26 April 2013

The Heart of the Betrayer

Judas hurls the blood money at the priests' feet.
I've always been one to sympathize with unlovely characters.  Generally speaking, I find it entirely unsatisfying to demonize any man regardless of what he's done.  That is the underhanded tactic of children's fiction especially, but human emotions and motivations are far too messy and inextricable to paint anyone simply as a "bad guy."  Perhaps I possess a good propensity toward loving difficult people, or maybe I simply identify with the various struggles of depraved and sinful people.  Or maybe this is just the English Major in me coming out to rage against modern literary tendencies.  Regardless, as I was studying Matthew and John's gospels on Good Friday, I found myself especially considering Judas and his role in the events leading up to Jesus' death.  Far too often we portray Judas as a dastardly villain, but that is a far too black-and-white synopsis for reality, a fact which got me thinking a little more deeply about his motivations.

In the past, I've been involved in a number of conversations about whether or not Judas truly repented after recognizing his complicit role in the murder of Jesus - the implied question being, "Will he be in heaven?"  The uncertainty stems from the fact that when, in the text of Matthew 27, Judas saw that Jesus was condemned to death, he "changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, 'I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.'"  In other words, the text proves that he repented, right?  He changed his mind, so even though he committed suicide, he knew what he'd done was wrong and that's what mattered, right?

The inevitable conclusion is far less optimistic, however.  Although Judas' actions clearly display his sense of guilt, his heart was led away from God instead of to Him.  Conviction and guilt are two different things: one produces genuine change, the other only produces more of the same.  Guilt, while emotionally powerful, is only self-replicating and inconclusive.  In other words, I can feel sorry for something bad I did, but still not take any steps to make it right.  Although suicide isn't an "unpardonable sin," it certainly isn't indicative of trust in God's sovereignty, and in Judas' case, it's evidence of his unwillingness to acknowledge his need to repent and return to Christ.

That being said, I had never really pondered Judas' story the way I did this Easter.  Reading through the various crucifixion accounts again roused a couple of new speculations.

The first thing I found myself wondering was whether Judas ever intended for Jesus to be put to death.  Granted, that was the sentence under Jewish law for heretics, but Judas' change of heart (if it can be called that) in verse 3 isn't tied to any kind of enlightenment per se: it's concurrent with the fact that Jesus has been condemned to death.  Perhaps Judas thought that the priests and elders wouldn't be able to trump up enough charges to sell the Romans on execution and would settle merely to publicly humiliate Jesus and strip Him of His right to preach in the synagogue.  Additionally, Judas' motivation wasn't about condemning Jesus: he simply wanted the reward money.  However, once he realized that an innocent man was about to be executed and the full gravity of what he'd done hit him, the blinders which his sin had placed over his eyes were immediately removed and he saw his fault and the consequences joined.

The second thing I pondered was the sheer weight of the condemnation Judas experienced.  His guilty plea to the priests and elders comes out of a sense of absolute desperation: he had forsaken Jesus because he clearly had no faith in Him as the Messiah.  In fact, Judas' character has been questionable throughout his journey with Christ (John 12.1-8; Luke 22.3).  However, at this point, he finds himself at a personal all-time low, being responsible for the pending murder of Jesus.  This is a significantly greater offense than the petty lying and thievery with which he was better acquainted.  It seems to me that, in going back to the high priests, Judas was seeking some kind of restoration, albeit on his own terms: confessing his sin to them, according to Jewish law, should have resulted in a sacrifice, penitence, perhaps righteous punishment.  However, the response the religious leaders offer him in the text is anything but sympathetic - anything but reminiscent of their priestly responsibility for the sins of the people: "What is [your crime, your guilt] to us?" they say (v.4).  "See to it yourself."  To acknowledge his culpability would be to legitimize their own.  They were co-conspirators in the act, and their pride and reputations weren't worth trading for one sinner's consolation.

I can't imagine the sense of entrapment Judas must have felt.  Because he had placed himself in this situation, his sense of helplessness must have been absolutely devastating.  He had severed ties with Jesus, and now, turning to the religious authority he'd known for his entire life, he found himself face to face with a pride as cold and remorseless as his own.  There could be no comfort found even in the empty ritual of atonement.  He was guilty by his own admission, guilty in the eyes of the other disciples, guilty in the eyes of the priests, and guilty in the eyes of Jesus.  Judas' response, however, reveals the ultimate condition of his heart.  He'd heard Jesus preach repeatedly about forgiveness, reconciliation, and humility.  He'd sampled the character of our Savior for three years.  And yet, whether it was pride or doubt or fear which stayed him, he couldn't choose to rectify the situation. Instead of returning to Jesus, Judas escaped his despair through the only thing he could imagine: suicide.

Maybe you've never considered the story in that light.  Maybe you have.  But the benefit of seeing Judas as a real human being instead of a recalcitrant villain is that we can begin to understand more clearly the way sin takes root in ordinary, fallible people.  In that regard, maybe my sympathy for the unloveable is really empathy - empathy stemming from the sobering reality that we all are so dangerously alike to Judas.

The question, therefore, that I want to pose is this: what are we willing, on a daily basis, to trade Jesus for?

Reputation?  Respect?  Time for ourselves?  Comfort?

We trade Jesus away when we care more about what a person will think of us than his or her soul when a conversation about eternity falls into our laps.

We trade Jesus away when we think of prayer, time in the Word, and ministry as inconveniences to our insanely busy day/week/month/year/life.

We trade Jesus for financial security or comfort when we sacrifice tithing to meet the bills, or choose to buy a new TV instead of investing that little bit extra into something profitable for His Kingdom.

We trade our Savior for what we expect to make us happy, in the same way Judas did.

The problem, therefore, lies in the fact that we don't value Christ enough to begin with.  If we did, then absolute satisfaction would negate anything temptation could dangle before our noses.  Instead, we allow wealth, pleasure, and media to crowd our hearts and push Jesus out of the frame.  Personally, I want to esteem my Savior the treasure in the field, worth every penny of my life savings and more (Matt 13.44).  I want to hate the sin within me with such a passion that I no longer crave fellowship with darkness and instead only know pursuit of the light.  But you and I are both just like Judas: we compromise a little here, a little there, and ultimately find ourselves trading spiritual integrity for sinful pebbles.

The good news is that we serve a risen and merciful Savior, who welcomes with open arms all of His prodigal children.  His mercy is sufficient to cover all of our sins.  Therefore, the choice with which we are presented is simply this: do we forsake our pursuit of the crumbs and choose instead to latch onto Christ with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?  Or, like Judas, do we allow our sense of guilt, pride, lust, greed, anger, etc. to pervade our thinking and trap us within cells of our own design?