The bible tells us that Judas was a thief before he became a disciple of Jesus.
Judas was a thief. The bible does not tell us what kind of a thief he was, but we know that there were bandits in those days who were ideological freedom-fighters, guerilla warriors who were trying to undermine the occupying Romans.
They tried to disrupt the Romans in retaliation for the unreasonable taxes that the Romans enforced. Because the Romans basically got local gangsters to extort the poor. The bandits stole back money that had been stolen.
But these bandits also needed to eat like everyone else. As a matter of fact, there is a long history in the world of Robin Hood type fighters who blur the lines between killing and stealing for the cause, on the one hand, and killing and stealing for their own benefit on the other hand.
So Judas was this money-conscious person, who wanted to see the Romans defeated, and the Kingdom of Israel restored. He was a guy who fought for the underdog. He was a political activist. And Judas was in charge of the money that Jesus and the disciples were given by their benefactors.
Judas was present when Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, washed Jesus feet with perfume. The bible tells us that Mary was so thankful to Jesus that he forgave her sins and so grateful to Jesus that he delivered her and then raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, she was so grateful that she poured out a whole pint of perfume, and then washed his feet with her hair and her tears.
Judas saw this and he was angry that she wasted something so expensive, especially in this over-the-top and embarrassing display of affection. He argued that the perfume could have been sold and the money could have been used for the poor.
Most of us think that we would never have taken Judas’ side in this argument. When I was preparing this sermon it occurred to me that if I had been there, I would have sided with Judas. The perfume was worth one year’s wages. That’s like $50,000 today.
You’re telling me that you are righteous and pious because you poured out a liquid worth $50,000 on someone’s feet? Of course I would be indignant because of all the good that money could have done for the poor!
Well the story of Judas continues.
Judas gets paid money to tell the Chief Priests where they can arrest Jesus without causing a riot. Judas helps them arrest Jesus quietly in the garden of gethsemane at night. A lot of people think that the only reason Judas did this was to earn 30 pieces of silver. About a month’s salary. But I have heard another theory that is really interesting, and I offer it to you not as fact, but as food for thought.
If Judas was a freedom-fighter, and if Judas, just like the other disciples, thought that Jesus was going to wage a war against the Romans, then Judas thought he was helping Jesus by instigating a conflict. Perhaps Judas thought that by bringing soldiers to arrest Jesus he would force Jesus to defend himself and start the war. And then if there was a war, Jesus would win and establish his kingdom in Israel.
I believe that is what Judas was doing. He was on the side of the poor and oppressed. He took the side of the underdog. And he was trying to defeat the bully. He thought he was doing something good.
The story of Judas is really challenging for people who are action people. Let’s stop talking and get this thing done. This story is also challenging for people who are generous and love charity and who have a burning desire to help the oppressed. Will we cross a line in the name of helping others? When does loving the victim turn into hating the person we think is oppressing the victim? When does concern and compassion turn into anger and hate? That is one of the challenges that I find myself confronted with when I think about the story of Judas.
I also find the story of Judas challenging when I look around at society outside our church, and I see people outside the bounds of our church and people who do not believe in our values and they are nonetheless doing good works for people in need. I begin to wonder, do we actually have the moral high ground? Do we have the moral authority to insist on our vision for the family, our understanding of purity and holy living? Do we have the right to voice an opinion about morality to people who also care about the poor? To people who also seem to love their neighbor, and maybe seem to even do it better than us?
In the gospel we hear about the pharisees who are legalistic but do not care for the poor. And so Christians today naturally understand the dangers of Christianity becoming pharisaical and hypocritical. We very easily identify with the notion that, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” We are all familiar with the notion that our society has tended to be puritanical, legalistic, moralistic, and yet completely heartless all at the same time. We know that story.
And so it is a very difficult thing to accept that our church would have anything to say about morals, given the lessons we should have learned from history. How do we have the right to stand for any morals when legalism has replaced love so often in the past?
