"The Madness of Judas1"

JOHN 13: 21-30

MARCH 10, 2013


           In all my years of ministry I have never baptized anyone by the name of Judas.  In fact, I do not recall ever meeting anyone named Judas.  Of course, Judas Iscariot's parents had no problem at all naming their son, Judas.  After all, at the time of his birth "Judas" was a good name meaning "praise or thanks."  It's the Greek form of Judah or Jude, and Judas Iscariot was probably named after Judas Maccabeus, one of the most revered military leaders in ancient Jewish history.  Just a few generations before the New Testament period, Judas Maccabeus led his people in a revolt against the Greeks, thereby winning independence for them for a brief time.  Judas Maccabeus was to the Jews of Jesus' day what George Washington is to the Americans today.  And this Judas, whom we read about in the Gospels, was likely named for him.  Perhaps his parents had high hopes that he would grow up to fulfill the promise of his name and become a great leader of his people.

            Then there is the word "Iscariot" which is not his last name, but rather a descriptive term.  We are not exactly sure what it means, but one possibility is that it means "man of Kerioth," a small village in the south of Judea, making Judas the only non-Galilean among the twelve disciples.  And maybe he always felt somewhat of an outsider, a Southerner amidst a bunch of "Yankees" from the North.  But we are not really sure of this meaning.  Some suggest that "Iscariot" comes from the word "sicarius" which means "assassin."  Another plausible guess is that the term is Aramaic, and comes from a root meaning "the false one, the liar, the hypocrite."  With 20-20 hindsight, those last two meanings of "Iscariot" make a world of sense to us.

            He started out well and seems to have been an important member of the apostolic circle.  The lists in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts put his name last, no doubt because of the betrayal, but the fact that he was the treasurer of the group (John 13:29) indicates that he was, at first, held in high esteem.  We don't knowingly put a liar and a crook in charge of the finances.  That would be like putting Colonel Sanders in charge of the chicken coop!   Some Christian traditions rank him immediately after Peter, James and John making him the fourth most important disciple, at least at the beginning.  So he had a good start.  He was reared in a good religious home, given an honorable Jewish name, taught to honor God, love his country and his people, and await the coming of the promised Messiah.  Perhaps the greatest day of his life came when he heard Jesus say to him, "Judas, come and be one of my followers."

            For three years he lived close to Jesus.  He heard Jesus' sermons, witnessed Jesus'  miracles, listened to Jesus' teaching, yet he betrayed Jesus, and we wonder why?  That question has puzzled the church for centuries.  Over the years different explanations for this betrayal have been offered.  Let's take a look at four of them.

            Theory one: Judas was "predestined" to do what he did.  Fans of this theory say that God specifically picked Judas for the precise purpose of betraying Jesus.  In other words, God programmed Judas to be the bad apple in the bunch.  God simply used Judas as a pawn on the chessboard of life. 

            Being Presbyterian with a high view of the sovereignty of God, I'm attracted to this theory, but even for me proponents of this theory have to explain John's little comment in verse.  In that verse John writes, "Satan entered into him."  That was an ancient way of explaining the presence of evil.  The Greek "ho satanos" means "The Adversary."  It refers to that unruly power in the universe which works at cross purposes to God's purposes. I do think that there is such a power and I agree with Luther who once said that the devil's most devious trick was getting folks to believe that he doesn't exist.  I also like the way a theology professor handled the existence of Satan.  One of his students asked him, "Do you believe in the devil?" to which he replied with a twinkle in his eye, "No, I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ."  In other words, he didn't want to give the devil more than his due, but then he quickly followed up his answer by saying if there were no devil, there sure was someone getting his work done for him in this world!  

            "Satan entered into him." says John.  I have no evidence of this, but I doubt that this was the first time.  I have a feeling that Judas, like all of us, had felt the tug of temptation pulling him away from the Lord long before.  But I believe that Judas had to make his own decision to respond to that tug.  I think that Judas ultimately had to make his own decisions, and take responsibility for them, just as we do.  Pressures within and without come to us, but ultimately we make our own decisions.  As the poet John Oxenham once put it,


            To every person there opens

            A high way and a low,

            And every man decides

            The way his soul shall go.

            Judas chose the low way. 


