A few days ago, in preparation for the start of the Holy Week and the arrival of Easter, I read the story told in John 12, of Jesus being in Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, six days before the start of Passover. The story takes place at the beginning of Holy Week marking the slow descent to Golgatha where Jesus knows what waits for Him, where it’s just a matter of time before the crowds’ approval turns.
With all of this on His mind, Jesus is sitting at the table eating a meal with His friends, when Mary reaches for an expensive bottle of perfume, walks over towards Jesus and, in what would have surprised and quieted the conversation around them, pours it on Jesus’s feet, using her hair to rub the perfume into His skin.
Judas, the treasurer, Judas the would-be betrayer, is livid. All of that money! Wasted! He points out to Jesus that the money that perfume was worth could have been used to feed the poor, belittling Mary’s gift and shaming her. But Jesus corrects him. “Leave her alone,” He tells Judas.
I don’t know why Mary did what she did. Except it’s almost as if Mary knew what the men closest to Jesus didn’t know yet. His days were numbered. His time was coming to an end. Death was closer than ever.
But Mary wasn’t what stuck out to me the most. It was Judas. And with the story came all the usual questions.
Why did Judas do it? What made him betray Jesus for the 30 pieces of silver? Had he ever been fully committed to Jesus? Had he set out with bad intentions all along? What exactly happened?
Judas, like the other 11, had spent the past three years of his life, travelling with Jesus, in the city, the countryside, the towns in between. He had heard the same teachings everyone else had, and witnessed the same miracles too. The nets impossibly full of fish. The food unbelievably multiplied. The storm magically calmed. The people inexplicably healed. He watched and observed and had surely taken note of the crowds that grew larger with each passing day, of the accolades that greeted Jesus when entering the city, of the emotion and fervor and buzz in the air when Jesus drew near and the people waited with baited breath to see what He would do next.
All of the disciples saw the effect Jesus had, and they all imagined a bright future because of it. I imagine when Judas saw how magnetic and compelling and inspiring Jesus was, he also imagined what an uprising against the powers of Rome following Jesus’s lead might look like. This was the Jesus Judas signed up to follow. Death was not part of the plans the 12 had for Jesus—or for themselves.
But then they arrive back in Bethany. Six days before Passover. And Mary takes this perfume and pours it on Jesus, and Jesus has the audacity to tell Judas she was doing it to prepare him for his burial. And maybe that’s when it all fell into place for Judas. When he remembered what he had tried to block out— how Jesus would say things like His kingdom was not of this world, and how He would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. And Judas had finally had enough. Jesus would never be who Judas had imagined him to be.
I think Judas had fooled himself into thinking Jesus was one way all those years, had refused to pay attention to the signs that said otherwise, and when Mary and the perfume had opened his eyes to who Jesus really was, Judas felt tricked and misled and conned, and maybe foolish because of it. I think he had spent three years with a man he imagined to usher in one kind future, only to discover Jesus had far different plans. And once Judas finally figured it out? He wanted nothing to do with the plans or the man behind them.
I guess what I’m saying is, it’s easy to demonize Judas. But the truth is, it’s not that hard to imagine being just like him.
Richard Rohr, in his Lent devotional Wondrous Encounters, writes, “The more love and hope you have invested in another person, the deeper the pain of betrayal is.”
He was writing of what Jesus must have felt in light of Judas’s betrayal and then Peter’s. But isn’t it also true of Judas? Of course, Jesus didn’t actually betray Judas. Judas had a misinformed idea of who Jesus was, but when He didn’t end up being that way, it felt like a betrayal. Judas would have never agreed to turn him over the Jewish leaders had he not been so invested in this idea of who he thought Jesus would be. And though he had Jesus wrong the whole time, it must have still hurt to realize how wrong he was.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because just like the religious leaders make Jesus into the scapegoat the crowds and Pilate ultimately turn against, I think in our thousands of years removed from the story, we do the same thing with Judas. We make him so vilified and evil and other, separating ourselves from him so thoroughly and completely. But I wonder if we do it not because we are better than him, but because we’re afraid we might actually see us in him?
It’s far easier to be him than we think. And worst of all, we are utterly clueless about it.
The third commandment out of the famous ten, says to not take the Lord’s name in vain. For most of my life I thought this meant not to yell out God’s name when I knock my shin on the coffee table or something equally trivial. But that’s not what it means at all. To take God’s name in vain is to attach what isn’t of God to God. (Slave owners who defended their right to have slaves using Scripture took God’s name in vain.) To not take His name in vain is to be diligent in separating what we wish was true of God out from what is true. It is to live constantly recalibrating and re-centering who God and Jesus have shown themselves to be, with who I would rather them be. It is working to close the gap between the God I have imagined and the God who exists.
Ultimately, Judas did what he did because by the time he realized the distance between the Jesus he imagined and the Jesus who was, it was too late. He had taken God’s name in vain for too long. He had made an idol of who he wanted Jesus to be, and neglected to worship the Jesus who was—the Jesus who sat at a table and let a woman wash His feet with perfume to prepare Him for death.
Maybe it’s a strange idea, but in this Holy Week leading up to the Holiest of Days, I’m going to spend some time thinking about Judas. Not in disgust or in order to hate or despise him. But to learn the ways I could be him and correct my course before I do or say something I regret. Maybe we would all do well to ask ourselves these questions.
- Who have I imagined Jesus to be? And who is he really?
- What have I attached God’s name to? And what does His name actually represent?And maybe most of all,
- When I realize I have been wrong about Jesus in some way, what do I do? Do I betray? Or do I repent? Do I desert or do I draw closer?
When we see Judas for the humanity he had, I think the story becomes that much more heartbreaking and that much more personal. Which is why I think Judas deserves more attention than he gets. He has much to teach us. And much to warn us. And only when we see how easily we could be him, will his story not be told in vain.