This conundrum is exaggerated by the fact that there are people of other religions who also give to the poor. There are people of other lifestyles, with very different morals than our morals, who are generous and kind to animals and to children, and homeless people. And so what right do we have to speak about morality, when we aren’t doing everything we can to give food to the hungry?
I think that question is basically the same question as Judas asked when Mary poured out the perfume on Jesus’ feet.
What right do you have to do something that can only possibly have spiritual value when there is so much pragmatic value that could be had from the same object? Perfume in this case. How can you pour out precious things to your God when there are people who need them?
The vision of charity that speaks with the same voice as Judas is still nonetheless a vision of charity. Some people do good and are active in charity without loving God.
But the story of Judas shows us that a love for our neighbor that is not rooted in the love of God is shallow and crumbles under pressure.
Judas, in his less-talk-more-action mindset causes something terrible to happen. And because the self-offering of Christ is both a sacrifice of righteousness to God, and a gift to the poor, Judas could not see the death of Jesus on the cross as anything but a defeat. Judas was blind to the value of worshiping God in spirit and in truth.
Judas probably thought the first commandment (love the Lord your God with all your heart) was a waste of time. And he could not see how embracing powerlessness, he could not see how trusting God even in the face of defeat, could do more good for than any war ever could.
We humans often do good because we like to see people smile, we like to see the effects of our work. We like results. We also like to be admired by other people for the good things we do. We like to feel good and righteous about ourselves.
Not only do we like to feel good and righteous about our own work, without the love of Christ, our good works and charitable intentions can devolve into rage against evil-doers (as we perceive them) and hatred in the name of loving other people. Because of so-called love for the marginalized, we begin to feel obligated to hate the oppressor. Many wars have been fought in the name of loving the people, defending the people.
Jesus tells us a story in today’s gospel reading about what happens when he preaches the gospel. (This is taken from Luke 8 and rearranged for the sake of explanation)
The Lord said this parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it.
And Jesus explains
The seed is the word of God [Christ]. The [seeds that fell] along the path are [a metaphor for] those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved.
So some people hear what we have to say in Jesus name, but end up not believing. The most important aspect of this seed, the Word, is that it is not just a message but the beginning of synergy with God the Word who is loves the world and saves it. What the devil steals from these people is the willingness to love the world in the way Jesus does; selflessly and with purity of heart.
And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, [the plant] withered away, because it had no moisture.
And Jesus explains,
… the [seeds that fell] on the rock are [a metaphor for] those people who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation [Matthew 13:21 says persecution] these people fall away.
The person who loves for good things to be done for the poor and vulnerable, but who does not love God will most likely have a short-lived flirt with doing good.
Or else doing good will always be on the terms of the giver, never for the long-term salvation of the recipient.
Charity like this is patronizing and colonial. Charity like this only provides for material needs, but has no vision. Charity like this is done by people who always want to teach the poor, but never live in communion with the poor.
When it begins to actually cost more than their surplus income, these people usually give up.
I believe the “root” that is lacking is the root of repentance. If I am not willing to endure the pain of self-examination, then I will probably not endure the pain of suffering on behalf of others.
And that is because self-examination, repentance, confession is something I do for the sake of others. I try to root out my sins for the benefit of others.
But if we are not even trying to root out our sin, if we hold on to sin in defiance of God, we show that in all likelihood we will not be able to do more for the poor than give them the scraps of our material excess.
“And some seeds fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it.”
And Jesus explains,
And as for [the seeds that] fell among the thorns, they are those [people] who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life [Matthew 13:22 – worries of this life and deceitfulness of wealth], and their fruit does not mature.
For our time, I would interpret the thorns as a metaphor for the cares of competing world views. Sometimes I listen to people talking about political issues and I agree quite a lot. There are some groups of people who are exploited, and it’s unjust. There is discrimination and violence against certain groups of people, and that seems unfair and wrong. I can personally sympathize with a lot of the anger and disappointment that is expressed in the world of politics. I start to feel oppressed myself, even though I am not really in one of the disadvantaged groups.
