Sunday, August 28, 2016

Judas and me

Chaplain Mel O’Malley
Brooke Army Medical Center
March 13, 2016

“A New, Old Thing”

This week I have been thinking a lot about Judas. You may be thinking that Judas is kind of a strange person for me to be thinking a lot about. I can’t really remember when I first heard about him, probably some lesson in church school when I was very young. But I know, whenever it was, it wasn’t a good thing. I can’t recall one story where Judas comes out looking like a good disciple, or even a decent human being. When we hear the name Judas, we don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling, which is likely the reason that the name Judas was 11515th on a list of popular, or in this case, unpopular boy names from last year. There were only three reported babies named Judas.

It’s not surprising though, because none of us wants to be like Judas. When I was reflecting on Judas in the office here on Friday, I asked one of the other chaplains if he knew any stories where Judas was painted in a positive light. As we thought through passages, and even talked about our gospel from today where Judas is judging Mary for using her perfume on Jesus instead of giving it to the poor, he said, “You know, the Gospels were written down after the fact. It’s no wonder that Judas was painted so negatively. His whole person is seen through the lens of his final act.” He really has been made into a real Biblical villain, the betrayer, the one who helped to crucify Jesus, as if Jesus’ death was all his fault. We would much rather blame someone else, than see where we might be responsible.

A lot of effort has been made over the years to show just how different us good church going folk are from a guy like Judas. But, the problem with making Judas into the bad guy is that we push him so far away from us that it is hard to see how we are similar, the traits we share, how we, just like him, struggle to live and act and follow Jesus well. The more self-aware I become, the more compassion I have for Judas. I wonder how he got so lost. I am sure he didn’t start out intending to lose his way, or to betray his friend. One thing led to the next and before he realized it, he was a long way from the still waters, from paths of righteousness. I guess I have realized that what made Judas fragile and vulnerable to temptation, is exactly the same for me.

Our gospel today brings together a cast of characters who are all pretty familiar. Judas, Lazarus, Mary and Martha are all gathered together for dinner. When I read through the story this week, I realized in all the years that I have heard about the woman who uses her very expensive perfume to anoint Jesus, I never made the connection that this was Mary, as in the Mary from the story of Martha and Mary. I am sure you know it. The story where Martha is doing all the hard, tedious work of hosting a meal and Mary is sitting with Jesus, spending quality time with him. In the end, an annoyed Martha is chided for not simply being with Jesus, for missing out on the moment because of being so distracted by doing.

Of all the different derivations of this story about Mary and Martha, one theme seems to emerge. This is the idea that being “right” or even doing “right” is not always the most important thing. This is not an easy lesson for someone like me who LOVES being right. If my husband were here he would corroborate my confession. But here’s the issue. Being right forces one into the position of judge. And, this is part of the problem here for Judas. He has heard enough Biblical teaching to know, at least intellectually, that caring for the poor is God’s commandment. He knows that excess and waste is wrong. So, when he witnesses Mary’s act of love for Jesus, all he sees is the transaction- costly perfume used up in a matter of seconds on one person. On the surface, it is a waste. He watched Jesus feed a hungry multitude. He knows that Jesus’ heart is with those who are in need. So, he sees an opportunity to be right, or more pointedly, point out where someone else is wrong. He self appoints himself as judge, a position that we are reminded again and again, isn’t for us to occupy.

But let us not also fall into the trap off making Judas into the bad guy. First of all, I am not sure I can go a whole hour much less an entire day without inching my way into the judge’s seat. It is very difficult to stay out of judgment, which is probably why Jesus spends so much time teaching about its perils. Often, we slip into the judgment mode, and we don’t even realize it. We self appoint ourselves as the arbiter of right and wrong. Being right is about holding a position of power, which presupposes that those who are wrong are in a lesser place. People who have a constant need to be right often struggle with feelings of inadequacy and self worth. For instance, if I need to focus on where others are wrong so that I feel that I am ok, clearly, I am not ok. 

This is where grace comes in for a person like Judas. He isn’t ok. He doesn’t know how to be in a relationship with Jesus because he doesn’t know how to love himself. It’s so much easier to be right than stay in relationship because relationships bring so much hard stuff to the surface, our weakness and vulnerability, our deep need to be loved, our fears of rejection, our shame of being fully seen warts and all. Focusing on being right, and knowing better than, is a lot easier than dealing with all of that.

Jesus deftly turns Judas’ thinking upside-down. But not because Jesus didn’t care about the poor, or because he was suddenly fine with waste and excess, but because Jesus cares more about relationships than about being right. He is most interesting in loving and teaching us to love than harping on all the places where we are wrong. He was trying to help Judas see that there is more to this scene than being right. Mary gets that. She understands. She understood this when she took time to sit with Jesus and cultivate a relationship with him rather than worrying about hosting a lunch, and she understood this when she used up her most valuable possession in a matter of minutes to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet, to tenderly love him the best way she knew how.

Reflecting on this story makes me ask myself how I might be more like Mary than like Judas?” Both of them heard Jesus’ teachings, witnessed his miracles, lived in his presence and observed his radical ministry. Discipleship was demonstrated to both of them in the flesh. There were no secrets, nothing hidden. Yet, one was able to open her heart, to recognize the gift of relationship and the other was not.

It seems to me that we are constantly navigating this reality, whether to open up our hearts to love and the perils of relationships or to keep them closed off. Choosing risk over safety. It was certainly a risk for Mary to love and believe in a man who was headed for death, who would soon be hunted and whose friends would also be in danger because of their association with him. It is a risk to open up our hearts because we can’t selectively open them to just the good stuff. When we open up our hearts we also let in the hard stuff, too. It’s a counter-intuitive decision for many of us. And, it’s not easy.

But this morning, amidst our own struggles with choosing love, with admitting just how fragile, how vulnerable we are, we are also reminded that God is making a way for us. God’s voice rings out saying, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” And yet this new thing is not really new at all. It’s the same thing that God has been doing for us from the very beginning. Whether it’s making a way through the mighty sea or holding us close and teaching us to open our hearts again, God is with us, helping us find a way toward new life, a way toward resurrection.

In just a few days we will be reminded of Judas’ final act as a betrayer, we will remember with grief, his final act. We will acknowledge how fragile, how vulnerable any of us could be. But let us also remember Judas as a child of God, one who Jesus called to be his very own, one with whom Jesus broke bread. Let us bear this good news to the world, that the one who has come to save us all, the one who brings life out of death, is also the one who will go to the ends of the earth to find that one lost sheep. And when he finds it, lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.

May we let our hearts to be opened wide. May we walk in the light. May we allow ourselves be found. Amen.

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