Monday, March 29, 2010

What did you mean, Judas Iscariot?

Judas and the Magdalene
Holy Week, as the Christian's term it.  And once again my thoughts turn to the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, recognized by over a billion souls as the Messiah, humanity's Redeemer.

In all my queries and investigations into the Christian faith, one character continues to fascinate and befuddle.  And that is Judas Iscariot.

Judas, of course, is mostly remembered as one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus.  According to the gospel of Mark, Judas was the group's money man, keeping track of finances, controlling the purse strings. When the call came down to have Jesus arrested, Judas betrayed Him to the Roman authorities, identifying Jesus with a kiss (the Judas Kiss).  For this service, Judas was allegedly paid the tidy sum of 30 pieces of silver.  Jesus was subsequently crucified.

My fascination with Judas goes to motive.  What did he hope to gain with his betrayal? 

Scholars have postulated several theories:  One is that Judas had a weakness for money and was motivated by the bounty paid out by the Pharisees.  But surely Judas must have been driven by something more than a paltry 30 silver pieces, no?  Such a sum seems pretty insignificant when weighed against an eternity of torment.  Or is it possible that Judas acted out of ignorance?  That he did not, in fact, believe that Jesus was the Messiah? And, if that is the case, is Judas less culpable?

Another possible motive is that Judas felt betrayed by Jesus, whom he expected to overthrow Roman rule of Israel. In this view, Judas is a disillusioned disciple betraying Jesus not because he loved money, but because he loved his country.  Some people might construe this as a noble motive.

Or there is the supernatural theory:  According to Luke 22:3-6 and John 13:27, Satan entered into Judas and called him to do it.  In that case, it seems grossly unfair to hold Judas guilty of anything.  He was compelled to betray Jesus, perhaps against his will.
"Come 'ere, gimme kiss."
But, taking the larger view for a moment, regardless of his motive, did Judas not act according to God's will?  After all, in order for the prophesy to be complete, someone had to betray Jesus.  So, was Judas not merely fulfilling the role that God had written for him?  (Martin Scorcese's difficult but rewarding film "The Last Temptation of Christ" espouses this particular theory.)  This theory strikes at the age old and never-ending debate around Free Will and Predestination.  That debate has been going on since long before Jesus of Nazareth ever got dunked in the Jordan River.  It'll still be going a thousand years hence.

The gospels are somewhat contradictory regarding Judas' fate after the betrayal.  According to Matthew, Judas repented and hanged himself.  But according to Acts, he fell down in a field and burst asunder.  Dante wrote in Inferno that Judas was exiled to the very lowest pit of Hell, there to be chewed on for all eternity by Satan, the Devil.

But that, it seems to me, flies in the face of the concept of an all-forgiving God.  And did not Christ Himself (purportedly) exclaim as He died on the cross:  "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"?  (Whatever happened to "Not perfect, just forgiven?")

Well, after all these centuries of theory and counter-theory I have faith (heh) that the questions around Judas Iscariot will never be answered to my satisfaction.  And besides, as I've stated many times before, it is futile to look for literal meanings from scripture.  Rather, scripture is presented to us so that we can ponder it, ruminate on it, theorize about it.  I don't believe that it offers the concrete, black-and-white answers that fundamentalists (of any stripe) favor. And, it's Holy Week, so what the hell?  (No pun intended.)

Carl Anderson (aided by lyricist Timothy Rice) did a brilliant interpretation of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar. Here's the opening tune of that flick, Heaven on Their Minds.


Anonymous said...

Ah, the paradox of the gospels.

It was pointed out to me years ago that, as you've said here, Judas played an important role in the fulfillment of bible prophecy.

I've pondered on this very same song and scene from the move for a couple of years now. It really presents Judas as holding to an even higher standard than that of Jesus in his "superstar" status.
Or was Judas motivated to jealousy?

Here's another scene from the movie:

"Surely you're not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot. There will be poor, always, pathetically struggling - look at the good things you've got!"

This time of year has been a celebrated time of renewal a couple thousand years before the Jesus entity was said to have been martyred and then resurrected.

Enjoy those symbols of fertility this season (eggs, rabbits...chocolate?).


Eugene said...

Also listen to the song by Dick Gaughan, "Stand up for Judas." An excellent work along the lines of your post. Thank you.