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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/13/2016

Since I’ve been the pastor here at Bethany, this is the fifth time this gospel lesson has come up. Looking back through things though, I found that the previous four times it appeared, I didn’t preach on it. Twice I chose one of the other lessons, one time I was gone someplace, the other time I don’t know what was going on, but I apparently didn’t preach. In any case, I’ve managed to avoid this text that tells the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive oil and then wiping them with her hair. Consciously or unconsciously I’ve avoided it, and I thought it was time to ask myself why.

Usually the story is interpreted as prefiguring events that will be recalled in the coming weeks. First there’s Maundy Thursday when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, the washing of feet normally being the most menial of tasks, assigned to the lowliest of servants. In addition to that, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with oil is seen as prefiguring Jesus being anointed for burial, Jesus’ death and burial obviously being something else that we will consider in the coming weeks. I don’t have a problem with either of those things, the foot washing connection or the anointing connection, so what’s my problem?

As I thought about it, I think my problem is Judas; Judas and the fact that I identify too closely with him in this story and you don’t have to know too much about the Bible to know that Judas is not really a character you want to identify closely with. He’s one of the Bible’s quintessential bad guys, the one who betrays Jesus into the hands of those who want to kill him. Nobody wants to be a Judas or be called a Judas.

In this story though, I identify with him, not the thief part, but the part where he questions the use of the oil, what he perceives as the wasting of the oil. I know, the text says that he didn’t really care about the poor and the fact that the oil could have been sold and the money used to help them, but I’m guilty of the same kind of self-righteous indignity, the same inclination to want to be the one who decides what constitutes a good expenditure of money and what constitutes a waste of money.

To a degree, I experienced this last fall with the decision to renovate in here and in the fellowship hall. Going into that meeting I wasn’t at all sure it was a good idea. I was glad there were people who raised points of opposition because I thought they needed to be raised. Ultimately I think going forward was a good decision, but there was a little Judas in me thinking that such a large expenditure would be wasteful, that there were other things that could be done with that kind of money.

Similarly, it bothers me when people come to me looking for assistance for one thing or another and they come into my office and while they’re there their expensive cell phone rings and the Judas in me thinks “You can’t pay your heating bill but you can afford a fancy phone and the plan that goes along with it.” There might well be very legitimate reasons that the individual needs that phone, but as I said, I like to self-righteously be the judge of what I perceive as the wastefulness of others. Anyway, I think I’ve avoided this text because I want to avoid Judas.

As a character, Judas does raise all kinds of questions. Without question, he is one of the Bible’s bad guys, but did Jesus come just to save good people? If Jesus came to save the lost, which is what we say, is there anyone more lost than Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus? Judas is often compared to Peter, Peter who denied Jesus three times. The difference is that Peter stayed around long enough to experience Easter and then, in encountering the risen Christ, he experienced Jesus’ grace and forgiveness. Judas on the other hand, experienced despair, despair to the point that he couldn’t live with himself, he couldn’t forgive himself or imagine God or anyone else forgiving him, so he went out and committed suicide; that’s the end of his story. Or is it?

Judas is clearly a tragic figure, but was he unforgiveable? Was he just a victim of God’s plan? That idea gets thrown around. Someone had to betray Jesus in order to get him to the cross and Judas was the poor sucker chosen to do it. If that’s the case he’s kind of a hero; he did it for us, so Jesus could save us. You could say he’s kind of like Jesus; he gave himself up, for us. You can see how this kind of speculation takes you down some tricky theological paths; tricky and ultimately not very fruitful. If Judas is just part of the plan it makes him a puppet in the hands of a not very nice God which would in turn make us all puppets in the hands of that God, so I really don’t want to go there.

The gospels don’t portray Judas as anything like heroic. He is portrayed as an agent of evil and as we consider him, I think that has to be the starting point. As I said, he is often compared to Peter, but in today’s story, the comparison is between him and Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. They represent two models of discipleship. Judas is an example of discipleship being about greed and what’s in it for me. Mary is an example of discipleship that is about honoring and worshiping Jesus. She does what little she can in response to the gift of grace and acceptance that Jesus offers, in response to the new life that Jesus offers.

Seen that way, Judas is not a sympathetic character. He represents misguided discipleship. But back to the question: was he unforgiveable? In despair he committed suicide, but does that put him out of the reach of God’s grace and forgiveness? He clearly felt bad about what he did; his reaction indicates that he knew he had committed an evil act in betraying Jesus. He didn’t take the money and go out and celebrate. To a degree, he was repentant.

Last week though, I listened to lecture by a prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian (live streamed on the computer) who said that part of repentance was opening our hearts to accept God’s mercy, in other words, to accept the fact that we can be forgiven. Judas didn’t do that; he saw no way out. He saw himself as unforgiveable. But again, back to the question: does that degree of despair make him unforgiveable in the eyes of God?

What the character of Judas does, is to raise yet another question. That question is, “Given the presence of evil, how will God deal with it.?” In the gospel accounts God is not the source of the evil that leads Judas to betray Jesus. Evil is simply a given without speculation about the cause of it. God however, works through the evil in order for his will to be done. Judas’ intentions were for evil, but by the grace of God, those intentions were ultimately harnessed for good as Jesus’ crucifixion paradoxically reveals God’s love for the world.

In some ways the character of Judas raises the same issue as the Joseph story in the Old Testament. In Sunday School everyone learns the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors but the rest of the story, as you may recall, is that he was sold by his brothers into slavery. So he ends up in Egypt, but because of his ability to interpret dreams he winds up second in command to Pharaoh and with his shrewd planning he saves Egypt from famine. Meanwhile, Joseph’s brothers, along with their father Jacob are starving back in their homeland, but hearing that there is food in Egypt, the brothers go there looking for assistance. There they encounter Joseph. He knows who they are, but they don’t recognize him until he finally reveals himself; then the brothers are afraid he will take vengeance on them for what they had done to him years ago. But instead, Joseph says, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

I want to imagine a similar conversation between Jesus and Judas. In the Apostles’ Creed we say that Jesus descended into Hell and as he did so I want to imagine this conversation with Judas: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” The business of God is to transform evil into good, to bring about new possibilities. God doesn’t cause the evil; it just is. What causes it doesn’t really matter in the end. What matters is what God does in the face of evil and the stories of our faith, especially the story of Jesus, tell us that God can work through the most profound evil, like the evil associated with Judas, and with that, to bring about new life.

It’s still a little disconcerting to run into a Bible text that causes you to want to identify with Judas. But my take on it is that there is still hope, even for Judas.

Pastor Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
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