            Judas had a choice.  He was not programmed to do it.  So if he wasn't a chess piece on a cosmic chess board, what happened to him?  Well, let's turn our attention to a second theory.  We will call it the name theory.  Some believe the answer can be found in his name.  Judas Iscariot, like his famous namesake Judas Maccabeus, may have been filled with patriotic fervor, yearning for freedom from foreign rule.  That may have been why he cast his lot with Jesus in the first place.  Perhaps here was the Messiah the people had awaited for so long!  Perhaps Judas could have sung with eager anticipation that great Advent hymn we use in our churches, "Come, Thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free!"  We have spiritualized that hymn so much we often forget that most folks in Jesus' day believed those words literally.  And Jesus seemed to be the answer to the prayers of His people.

            But then Jesus began to say some very strange things.  He began to suggest a radical new method to inaugurate His kingdom.  He sought to conquer the world through the power of love and not through the love of power.  He said things like: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you."  "Bless those who curse you."  "Those who take the sword will perish with the sword."  "The meek shall inherit the earth."  Proponents of the "name theory" suggest such preaching turned Judas off.  They imagine him thinking to himself, "What nonsense!  You can't live that way when you are dealing with those godless Romans! You can't trust the Romans!  You've got to fight fire with fire!"

            Then, thirdly, there is the "reluctant messiah" theory.  Maybe you recall the Don Knotts' movie The Reluctant Astronaut where Don Knotts plays a kiddie-ride operator and is afraid of heights, but gets into the space program.  Well, what we have in the third theory is not the "reluctant astronaut" but the "reluctant messiah."  Here is how the reasoning goes: Judas believed that Jesus was really the Messiah, but that he was a "reluctant Messiah."  Perhaps if he (that is Judas) maneuvered Jesus into a position where Jesus would be forced to use a display of his power, then perhaps the religious authorities and the political authorities would sit up and take notice and become convinced that he really was the Messiah.  This Judas cheered when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple.  "At last!" he thought to himself, "Jesus is beginning to make some sense.  He is waking up to the fact that force is the only language some people understand." Judas saw his role as getting Jesus out into the open and when out in the open, the rest of Judaism would follow.

            Finally, there is the ancient notion that Judas betrayed Jesus because he was motivated by avarice and greed, that he simply sold out Jesus for personal gain.  Earlier in his gospel, John tells us that Judas had his hand in the cookie jar, embezzling some of the funds.  They say he simply betrayed Jesus for the money.  He saw an easy way to make a buck.

            So, there are the four primary theories for why Judas did what he did.  What do you think?  How many of you prefer the predestined theory?  How many prefer the name theory?  How many the reluctant messiah theory?  How about the avarice and greed theory?  How many are more confused than ever after listening to this sermon?

            What motivated Judas to do it?  I guess we will never know for sure, at least on this side of heaven.  The only thing I hope we realize is we have all betrayed Jesus at one time or another, the majority of us numerous times.  I'm not making excuses for Judas' behavior, I'm just saying we may not be as far removed from Judas as we think.

            There is a story of a famous artist who was commissioned to paint a picture of the Last Supper, not Leonardo Da Vinci, but another artist.  He selected his models with the greatest care.  For the apostle John he found a young man who was strikingly handsome, with a look of high purpose and a spiritual expression all over his face.  The artist then kept on painting and looking for similar suitable models.  He left the face of Judas for the last, not being able to find just the right face to represent him.  Where do you find a model for a traitor?  Finally, in one of the darkest streets of the lowest quarters in the city, he found just the man.  This man's furtive expression, his hard unsympathetic face met all of the requirements for the face of judas.  And so, for a few pieces of silver he became a most cooperative model.  One day the artist noted that the man was gazing steadily at the first portrait of the Apostle John.  "Do you like that face?" asked the artist.  "Yes," came the sad reply. "It was once my own."  He was the same man who five years before had posed for the portrait of John!

            Judas might have been a John, for he walked under the same Galilean sky, heard the same heaven-sent words of Jesus, broke bread with the same Savior.  Or, he might have been a Simon Peter.  Peter denied Jesus not once, but three times, yet Peter repented and came back, whereas Judas went out and hanged himself.

            Which leads us to ask, "Why didn't Judas repent and turn around and receive Jesus' forgiveness?"  Actually, he did repent.  He returned the thirty pieces of silver, but he was unable to accept forgiveness for what he had done.  Too bad. Too bad.

            You see, with Jesus, any one of us can make a new beginning, anytime, and anywhere.  For some reason Judas didn't believe that.  Hopefully, we do.