Judas had been with Jesus from the beginning, from the Galilee days when every town they visited held new fresh wonders of what Jesus might do for the people of Israel. Judas had seen how Jesus would love the downtrodden, would give food to huge mass of hungry people, and how he could hold a crowd spellbound with his teaching on the power of the law and the spirit of the prophets. To follow Jesus was to be a part of something great, Judas knew that. Everybody knew that!
Judas did not know where all this was going—no one did! Jesus did not want to talk about that. In fact, when Jesus spoke where this movement was going, he always spoke in riddles about some kind of new Kingdom: God’s kingdom. But when people pushed him to say more about what this kingdom was going to be—and people often asked—he would tell these little stories about mustard seeds and banquets, and lost sheep and wheat and coins. Judas wondered about where all this was going—everybody wondered that!
But that all started to change when Jesus declared to the disciples that they were going to Jerusalem. They were going to the capital city for the festival of Passover. In the days leading up to Passover, all the faithful believers in Israel would be traveling to Jerusalem as required by the Law, but it was not just the people of Israel traveling to Jerusalem in the days before the Passover. The Roman army was also headed to Jerusalem for Passover, but they were not coming to celebrate. You see the people of Israel were subjects of the Roman Empire, slaves really. With no rights of their own and no king of their own, there was always a cadre of Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem, as a reminder that they were a beaten people, a conquered people. And that is how the empire liked it. The empire liked that the people of Israel felt broken and weak because people who feel broken and weak do not start uprisings.
But, the Romans knew that every year there was this festival when people from all over Israel packed into the capital, multiplying its population many times over to remember the Passover. It was an old story about the God of Israel smashing an empire and the people being set free. The Romans did not believe a word of that old story, but the people of Israel did. They believed that someday their God was going to swoop down and break the power of the empire and set them free. Well, the Romans had many gods and none of them ever interfered with running the affairs of an empire in an orderly fashion. But these Israelites believed there was one and only one God and it was theirs, and this Passover festival put dangerous ideas in their heads. If there ever was going to be an uprising, it would be during the Passover.
And so, the Romans did what they do best, they showed off their power. They hugely multiplied the presence of the army in Jerusalem, making what had felt like an ordinary standing guard instead resemble the conquering army the empire could bring any time it wanted. In the days before the Passover, the Romans paraded an army into the city, marching in lock step formation in glorious red and gold, metal and leather, chariot and sword, discipline and violence, straight through the middle of the city where everyone could see it. It was all designed to say—do not do anything stupid. The Passover festival in Jerusalem: there was danger in the air and everybody knew it.
Into that fraught and dangerous city comes Jesus and the disciples, and Judas came with them. Judas must have wondered what was going to happen there in Jerusalem; they all must have wondered. It was a long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they had walked all the way along with many other pilgrims. When they reached the outskirts of Jerusalem, Jesus pulled the disciples off the main road and sent them up to the Mount of Olives nearby. Jesus told his disciples to go get him a colt from the town and bring it back to the top of the Mount of Olives.
Now, Jesus had always known his scriptures backward and forward, Judas knew that—everyone knew that. But the spectacle that came next was as if Jesus was acting out something straight out of the prophets. The prophet Zecharaiah wrote centuries before that someday there would appear a new king, a king to restore Israel to its glory. When the king appeared, he would lead a final battle between Israel and the foreigners, and—against all odds—Israel would triumph. And when that king arrived, he would come to Jerusalem riding a colt down from the Mount of Olives. Zechariah 14:4. Judas knew that story, all the Israelites knew that story!
Jesus told his disciples to go get him a colt, so he could come to Jerusalem riding a colt down the side of the Mount of Olives. And that is just what he did. The Roman soldiers could never have understood the religious significance of what Jesus was doing. But the soldiers could not help but understand how the crowds reacted when they saw Jesus coming. The great crowds who were gathering to remember when God smashed an empire and set them free saw Jesus coming to Jerusalem riding a colt down the side of the Mount of Olives, and they went wild.
They all flung their clothes on the ground before him so that the hooves of his steed would not touch the ground. And with the strength only a mob can muster they pulled down the palm trees that lined the road so they could tear off their branches and waved them like victory banners and they all started shouting—Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is the coming of our kingdom! And with Jesus at the head, this shouting mob marched straight through the middle of the city, a tidal wave of humanity surging past the Roman soldiers who—for the first time anyone could remember—looked rather small, their power all show. And Judas went with them.
