Seeing Our Likeness in Judas Iscariot

“Judas Iscariot” by Fr. George Leonard Shultz (1896-1971)

Readings for Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Psalm 22

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

John 18:1-19:42

This sermon was preached on Good Friday at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on April 2, 2021. An abbreviated version was published in the Times-Standard on April 3 as “A path toward new life and liberation”

When Fr. George Leonard Shultz painted the Twelve Apostles, he asked his friends to pose as models for his artistic representation of the saints. However, when it came to the infamous disciple who failed to achieve sainthood, there were no takers. So, Fr. Shultz (affectionately known as Fr. Shag) took it upon himself to use his own likeness in portraying the paragon of betrayal: Judas Iscariot. We can certainly understand people’s reluctance to be associated with a man whom Dante placed in the lowest circle of hell, but Fr. Shag’s willingness to identify with the tragic disciple invites us to reflect on the ways that we ourselves mimic the disturbing behavior of Judas Iscariot.

            Judas was called by Jesus into the inner circle of twelve disciples and was essentially appointed as the treasurer of the Jesus Movement (John 12:6). Although greed likely compelled him to steal frequently from the coffers, the Gospels say that it was the devil himself who compelled Judas to betray Jesus by handing him over to the religious authorities in exchange for thirty pieces of silver (John 13:2, 27). When the religious authorities colluded with Rome to crucify the one whom he had betrayed, Judas fell into despair and tragically died by suicide. Over the centuries, Judas has been understood as the personification of human sin and as a byword for greed and treachery.

The problem is that Christians have often used Judas as a term of insult for those whom they choose to hate and blame. Most tragically, Christians have used him as a symbol to justify anti-Jewish hatred and violence, heaping the worst qualities of Judas upon the entire Jewish people. Whenever Christians like me use Judas Iscariot in this way, we are falling prey to the same diabolic sickness that overcame Judas himself. Moreover, whenever Christians like me use any element of our faith tradition to justify the scapegoating of innocent victims, we are mimicking Judas.

On this Good Friday, we are called to acknowledge individual sins as well as our complicity in collective sins like systemic racism and oppression of the poor and vulnerable. Although we may resist it, Good Friday calls us to recognize and repent of the many ways that we behave like Judas as well as the ways that we may benefit from a system that continues to hand over innocent victims to humiliation, poverty, and death. There’s a reason why the congregation voices the words of the crowd in the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, crying out, “Crucify him!” These words compel us to consider the ways that we continue to call for the suffering of innocent lives.

Fr. Shag’s willingness to see himself in Judas invites us to do the same. However, we don’t identify with Judas in order to fall into despair, but rather to repent and to discover God’s liberation from sin, both individual and collective. An enlightened Catholic priest and theologian James Alison taught me that the ultimate sin of Judas was not his betrayal but rather his refusal to believe that he could be forgiven. Fr. Shag’s painting and the Gospels themselves invite us to recognize the ways that we continue to get caught up in sins just like Judas. They invite us to see the insidious ways that our silence in the face of injustice is actually a form of sin and a failure to uphold our baptismal vows. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it; and he who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

Since before Lent, I’ve been reminding us that this year, Easter Sunday falls on the feast day of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And I’ve quoted him in almost every sermon I’ve preached since Epiphany. On this Good Friday, I want to share a quote that I personally find the most convicting. It’s from his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Like St. Paul the Apostle who likely wrote many of his epistles from a Roman prison, Martin Luther King wrote this powerful epistle in jail, after being arrested for protesting against the cruel and unjust treatment of black people in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963. He wrote, “First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the [African American]’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the [White Supremacist] or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the [African-American] to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’” The fact that this letter was addressed to eight clergymen, two of whom were Episcopal bishops, makes this letter all the more convicting to a white Episcopal priest like me.[1] Not only does this letter call for the fulfillment of principles in our country’s founding documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), it also calls us to fulfill our baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. King’s letter shows me the ways that I can be like the disciples who abandoned Jesus, like Peter who denied Jesus to save his own neck, and even like Judas.

This is disturbing for us to acknowledge, but it’s also good because it opens up the possibility for repentance and change. Someone recently asked me what makes Good Friday “good”? Good Friday is good because it is the day that we remember Christ saving us from sin through his death on the cross. Good Friday is good because it reveals to us that God is in deep solidarity with us in our suffering. It is good because Christ’s blood saves us from eternal death just as the Passover Lamb’s blood saved the Hebrew children. And Good Friday is good because it because it helps us to see and repent of the ways that we can be like Judas, the ways that we, through our complicit silence, continue to participate in systems of violence and injustice, systems that continue to crucify innocent victims. Finally, Good Friday is good because on the Cross of Good Friday Christ reveals God as a God of Love who is always offering us forgiveness and a path towards new life and liberation. Amen.

[1] The Right Reverend C.C.J. Carpenter, Bishop of the Diocese of Alabama and the Right Reverend George M. Murray, Bishop Coadjutor of Diocese of Alabama

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