Spy Wednesday is that stop during Holy Week when we look at Judas and his part in Jesus’ story. It’s easy to vilify Judas. He’s the one who betrayed Jesus. As we take each step during this Holy Week, if we are treating the entire Gospel message, we have to wrestle with betrayal.
After the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday (Mark 11.1-11), Jesus cursed a fig tree and visits the temple on Monday (Mark 11.12-19). On Tuesday, Jesus and the disciples see the dead fig tree and Jesus offers a number of lessons. By Mark 14, the chief priests and scribes make the decision to arrest Jesus. They knew what they wanted to do and what they thought would solve their problem. They figured that getting rid of Jesus would fix things.
This is Spy Wednesday. Mark 14.10 says, “Then Judas Iscariot… went off to the chief priests in order to betray Jesus to them.”
Judas wants to move things along. He is ready for Jesus to rise to the occasion and be the Messiah. He wants the kind of Messiah he imagines and understand, and he has misunderstood what Jesus meant by saving humanity.
Judas’ actions on Spy Wednesday typify our human understanding of the world in conflict with God’s understanding. Judas must have understood the political and economic implications of being a vassal to Rome. When he betrayed Jesus, it must have frustrated the other disciples.
In retrospect, they wondered how he could do this. He was one of them. They trusted him. In fact, they trusted him so much, they made him the treasurer. Of course, the Bible cleans up that trust and ascribes him with the love of money and a deceptive heart.
By leaving Mark and going to John 12, we find a clear picture of the way people remembered Judas. John, more than the other three gospels, cleaned up some of the story, adding clarifying comments along the way. In John 12, Mary anoints Jesus and Judas complains about the wasted perfume. His stated objection was that the money could have been used to help the poor. This would have fit with Jesus’ teachings and makes sense as an objection.
The Johannine community that delivered the fourth gospel does not want to leave Judas with a potential strong argument on his lips, so there is a parenthetical point of clarification. John 12.6, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”
Now, we do not know whether this accusation in John is objectively true. What we do know is that Judas is a common villain throughout history.
We tend to amend the way we remember things—good, bad, or otherwise. The folk hero John Henry was steel-driving-man, which meant he hammered the rails for trains. In classic folk song, John Henry raced a steam-powered hammer and won. He set 14’ of track to the machine’s 9’, and then, legend has it that John Henry died. The story is based in reality. There was a real African-American man in the nineteenth century who drove steel on the rail, but much of the legend comes from embellishments.
We are no different. All of us practice this kind of revisionist history in our own lives. The biggest lies we tell are the lies we tell ourselves. So, who was Judas? Only the Gospels and Acts mention him. Iscariot probably means “one from Kerioth.” Kerioth was a village in southern Judea. John refers to Judas as Simon’s son.
All sources agree that he betrayed Jesus. But we do not know his exact motivation. Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that the Jewish authorities offered him money. Matthew shows Judas repent, return the money, and commit suicide. Matthew has the authorities buy a field to bury Judas.
Whereas, Acts 1.18-20 offers a different, much more graphic version of events—Judas fell in the field he acquired and his guts burst open.
I do not want to sanctify Judas. I just want us to be honest with ourselves. It’s possible he had good motivation. It’s possible he was just trying to give Jesus a nudge, as if to say, “Go on. You’re the Messiah! I know you can do it. Go ahead and get started with saving the world.”
If Judas and Jesus had just talked about it, maybe he could have understood. Or, maybe they did talk about it. In Luke 18.31-33, Jesus spelled it out, and 18.34, it says, “They understood nothing.” We don’t know Judas’ motivation.
We need Judas, not because we need betrayal, but this complicated biblical figure tells a story. “Accounts of Judas are varied, inconsistent, and influenced by theological opinions of writers, the belief in the fulfillment of scripture, and the idea that God brings death to ungodly persons.”[i] The varying details and mists of time make an accurate assessment of Judas nearly impossible.
He’s part of the story. He’s part of our Holy Week. He’s part of this world. We have him as a reminder that sin always creeps in. We have him as a reminder that we try to control the world and fail. And, we have him to show us that God’s plan might not be our plan, but God’s plan is better. I couldn’t have thought of Easter. Could you? Neither could Judas.
We have Judas to show us what it’s like if we have ever tried to move God along. We say, “In God’s time,” but, then, just like Judas, we push things along. Based on the Gospel accounts of Judas, it seems like he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and he was ready for Jesus to start delivering on some messianic promises as he understood them.
This week will unfold. We will go through the final steps with Jesus. Tomorrow, we will remember Jesus’ last supper with his followers. On Friday, we will gather at noon and reflect on Jesus’ suffering. Even though we know Easter is coming, let us not get ahead of ourselves. Judas is part of our journey to Easter. When we allow him, he can teach us about ourselves.
Easter is coming. But, not, quite, yet.
[i] Edwin D. Freed, “Judas Iscariot,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 395.