The Absolute Paternal Care
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse. – T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker”, partial
There are many things about Maundy Thursday that could move a person to write. The institution of the Eucharist. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, while his Disciples, instructed to wait and watch, fall asleep. St. Peter cutting off the centurion’s slave’s ear then being healed by Jesus, even at this extremity showing Jesus’ compassion and willingness to heal. Jesus’ attempt to shame the soldiers by remarking that he had been in the Temple everyday, and could have been arrested at any time, showing this lonely nighttime arrest to be what it is: an act of cowardice by all those involved, showing just how afraid of Jesus and his following all the powers really are. Of all this so much and more could be written.
Instead, I keep thinking about Judas Iscariot and betrayal. In medieval paintings and sculptures, Judas is portrayed as occupying the lowest circle of hell, alone, tormented for all eternity for his crime. In the Renaissance, he was too often portrayed as the stand-in for all the Jewish people who were said to bear the burden of blame for Christ’s death. He was painted as a grubbing, greedy, hook-nosed fiend; even in Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, he is shown protesting his innocence to Jesus while clutching his bag of silver coins in his right hand. On the other hand, some careful thought shows that Judas was little more than (a) a convenient literary device, his alleged criminality, particularly in St. John’s Gospel, little more than that particular book’s anti-Semitism made whole in a single individual; and (b) perhaps, historically, a perfectly understandable reaction to what we have already explored as Jesus’s many failures as Messiah.
The question, then, is who is betrayed and who is the betrayer? Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding a wave of hope and joy that here was the Messiah come to redeem the people of God, to restore the Temple and the fortunes of Jerusalem by becoming the rightful King. No doubt his Disciples understood both his mission and his ministry in this light. The people in Jerusalem certainly did. Yet, he had done none of those things. In fact, his actions seemed to betray the very people who had invested so much hope and faith in him. He had made participation in required Temple sacrifices harder by driving out the sellers of coins and animals. He spent as much time with the powerful as with the powerless, leaving the people wondering where his loyalties lay. He even claimed he would destroy the Temple, which is the exact opposite of the prophecies which spoke of restoring the holiness of the Temple. It was the Temple that was the center of cultic activity for the people, and rather than make it holy again, Jesus insisted he would tear it down and rebuild it in three days, as if any of that made any sense.
That the people had trusted Jesus, only to have their hopes and belief dashed seems clear enough. Judas, perhaps, felt a similar sense of betrayal in this man he had followed because he had promised so much, said so much, done so much. Most likely, he turned to the leaders of the Temple who, offering a bounty on Jesus, would repay him well because his arrest and death would show the world that, for all his words and deeds, Jesus was little more than another pretend-Messiah, and like the rest of them would die a horrible death and be forgotten. Just punishment for one who had betrayed the faith and hope and love of so many.
The whole Passion begins with betrayal. Betrayal runs throughout, from the sense of betrayal by the people and particularly Judas Iscariot; Judas actual betrayal to the authorities in the Garden; Jesus’ discovery that his Father had abandoned him to death on a cross is perhaps the most unlikely betrayal. Jesus trusted his Father would make of this moment something beautiful, yet it was nothing but agony and blood, and now the exit of any comfort, any sense that the Father would turn all this around. That, however, comes later (even though we know the story, as I keep saying). For now, for all that Judas has been scorned and anathematized, damned by later generations in writings and art as perhaps the most horrid villain of all time, it might be well to consider a couple things. First, the death of Jesus was in the works from the moment he was baptized in the Jordan. John the Baptizer’s fate could not be ignored, especially since Jesus had a close connection to him. Here in Jerusalem, so close to so many seats of power, both Jesus himself and his followers had to attract the wrong kind of attention. Finally, it is important that we, who know the whole story so well, remember that Jesus’s death is necessary. Therefore his betrayal is necessary.
As I sit in the empty upper room, Jesus and his Disciples gone now to the Garden on the Mt. of Olives, I think about betrayal. Few things are more upsetting. Few moments in a person’s life seem to make the whole world a jumble of nonsense when once things seemed so clear. And how many of us are willing to admit we have betrayed a trust at some point in our lives? It could be a pretty typical thing, like a teenager lying to a parent about one’s whereabouts and activities. It might be a married person’s innocent flirtation suddenly sliding to something that crosses a line. Perhaps a trust was offered by friends, only to be broken in some manner, leaving those friends wary of you in the future. All this and so much more destroy the bonds of interpersonal faith and love, breaking community and the ties that bind us to one another in a necessary interchange that keeps humanity from sliding to oblivion.
And I will be the first person to stand and say, “Yes”, should the question be asked if anyone has done something to betray the trust of another. Of all the things in my life, nothing else makes me feel shame like this. It would be better if I lied, perhaps, or at least remained silent about it. All the same, I cannot do what must be done if I do not say it out loud, own and accept this part of my life. Rather than kneel at the foot of the cross, I deserve to be held up to ridicule, scorn, and punishment. Perhaps just admitting this truth is enough to make a reader prefer not to accept my words any more. After all, who can trust the word of one who has torn apart the covenant that binds us together?
I will not defend my actions, or turn them around and demand others who would vilify me declare their innocence in these matters. All I will say, all I can say, is betrayal is as old as Adam, as old as Cain, and yet God, our God, the one fully present in the man from Nazareth who, even now, is walking the first steps to his final destination, has never allowed betrayal to steer him from the desire to remain in relationship, even binding covenant, with humanity. When we speak of Divine prodigal love, this is its extremity: Not allowing even human betrayal, forgetfulness, and apathy turn God away from us.
Why is this? How can this be? Because in the Passion story, we face multiple betrayals. From the people to Jesus to the One Jesus called Father – betrayal is the necessary part of the story. None of it, from Jesus’s arrest to his death and his subsequent resurrection, would happen or have any meaning without those first broken promises and acts steeped in anger that are leading Jesus to trials, sleepless night, torture, and death. Betrayal is the heart of human sin. And we are now beginning the path to it being taken up into the Divine Life and made redemptive and holy in and through the resurrection that is to come.
At least, I hope it is.