by Sam Portaro
Judas and his infamous betrayal loom large in the gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week. There’s a table in the scene, and a palpable hunger in the room, but it’s not a craving for food. Those gathered around Jesus had been with him three years, some longer. From the weirdly enthusiastic greeting at their entry into Jerusalem, where they met waving palms and jubilant hosannas instead of the stones and jeers they’d expected, they sensed that their journey had reached a decisive point. Whatever their motives for joining Jesus, they’d subjugated those desires to his direction, for his sake. It had been a long and arduous fast, a very long time to rein in dreams, to follow so vague an agenda to so mysterious a goal. Though descended from ancestors who’d wandered forty years of wilderness in anticipation of a promised land, this generation wasn’t nearly so patient.
Judas, who devoutly desired a militant political victory for the people whose zeal burned within him, was like an ember on the verge of flame. He’d been a loyal friend—perhaps the most loyal, to judge by an intimacy the gospel’s subtleties suggest. But the opaque “will of God” Jesus invoked had not led to the goal Judas expected. He was hungry for a promised kingdom that, in his imagination, looked far different from where Jesus seemed headed. Judas had bided his time and done it Jesus’ way, but now he likely thought, as one seasoned elder once remarked of a painfully long transition in our community, “If this thing was gonna take, it would’a took by now.”
It’s tempting to see this episode as a showdown, a contest between good and evil. But that’s the easy way out, which is usually the wrong way. It’s important to hold onto the profound intimacy shared between Jesus and Judas. It’s there, in the obvious trust that gave him charge of the finances and, as William Temple suggests, put him at Jesus’ left side—the honored seat at table—from which vantage they share the fateful breaking of the bread. Of the 13 in that room, these two—Jesus and Judas—had the clearest sense of vocation. The others evince a base instinct for power, or a simple willingness to go where Jesus leads, or just a comradely esprit de corps. But Judas in his zeal for a peoples’ will and Jesus in his commitment to the Divine will are uniquely paired, like the mythical Roman figure of Janus, the symbol of disambiguation, of transition, whose two faces pointing opposing directions, see future and past simultaneously.
Vocational fidelity is a difficult spiritual discipline. That’s made abundantly clear in Jesus’ struggles throughout this final week of his earthly life and ministry. At this point in the week, when Jesus and Judas literally part ways, what I find most striking is the grace in their separation. The two break bread and share the meal. Jesus apparently washes Judas’ feet with the same care shown to others, and with no argument. Jesus neither questions nor debates Judas, doesn’t suggest an examination of motive or impulse, but calmly directs Judas: “Do quickly what you have to do.” [John 13:27, NEB] Despite scripture’s demonizing of Judas, Jesus has no part in it.
To see Judas as culpable for the outcome is to obscure a more potent reality; Jesus had already inflamed the authorities to the point of arrest. More important is the obvious respect Jesus has for Judas’ own vocation. Those of us standing on this side of the narrative overlook that neither Jesus nor Judas knew where the plot would go. That’s the risk of vocation, and of free will—a risk that God takes with each of us, willingly, generously, gracefully. To presume, prejudge, or second guess is to capitulate, and to compromise the courage of God’s own dynamic creating. To be other than who God has made us to be is to deny God’s gifts to us of life, self, and freedom. To do other than what we have to do is the ultimate betrayal of vocation. To do, and to be, what one must do and must be is to risk all the vilification that has accrued to Judas, that clings to him still. To do otherwise is to abandon vocation, and God.
Even the signifying kiss, unkindly read as irony, is the only appropriate parting of two who shared as much as these men did, and testament to an affectionate respect that endured to the end. In a wonderful little scene imagined and dramatized by Thornton Wilder, Jesus’ ascends from his post-mortem descent into hell with Judas at his side, the first to be redeemed and released, escorted into Easter. That’s gospel.