Time to forgive Judas?

Mar 14, 2016 by

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On the morning Jesus was condemned to die, Judas took his own life. His death makes me sad, since suicide always leaves a devastating wound among family and friends. Such a violent end for Judas sobers me, since good intentions may have motivated his decision to turn Jesus into the authorities. This disciple was a flawed character, even a thief (John 12:6). But our Lord would have forgiven him.

J. Nelson Kraybill

Kraybill

Not long ago I rose before dawn and ventured alone from Jaffa Gate in Old Jerusalem down into Hinnom Valley where, by tradition, Judas died. Hinnom Valley skirts western and southern sides of Old Jerusalem, and in these depths some people of Israel once practiced human sacrifice (2 Chron. 28:1-3). In Jesus’ day the valley was a city dump and paupers’ cemetery called Gehenna.

Orange-red early light wrestled with fog and gloom as I descended into Gehenna. Today this valley is a conflict zone in the turf battle between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. I entered with trepidation, aware of both the current violence and the torment Judas must have suffered.

Judas received 30 pieces of silver for guiding authorities to Jesus, but money hardly was his motive. Judas and Jesus must have loved each other: Jesus made Judas one of the Twelve of his inner circle. Judas accompanied Jesus through years of ministry, and at Gethsemane greeted his Lord with a kiss — perhaps a sign of genuine affection.

Most revealing is that fact that when Judas “saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.” He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” Then, throwing down the silver in the temple, he went and hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5).

Evidently Judas did not want Jesus to die and did not crave reward money. Could it be that Judas was trying to force a final apocalyptic confrontation between Jesus and the Jerusalem authorities — an eschatological battle Judas was certain Jesus would win?

Other first-century Jews — notably Essenes who withdrew to the desert at Qumran — had such expectations of a cosmic battle between powers of light and forces of darkness. On the Mount of Olives, just before the ascension of Jesus, the 11 disciples asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Perhaps, like Judas, they too were eager to bring on their own concept of the kingdom of God.

That is a spiritual hazard to which followers of Jesus are vulnerable today when we try to manipulate the direction of the church or use raw power to control. Manipulation is evident in some Western theologies that actually celebrate conflict in the Middle East because of belief that approaching Armageddon will hasten the return of Christ.

Rather than joining the litany of condemnation against Judas, perhaps we should grieve his misguided motives. We might recognize a bit of Judas in our own hearts — the lure of greed and control that draws us from the way of the cross, away from patient love, away from trusting that Christ will build the church.

It is right to show compassion for people taken by suicide and to give tender support to survivors. Some individuals live in such pain, or act with such determination, that no amount of human caring can save their lives. Then we entrust them to the mercy of a loving creator, and walk alongside family and friends in the hard task of living toward hope in the wake of tragedy.

Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.


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