Brief synopsis of the readings: Palm Sunday is unique in how it structures its readings. We begin with a snippet from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus and his disciples journey toward Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. At Jesus’ instruction they acquired a colt that Jesus rode. The Gospel itself is also from Mark. Here the chief priests and scribes plotted a way to have Jesus arrested and put to death. One of the Jesus’ disciples, Judas, met with them and offered to hand over Jesus. Delighted, he was offered money for this. Jesus and the rest of his disciples made preparations for the Passover Supper in Jerusalem, what we now call the Last Supper. During the meal Jesus foretold that one of those gathered there would betray him. He then blessed and broke the bread. Passing it to his disciples he said: “This is my body.” At the end of the meal he took a glass of wine, blessed it, and said: “This is my blood.” After the meal they went to the Mount of Olives and Jesus told Peter that he (Peter) would deny him and Peter swore he would never do that. Arriving at the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus went off my himself to pray. In prayer Jesus begged God to take “this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it. Returning to his disciples he saw that they had fallen asleep. At this point Judas arrived with swordsmen who seized Jesus and took him to the chief priests. They questioned him and found him guilty of blasphemy. Peter was nearby and was recognized by a servant; three times Peter swore he didn’t know Jesus. Jesus was then brought to Pilate (the Roman ruler of the area). Pilate didn’t want to execute Jesus but the crowd demanded Jesus be crucified and Pilate ordered it placate the crowd. Jesus was then led to Golgotha and was crucified with two others. After Jesus died he was removed from the cross and he was placed in a cave. A stone was rolled in front of it.
Palm Sunday is a perilous day to preach. The readings are so long that the sermon should be brief, and not all preachers understand that. Also, there are so many scenes and familiar events that anyone who tries to preach on all this will inevitably just retell the Scripture.
Hoping to avoid these traps I attempted to focus on one aspect of these events. I decided to focus on Judas and his role here. It’s no surprise that all four Gospels have accounts of him, and all are brief, but they also disagree on details.
In Matthew, Judas was at the Last Supper and stormed out. He returned with the swordsmen who arrested Jesus. Regretting what he did, he hanged himself. In Mark and Luke, Judas was with Jesus when the swordsmen arrived and picked out Jesus. And in John’s Gospel, during the Last Supper, Jesus identified Judas and ordered him to do what he was going to do. When the swordsmen arrived, Jesus identified himself.
So why did he do this? The easiest explanation is that Judas was just plain evil and betrayed Jesus for money. But that doesn’t make sense to me. Judas was one of the original Twelve that Jesus chose and traveled with him for the three years of his public ministry. He could have simply left.
I suggest it was more subtle than that. As I’ve described before, Jesus was far from the only person at the time to claimed to be the Messiah. As Christians we believe that Jesus was set apart because he was the Messiah.
Jews of the time held a multitude of beliefs. Some cooperated with the Romans and secretly hoped the Messiah would never come. Others prayed for the Messiah but took no action. Some, called the Essenes, went off by themselves to pray, fast, and live austere lives. Finally, some were Zealots and wanted to take up arms to drive out the Romans.
Judas was certainly no Zealot and, particularly after Jesus’ turning over the tables in the Temple, may have feared that Jesus’ movement was getting out of control. If you’re old enough to remember the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, that is suggested.
Judas may not have wanted Jesus to be crucified, but given a “time out” that would allow things to cool off a little and regroup. Only in Matthew do we see Judas after Jesus’ arrest where he regrets what did and killed himself.
Obviously none of us will ever find ourselves in Judas’ position. But there are times when ordinary people belong to a group and find themselves disillusioned but what do they do? If my suggestion is correct, Judas’ problem wasn’t that he wanted bad things to happen but that he attempted to manipulate people and events to end up with his solution.
Judas could have left. He could have spoken with Jesus and get a sense of what Jesus wanted and counseled him. We don’t know what would have happened, but at least he would have acted with integrity.
And finally, what happened to Judas? In three of the Gospels we have no idea. In Matthew, not only did Judas betray Jesus, he then killed himself. In Dante’s Inferno Judas spend eternity in the lowest level of Hell. But Matthew made of point of saying that Judas regretted all this, and as I used to tell my patients and families, never place limits on God’s mercy.