(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) Acts 1:18-19
Does anyone else read the Bible and have moments where you go, “um what?” This little doozy is about the death of Judas is at the beginning of Acts. What jumps out to me is that it is in parenthesis, as if it is a side note, a bump in the road on the way to the beginning of the new church. There is a lot of conversation around the fact that one section of the Bible says that Judas hung himself (Matthew 27), while another section says he took the world’s worst fall. But that is not what has bothered me for all these years. There are many parts of the Bible that don’t completely line up, but the contradiction of the Judas story isn’t the sticking point for me. The story of Judas has haunted me for years for another reason: I have always thought Judas didn’t get a fair shake. I know it seems strange, but the story of Judas has been a stumbling block in my faith. Every Easter season I feel unease as I read the role that Judas plays in the Passion narrative. It wasn’t until recently that the entire story has taken on a new profound meaning.
I used to read the Judas story and wonder: did God need a fall guy? Judas died a horrible death wracked with guilt, and that doesn’t seem fair after spending so much time in service and at the feet of his Rabbi. He doesn’t get to hear the end of the story, nor does he get a chance to be forgiven by Christ in person. From the story of Peter, we know that Jesus was in the business of forgiving people, even when they made big mistakes in relation to him. But Judas never gets that moment of redemption and reconciliation. Why does this story haunt me so much? Well for me it has personal consequences.
As a youth I worried that I would make a mistake and God would cast me out of His good graces forever. Even when I wasn’t sure about this whole God thing, I was still sure I could mess it up. What if I ended up sinning and before I could get a chance to ask for forgiveness… I died. Don’t I sound like a fun kid to have in a Sunday school class? I have always analyzed story and meaning. From the lessons I learned in English and theater, I knew that there was always a story behind, and held within, the surface story. I wanted to know why the writers of scripture wanted us to know particular facts and told us some stories and not others. Again, can you imagine having me in a Sunday school class? I always wanted to know more.
When I analyzed the story of Judas, I began to believe that redemption was seemingly only possible for some. This definitely didn’t seem fair or in line with the heart of the God I thought I knew. For the story to play out as Christ shared it would, someone needed to betray him. Someone had to betray the beloved Rabbi. But Judas wasn’t the only one to let Christ down in those last couple of days. Peter denied him three times and ended up being the rock on which the church was built. Judas, on the other hand, makes one big mistake and is forever cursed. What does all of this mean? Was I reading the story correctly? Are there big mistakes that Christ would never forgive?
I re-read the story several times recently to prepare for a series of talks that I had the honor of giving, and I noticed something I had never tied together before. Peter is the one who asked Jesus how many times we are to forgive, and Jesus says 77 x 7. Peter knows that forgiveness is without limit. Peter, after denying Christ, may have remembered that Christ had explained to him the Kingdom economy of forgiveness: that forgiveness is without limits. Judas, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be able to forgive himself. Is that the lesson of Judas? Mathew tells us that he returned the coins and had a quick change of heart after his betrayal. He then ends it all, with as much brevity of explanation as there is in the above verse in Acts.
Is the real lesson of the Judas character about forgiving yourself and not giving up too soon? Peter trusted in Jesus’s forgiveness; Judas is remorseful but can’t forgive himself. I wonder how different our telling of the Easter story would be if Judas had waited it out and asked Christ to forgive him. I am able to hear a whole different lesson now as I read the story of Judas – it isn’t one about God not being able to forgive but about the power of not being able to forgive ourselves or have a hope for the future. This is a lesson I surely could use.