But just like the thorns and the wheat compete for the nutrients in the ground, the problems of the world compete for my attention and my concern. I can only serve one master. I can only be scandalized – truly and utterly scandalized to the point of being moved to action – by one thing. And if that one thing is not my own sin then my anger and disappointment with injustice is pretty much meaningless.
If my sin is not the biggest injustice and scandal I know of, I am not doing the most I can do for the world. Because my sin is something I can do something about, whereas many of the other problems in the world are beyond my control.
Do I really care all that much, if I am not doing the one thing needed, the one and only thing that I actually control in this universe: repenting of my own sins? Am I really putting my money where my mouth is, if I am not doing my part first?
Jesus’ model is this:
Some seeds fell into good soil and grew, and yielded [fruit] a hundredfold.” And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, … [the seeds] in the good soil … are those [people] who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”
Whenever we talk about people bearing fruit, I want to bring our attention back to St. Paul who says,
“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.Galatians 5:22–6:6
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.”
In the passage I just read from Galatians, the last sentence is especially tricky. It says in Greek, let the one who has been catechized (literally catechumenized) in the word, commune (or let him become a partner) with the one who catechized him in all good things.
In other words, the Christian vision of charity is to follow Christ in his character, to become a partner with him in his offering of his life to the Father as worship. And in doing so, we cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and goodness. We do not allow ourselves to become indignant about anyone else’s actions.
What we just read from Galatians said, “Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.”
But that last bit is so interesting to me.
Let the catechumen become a partner with the one who catechized him in the word – a partner in all good things.
What I take away from that verse is that my life and my actions as a whole will be instructive to someone else. Like it or not, I am a teacher of others. At the very least I am a teacher of my children.
And it is important to get the whole big picture right, not just the part about compassion for the poor. My commitment to doing the hard work of self-examination and repentance needs to be as robust as my commitment to compassion for the oppressed. I need to be willing to be challenged about my sinfulness if my generosity is to have the effect that I want.
I need to be seen to be offering my offerings to the Father in order to teach my children how to be children of the Father.
When Jesus said, “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word which proceeds from the mouth of God,” perhaps he meant that yes, we need to provide for each other’s material needs, but in the end a human being is called to shine with the light of the crucified Christ, not just to have a full belly. Yes, we need to give people the shirt off our back, but then we need to give them a cross to carry – otherwise we are not giving them the good news.
When Jesus healed the sick it was on his way to the cross.
“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”John 12:24–26
I say this in election season as a challenge to all of us no matter what our inclination is politically. I happen to have the advantage of not knowing about, nor indeed caring about Canadian politics. But I have devoted large amounts of time and effort in the past towards participating in political dialogue.
And I am personally challenged when I read today’s readings. My energy and my attention are like the soil that the seeds are planted in. There is not enough nutrition to go around for both the thorns and the wheat.
I have to choose what is the MOST important thing for me to be enraged by. If it is not my own sin, then I will be lost, no matter how much merit the political message has. My own sin is the biggest scandal.
When Judas saw that his activism had caused the death of Jesus, he gave up any hope of being redeemed, and hanged himself. He could have repented. He could have said he was sorry, and Jesus would have forgiven him. By betraying Jesus and hanging himself afterwards, Judas showed that he did not believe that he could be saved. He did not try to repent of his sins, he just tried to save the world.
We should repent of our sins first, because Jesus has promised us that it is through the forgiveness of sins that true life will come into the world. And then we should also remember the poor.
I pray that Jesus will give you a vision of how worshiping in church, offering your time and money and talents to the church, how confession and self-examination and prayer are highly pragmatic things to do. If you are all about doing, then do these things first. And the love and concern for the poor and the oppressed will not only remain in your heart, but will be brought to a Christian maturity that is life-giving and not just life-preserving.
May the Holy Spirit fill us with the love of God and of his righteousness, and then equip us to serve our neighbors as if Christ himself were in our midst.