. Not in the way we’d like to think we do. We all fall short at times.
Our Gospel lesson for this morning is a difficult passage to understand. How could it be that one of Jesus’ disciples—one of the ones he hand-picked to share the task of proclaiming the Good News of God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and freedom—would actually betray him? It seems monstrous. In fact, I think one of the reasons why we reserve the harshest punishments for those we deem to be “traitors” is because we want to keep betrayal far away from us. If we can shun traitors like Edward Snowden or Benedict Arnold or Judas Iscariot, then we can all feel better about ourselves. It’s a way to bolster our not-so-secure faith in our own integrity.[2]
But there’s an interesting detail in the scene at the Last Supper depicted in Matthew’s Gospel. When Jesus announces to the Twelve, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me” (Matt. 26:21), we assume he’s referring solely to Judas Iscariot. After all, Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of Judas agreeing to betray Jesus to the religious leaders just before this passage. And yet, there’s something interesting tucked away in the solemn interaction between Jesus and Judas. Matthew tells us that “they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ (Matt. 26:22). Of course, we could read that as a simple declaration of innocence on the part of the others. I think that’s the way we have traditionally read this passage. The other disciples were shocked and protested their innocence.
But I think there’s another way to read it. I think the reason why they responded to the shock that one of them would betray him by asking a question is because none of them were entirely secure in their devotion to him.[3] They had followed him, and had seen and done some amazing things. But all of the Gospels make it clear that before the cross and resurrection, even Jesus’ closest followers failed to understand him fully. And I think the fact that each of the disciples, not just Judas, responded to Jesus by asking, “Surely not I, Lord?” reveals their own doubts about their commitment to him.
I think this reading is confirmed after the Last Supper when Jesus says plainly to the whole group, “You will all become deserters because of me this night” (Matt. 26:31). Jesus knew what they all feared: the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities was reaching a breaking point, and when the time came, he would face his death on the cross alone, abandoned by those who had been his closest companions. I think the possibility of his arrest must have crossed their minds, and they all questioned their ability to stand with Jesus at that fateful hour.
Of course, as usual in Matthew’s gospel, it is Peter who steps forward and represents the disciples’ failure to grasp what was really going on. Thinking that this was the time when Jesus was going to ascend to the throne of David and take his rightful place as the Messiah, Peter speaks for the others and insists, “I will never desert you” (Matt. 26:33). In fact, he goes beyond that and pledges that “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt. 26: 35). And Matthew adds, “So said all the disciples”! But the subsequent events told a different story: Peter emphatically denied even knowing Jesus. And in Matthew’s Gospel, not one of the disciples were anywhere near the cross while Jesus was drinking the cup he chose to take for us all. Every one of them betrayed him in their own way in the end.
The thought that we might betray anyone is painful enough to bear. But the idea that we might betray Jesus is truly a bitter pill to swallow. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, we have all played the part of Judas. We have all failed as disciples of Jesus at some time.[4] But I don’t think that means we are beyond hope. Even though Judas never returned to Jesus, the others did, and they were forgiven and restored and commissioned to carry on with the work to which they had been called.[5] We all face the decision whether to follow Jesus—not just one time, but daily and sometimes several times throughout the day. I think the lesson for us today is that even though we may at times betray Jesus, we can come back to him and find grace, and forgiveness, and restoration that we may return to the path of following him.

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/9/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Craig Barnes, “The Judas Chromosome,” The Christian Century (Feb 27, 2002):21: “Could it be that the real reason we show betrayers so little compassion is that we're afraid there is some Judas chromosome within all of us? We hate the thought that we too are capable of betraying trust.”
[3] Cf. Barnes, “Judas Chromosome,” 21: “When Jesus claimed that one of the Twelve would betray him, the anxiety within all of their souls rushed to the surface. ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ They might as well have said, ‘I’ve been worried about that, but I thought I had it under control.’”
[4] Cf. Barnes, “Judas Chromosome,” 21: “One of the messages of Holy Week is that sooner or later every disciple will betray Jesus. We will betray him in the workplace when it will cost too much to think like a Christian, and in our homes when the anger is so great that we hurt those who trust us, and in the sacred commitments we make that we simply cannot keep. We will betray Jesus by our indifference to the poor, by our refusal to turn the other cheek to our enemies, and by the deaf ears we turn to heaven’s call to live for higher purposes.”
[5] Cf. Barnes, “Judas Chromosome,” 21: “In the gospel according to Judas there is no forgiveness, there is just sin and the futile effort to make things right on your own. In the gospel of Jesus, there is always grace that can create a new ending to our lives. All we have to do is turn to him.”

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