These days I feel for Judas Iscariot, how he hated the powers that be, saw the iron fist and the chaos underneath government rule, how he thought Jesus the Messiah would issue a new age. Brian Zahnd in The Unvarnished Jesus notes, “Judas and the rest of the disciples were undeniably locked into a paradigm of a violent messiah. The Jewish understanding of Messiah’s vocation included rescuing Israel from foreign oppressors and eventually ruling over the Gentiles…so despite his message of loving enemies, turning the other cheek and forgoing violent resistance to evil, the disciples were convinced that Jesus would eventually resort to violence.” (101).
Movies and Tv have taught me how slick a gun pointed at the bad guy can be, how killing the criminal can bring peace to the neighborhood. I have longed for the Lord to ride down one of those golden beams, grab me, sling me across the back of his horse and take me away along with my family and church friends.
I’ve grown up and learned that Jesus most likely won’t be coming back with a vengeance any stronger than the words out of his mouth. He won’t be picking me up, tossing me into the sky to meet him in the clouds, at least I don’t think he will. There won’t be a charging horse.
His return has faded into mystery but I miss the old Jesus, riding the clouds to set the world straight.
I can relate to the impulse to betray a beloved friend to right a system built on bullying, and how knowing that was the right thing to do, and paying a dear price for exposing it, makes a person not at all sorry for the betrayal.
That was the year several friends dear to me wandered away. The man I betrayed used to listen so well I could hear myself talk. He never judged me, but I could hear myself, how unjust my words were, how full of the victim. When I broke his confidences about the bullying, he was done with me. I’m not convinced he ever kept mine, but still, he listened well. A few women I thought were friends for life–done. All I could do was bear the accusations that cut. I wept.
So I imagined what it might have been like to be Judas.
I hated Rome, hated how we couldn’t walk to town without seeing our neighbors hanging on wooden crosses. The Romans sent a clear message: “If you cross us we’ll do this to you.” My brother. My cousin. My best friend. Hung up. Their crosses sharpened into a dagger I carried at my hip. The Romans brought peace all right, with an iron fist and bands of fear. Sure they let us worship the one true God at our temple, but our priests kissed Roman ass, grateful we could celebrate our festivals, sing Psalms and worship God. Even so we cried out to the Lord to deliver us.
“Lift up your heads O gates. And be lifted up you ancient doors!” I shouted as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.You could feel the joy roar through the crowd. We shouted Hosanna. We threw our coats on the ground to make a way for him. “Sing aloud oh daughter of Zion; shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart O daughter of Jerusalem” (Zeph 3: 14). We were living the prophet’s words, but Jesus’ eyes were sad. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “Oh Jerusalem, if I could gather you under my wings like a hen gathers’ her chicks,” he wept.
But Jesus you will gather the city under your wings. I could see them–myriads up myriads of Heaven’s angels descending and knocking the Romans dead like the firstborn killed in Eygpt.
I followed his words about giving your cloak and offering cups of water. Every so often I filched some coins from our money bag to give to a beggar, whose eyes caught mine–the desperation, the fear. I was shocked when Jesus snapped at me because Mary rubbed a year’s worth of wages on his feet when I said that nard could have been sold, the money given to the poor.
“The poor you’ll always have with you, but you won’t have me,” he said, his eyes flashing, his words cutting like the two edged sword buried in Eglon’s belly.
I wondered why we’d always have the poor with us. Jesus could have turned stones into bread. Hell, he fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. I don’t know why he didn’t feed the homeless with that kind of power.
“Mary is anointing me for burial, leave her alone.” My eyes stung. Burial? That wasn’t going to happen if I could help it. How in God’s green earth could the son of God die?
If I force his hand, maybe he will call the angels to overthrow the Romans and the tax collectors and the priests who were selling us out, keeping the peace, a false peace.
At Passover, he took my feet in his hands and washed them. I was the first, so the water was clean. His hands soothed the soreness in my arches. He rubbed away the stains from horse manure. I said nothing, but I hated my commander on his knees like I was a god and he was worshipping me. It should have been his feet we washed. His feet that would step down on the mount of Olives splitting it in two. Finally the river would course from it. And trees would sprout for healing the nations. The Romans would be dead.