It was a dangerous and provocative thing to do. Judas knew it, everybody knew it! There were just a few days left before the Passover. How Jesus behaved in those days, that would show Judas what Jesus was intending to do. It would show everyone what Jesus was planning to do. The very next morning, Jesus took his disciples to the center of the city, to the largest marketplace in Jerusalem sitting in the temple courtyard, and Judas went with them. As soon as Jesus arrived, he started screaming and accusing everyone in sight of being robbers. He flipped over their tables and drove everyone out. None of the merchants dared stop him because the mob was on Jesus’ side. Judas could see that—everybody could see that! All the while, the Roman army looked on, not interfering, but not leaving the city either.
The next day, Jesus brought the disciples to the temple again, and Judas went with them. And Jesus got into a heated argument with the chief priests, embarrassing them at every turn. Then Jesus told one of his little stories again. It was supposedly about a vineyard being run by crooks. In a not so subtle way, Jesus told the priests that a change was coming, and they were all going to wind up dead. There was nothing the priests could do about it, because the mob was on Jesus’ side, Judas could see that. Everybody could see that! All the while, the Roman army looked on, not interfering, but not leaving the city either.
That night, with just two days before the Passover, Jesus brought his disciples to a dinner, and Judas went with them. And there in a packed house with everyone talking about the events of the day, in walked a woman carrying a pure white jar filled with oil. And she walked up to Jesus, and poured the oil over Jesus’ head. She anointed him. Anointed him like mad King Saul had been anointed when he became the king. Anointed him like the great warrior king David had been anointed when he became the king. That is what anointing means, it means you are the king. Judas knew that, everybody knew that! It could not have been clearer had she walked into the room carrying a crown and placed it on Jesus head.
Judas understood now where this was all going. All of it, the talk about how a new kingdom was coming and that the kingdom was like a little mustard seed that grows huge, and like a banquet where the lowly live large and the powerful are cast into the darkness wailing. Judas understood why Jesus was agitating the crowds, and intimidating the merchants by overturning their tables, and threatening the priests and declaring their authority void. When Judas saw the oil running down Jesus’ face, he finally understood where this was going: at Passover, Jesus was going to declare himself the king and lead an uprising of the people against the Romans. And the Romans were going to crush them. The Romans were going to crush them! Judas knew that, why could everybody not see that? They were going to follow Jesus, and it was going to get them all killed.
Because even if they did manage to drive off the Roman guard in Jerusalem that day, that was just one army, and Rome had legions. They had conquered the whole world, and one little city with a mob of untrained peasants and farmers was going to go up against Rome and then hold them off forever? What would happen if Jesus was allowed to go through with his plan to become the king is that Rome would make an example of Jerusalem. If Judas allowed Jesus to go through with his plan, what had begun in miracles and healing and feeding the sick would end in blood and fire and devastation.
So Judas resolved to put a stop to this madness, to see to it personally that Jesus’ uprising never occurred. Judas walked out of the dinner and left his life behind. He left behind any chance of returning home to Galilee where Jesus was so beloved and where the name of Judas would become a curse. Judas walked away from the only friends he had known for three years. He walked away from the man he had believed in, but believed in no longer. He walked down the side of the Mount of Olives, to the temple. He found the priests, and Judas took the fate of the city in his hands. He took the fate of his people in his hands; he did one great and terrible thing that would define his life. He offered to betray Jesus to them, so that they could arrest him when he was alone, away from the crowds who adored him.
Judas honestly believed he was doing the right thing, but he was wrong. Jesus had never been planning on being the king. Jesus had never been planning on leading an insurrection at all. But what had he been planning then? Whenever he had talked about it, he spoke vaguely of death and resurrection. Judas had not understood what Jesus really all about. Judas honestly believed he was doing the right thing, but he was wrong.
The most basic interpretation in Christian tradition of why Judas betrayed Jesus is that he did it for the money. For thirty pieces of silver, a month’s worth of minimum wage, a few hundred bucks to betray the son of God. I do not believe that. There is nothing for us to learn from such a figure; there is no reason to fear being haunted by such a sad and pathetic shade.
But Judas, who honestly believes he is doing what is right? He is troubling to me because I do things because I think I am right about it. But what if I am wrong in the way I live my life? What if when I come to a great crossroads of life, I do what I honestly think is right and walk confidently down the road of perdition following in Judas’ footsteps?
That is a man to be feared. That is a man to be remembered by Christians, not as a villain. But as a man who will enter into the communion of saints through the side door. And I do count Judas as among the communion of saints because I believe in the grace of God. I really do believe that I stand in God’s good graces because God’s love and forgiveness are freely given without me needing to earn God’s love. Indeed, God’s love is so precious there is no way to earn it. And if I really believe I am saved by the grace of God alone, then Judas is my brother. The side door by which Judas entered into paradise will be the door I enter through as well. Perhaps the door though which all of us, save Jesus himself, must walk. A side door into paradise wide enough and open enough to fit into heaven the resolve of Judas to betray the Son of God.