Brief synopsis of the readings: On Palm Sunday we don’t have ordinary readings. We begin outside the church and read the account from Matthew where Jesus and his disciples approach Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus instructs his disciples to go ahead of him and purchase an ass and a colt. Jesus entered Jerusalem seated on an ass and he was welcomed into Jerusalem. The crowd proclaimed Jesus was “the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.” During mass we read from Isaiah that God gave Isaiah “a well trained tongue.” Isaiah spoke of not responding to evil or violence. Finally, Matthew’s Gospel describes the Last Supper. Judas began by negotiating his betrayal of Jesus for 30 silver pieces. He then returned and joined the others at Passover, what we’ve called the “Last Supper.” (The Last Supper was the Passover meal in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John’s Gospel the Last Supper is the day before Passover) During this supper Jesus announced he would be betrayed by someone at the table. Judas denied his role, but then fled. Jesus then blessed the bread and the wine. After the meal they went to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went off by himself to pray. On his return Judas arrived with a large and armed crowd. Jesus was arrested and taken to Caiaphas the high priest; he, along with the Jewish ruling body, conducted a mock trial and accused Jesus of blasphemy. In the courtyard someone noticed Peter and identified him as being with Jesus. Three times, in increasing volume and profanity, denied Jesus. Judas, regretting his decision to betray Jesus, returned the money and committed suicide. Caiaphas then turned Jesus over to the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate. Pilate, wanting nothing to do with this, succumbed to the demands of the crowd and ordered Jesus’ crucifixion.
Ok, these were not easy readings to condense into a paragraph. The Gospel itself covers nearly 2 chapters and a lot happens. Whenever I read this passage I’m reminded of a TV series in the 1950s and 1960s: You Are There. The program recreated events in world history with the tag line: You are there.
In the same way these events begin with the Last Supper and cover Jesus’ last night and day before his crucifixion. Countless movies, most notably The Greatest Story Ever Told and Kings of Kings put these scenes on the big screen and it doesn’t take much imagination to read this Gospel and picture it. But let’s face it: I can’t preach on all these events or even several of them.
Instead I wish to focus not on an event, but on a person: I’m fascinated with Judas and his role. We don’t have a great deal of information on him, but we all have strong feelings about him. He was, after all, the man who betrayed Jesus, setting in motion the events that led to the crucifixion of our Redeemer. Who can be more contemptible than that?
In 1320 Dante published his landmark work the Inferno. He portrayed Judas in the lowest ring of Hell, his head and trunk in the mouth of Satan, his feet sticking out. He is condemned to spend all eternity being chewed on by Satan but never dying. On the other hand, in the play and movie Jesus Christ Superstar Judas appeared to be someone caught up in events beyond his control. He felt great loyalty to Jesus, but felt he was going too far and needed to be reigned in. Here Judas went to the authorities to “cool down” Jesus’ rhetoric and he felt great regret when his betrayal led to Jesus being crucified.
Today’s Gospel begins with the idea that Judas saw his betrayal as a way of making a profit. He negotiated information for money, and to this day the phrase “thirty pieces of silver” connotes betrayal.
Dante is clear that Judas’ sin places him not only in Hell, but in the lowest ring, even though Scripture is silent on what happens to Judas after his suicide. And I have to confess that I’ve been intrigued by Judas ever since I first saw Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. If Judas truly regretted his betrayal, was that enough to earn the mercy of God? If he was driven to suicide, not as an act of showing contempt for his life, but instead as a poor choice made in the depth of his grief and desperation, what does God’s mercy decide here? In other words, should Judas stay in Dante’s Inferno or find his place in Dante’s Paradisio?
In addition to Judas, today’s Gospel also shows Peter in a less than flattering light. After Jesus was arrested, and was on trial for his life, Peter hung out on the edge of the drama, trying to be invisible. But it didn’t work. First a maid, then “another girl,” and finally, some bystanders called him out as a friend of Jesus. Peter, fearing he would suffer the same fate as Jesus, chose to abandon him. The Gospel writes that he began to “curse and swear” but does not go into detail. One of my Scripture teachers in seminary told me that our translations play down some incredible profanity Peter shouted.
And, like Judas, he almost immediately regretted his actions. But while Judas connotes images of betrayal and damnation, Peter speaks to us of forgiveness and leadership. The resurrected Jesus encountered Peter and three times asked him: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter assured Jesus he did and Jesus then commanded him to “feed my sheep.” Not only is Peter considered as saint, we think of him as the one who will greet us at the gates of Heaven.
In my role as a hospice chaplain I sometimes meet patients who worry that he or she has committed a sin that God will frown on, despite their regret. When I hear this I tell them: “Peter denied Jesus three times and now he has the keys to the place.” It’s a humorous moment but it makes a point: If the Incarnation tells us anything, it tells us that we are not judged by our worst moment.
Two events, separated by a few hours, show the worst moments in the lives of two people: Peter and Judas. I’m fascinated by Judas because I recognize that we all have countless moments we regret. And we live in the hope that these moments will not come back to judge us in the future. Some of us have the luxury of knowing that our worst decisions were made in private and will likely not come to light. But others recognize that our worst events happened in public in front of witnesses and the fear of exposure never leaves our minds or fears.
But, ironically, the resurrection of Jesus makes no such distinction between Peter and Judas. His resurrection means nothing if it doesn’t mean that God’s power to forgive and redeem overpowers our power to sin. All God asks is that we regret our sins.
Today we live in a world where our best moments and our worst moments are often captured by digital cameras and cell phones. Social media gives the power to amplify moments without context and, much like Judas, reduce lives to one bad decision.
And so on Easter of 2017 let us choose mercy over judgement. Let us celebrate the power of regret and choose the power of forgiveness. Let us embrace those who have hurt us and ask those we have hurt to embrace us. We live with incredible power to injure each other but we also live with more incredible power to forgive each other.
With apologies to Dante, I hope when I get to Heaven I’ll meet both Peter and Judas.