“Tonight someone is going to betray me,” he said, quietly with those same sad eyes that looked over Jerusalem, longing to be a hen gathering chicks. Peter asked John who asked Jesus their whispers like a ripple of water on a lake still as glass.
My face grew hot. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. He handed me a chunk of bread.
“Are you talking about me?” I asked.
“So you said,” he replied.
His eyes. I saw it all in his eyes and heard the words: “For it is not an enemy who taunts me–then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me–then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng. Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive; for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart” (Ps. 55:12 – 15, ESV).
I walked out to the smell of roasting lamb.
In the garden, a pillar of fire mopped his glistening and bloody forehead. My heart split like I’d hoped the mountain would split when I heard him wail the old words from David: “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me and horror overwhelms me.”
When we came around the corner, he stood and walked toward us, the Lion of the tribe of Judah. “Who are you looking for?” His eyes were rain washed, his voice a king’s. I loved him then.
“Jesus of Nazareth.” The captain of the guard choked out the name.
“I am he.” His voice was like a broad cedar plank swung at us, knocking us to the ground, knocking out the wind. We picked ourselves up, dazed. Maybe now the revolution would start.
“Who are you looking for?” he asked again. He looked right at me, the sadness in his eyes, like the pit, bottomless. I felt my heart split like I hoped the mountain would split.
“Jesus of Nazareth.”
“I told you I am he. Let my friends go.”
When Peter sliced off Malchus’ ear I sighed with relief, The revolt had begun. Peter understood what we were about. But he would not look at me.
“Put that sword away.” Jesus repaired Malchus’ ear. “My father gave me this cup.”
We wrapped a rope around his wrists, knotted them tight. And lead him toward the high priest’s house. He was meek as a lamb lead into the temple. No Jesus, no, no, no. Don’t let them. Now is the time to call your angels.
My heart split like the Mount of Olives. That’s not how it was supposed to be. Not how it was supposed to be. No, he was supposed to speak to the dry bones crumpled in Gehenna and make them rise to fight the Romans. He was supposed to make Jerusalem new and dry the tears of every one of us who watched our loved one nailed to a cross. Lambs and wolves were supposed to lie down in the same pasture.
Thirty shekels felt like three hundred. I ran to the priests, screamed, “Here’s your blood money.” They would not take it. Jesus said if there was a treasure in a field, a man would pay everything to buy that field. I bought the field.
Blood ran down his arms, ran down his face. He groaned, pushing himself up, so he could breathe. His back was raw. I could see his ribs under the flayed skin and muscles. Flies landed on his wounds.
“My God why have you forsaken me?”
“Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
His voice. His voice sounded like a trumpet blast. The women wailed.
I could not stop hearing: “Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive; for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart.” I clamped my hands to my ears. But still I heard, “Let them go down to Sheol alive. To Sheol let them go.”
The son of God, my King was dead. The Mount of Olives over looked the city round as a woman’s bottom, but not split, not gushing water for healing.
“My heart is in anguish within me,” I wailed. I betrayed God. “Let them go down to Sheol alive.”
And so I did.
But he didn’t let me be. I lay crumpled on a stone floor, wishing I could cry my guts out, but the shame was too great. Grief like terror wailed through me. I’d betrayed my friend. We’d taken sweet fellowship together. I heard a sweet song I’d learned as a boy, echoing on black, shale walls, oozing with oil. It rang like a bell. I could not see the sky, the walls were so deep. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol you are there!” (Ps 139: 7 -8). I shivered.
His hand touched my shoulder, warm as those hands that washed my feet. “Come along,” he said, the gentleness in his words, brought blessed tears. I sobbed. And I sobbed. His fingers rested light as a sparrow’s on my shoulder. I looked up, saw a long staircase, and myriads upon myriads of people climbing out, taking two, three steps at a time. I smelled the ointment Mary poured over him. All I had to do was look into those eyes full of life and joy. His thumb wiped the tears from my eyes. I took his hand. I felt the wound.
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