“Course he isn’t safe, but he is good. He is not a tame lion.” These are the oft-quoted words with which C.S. Lewis describes Aslan, his Christ-figure from The Chronicles of Narnia. They are ‘oft-quoted’ because they hit at something profoundly true about Jesus. He is not safe. He doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions of holiness or justice. He is not tame. He cannot be twisted as to conform to our agendas, whatever they are and however well-meaning they are. No, Jesus is always a free agent — perhaps the only true free human person ever to walk the earth.
And for some of us, that can be hard to take.
And that leads us to the focus of today’s Gospel reading, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus.
The big question surrounding Judas’s betrayal is why? This isn’t just a new concern; one ancient pseudo-Gospel was so fascinated by this question that it created an elaborate backstory where the betrayal was all part of Jesus’ master plan. After all, it doesn’t exactly speak well to Jesus’ discernment that he chose such an unreliable figure to be a part of his inner circle. But the canonical tradition doesn’t allow us to let Jesus, or Judas, off the hook that easily. So, Why?
The most obvious answer is greed. This seems to be the most consistent through line about Judas’ character in the Gospels. He is upset at the waste of the expensive perfume, steals money from the common purse, and agrees to sell Jesus to the religious authorities for pieces of silver. And certainly, there is no doubt that greed has always been and will always be a powerful motivator, and a motivator that is antithetical to the way of Jesus:
“No one can serve two masters; … You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6.24)
It’s worth repeating: To love wealth is to despise Jesus. (No matter what the false evangelists of “prosperity” might tell you.)
But I think a fuller explanation is that he was simply disappointed in Jesus. Jesus wasn’t the Messiah Judas wanted. I say this because it seems that every step of the way, Judas distances himself from Jesus whenever Jesus doesn’t play the role expected of him.
Maybe there was something to Judas’s complaint against Mary’s extravagance, his own thieving aside. Maybe he wanted Jesus to start a revolution for the poor and downtrodden and couldn’t abide by a Messiah who would let his feet be bathed in perfume.
Or maybe he was a zealot and still wanted Jesus’ Messiahship to be political. Perhaps he rightly bristled at the oppression of Roman rule and the hypocrisy of their Judaean puppets. Perhaps he was rightly angered that some of those puppets were the men who controlled the Temple. Perhaps he wanted so badly for Israel to be restored and made to rights that he was willing to force the issue with Jesus. Everything is going according to plan — Jesus is welcomed as a king on Palm Sunday. But then he seems to step back. At supper the night Judas followed through on his betrayal, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Maybe the Messiah wasn’t supposed to allow himself to be bathed with expensive perfume, but he certainly wasn’t supposed to wash others’ feet, the lowliest of chores. An austere king is still, after all, a king.
Even Judas’ greed could be seen in this light. Maybe he followed Jesus to ensure a high place in Jesus’ new government, close enough to the new regime to enjoy the privileges of power. But that wasn’t the kind of Kingdom Jesus was talking about.
Jesus wasn’t the man Judas wanted him to be.
I think this is a more helpful reading of the story, because it makes Judas more recognizable. If we just say he did it for money, his betrayal becomes crass and easy to write off. But if there’s something deeper there, then he starts to look more like us. And that’s where I want him to be.
We all have agendas when it comes to Jesus. We all want Jesus to be something, to stand for something, to have a cause. (Specifically, our cause.) But if we approach Jesus this way, he will always disappoint us. Because he doesn’t care about our causes.
If we want him to be a mascot for our anti-poverty campaigns, he says to us “The poor you will always have with you.”
If we want Jesus to sign off on our trickle-down economic policies, he says to us “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
If we want him to throw away the old and usher in the new, he says to us “I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.”
If we want him to champion our ‘family values’, he says to us “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, … cannot be my disciple.”
If we want a national hero, he says to us “My kingdom is not of this world.”
If we want Jesus to champion our causes and concerns, he will always, always disappoint us. He is far, far more interesting than that. And we will always be tempted to betray him. Who do we love more? Our causes? Or Jesus?
The fact is, Jesus doesn’t want our social justice campaigns. He doesn’t want our free market economies. He doesn’t want our family values. He doesn’t want our political revolutions. He certainly doesn’t want our ridiculous and petty nationalisms — whether American, Russian, Greek, English, or any other nation under the sun — and far less our theocracies.
He doesn’t want any of these things.
What he wants is us.
Jesus is not safe. But he is good. Our God is not a tame God.
And so on this mid-point of Holy Week, let us take the time to examine our hearts. What are the agendas and opinions we are bringing to Jesus? How might our expectations and desires be distorting our vision of Jesus? Where might we be tempted to betray his way for our own?