The Messiness Of Betrayal – A Sermon On John 13:21-32 For Wednesday In Holy Week

Tissot's painting of the Last Supper
Last Supper by James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know what to make of or do with today’s gospel (John 13:21-32). It raises more questions for me than it offers answers. There are some things that don’t fit or make sense to me. It’s a messy story, betrayals always are. 

The simplest and easiest thing to do with this story would be to take it as history. That’s usually what we do with it. We read it as a report from a crime scene. Judas is the culprit, the traitor, the one who ruined it all. He’s the guilty one. Case closed. But I wonder if that approach might not be a betrayal of this story, Judas, and ourselves. I think we need to enter into the messiness and ambiguity of the story, and ask some unsettling and perhaps new questions. 

Did Judas really ruin everything? I don’t know but if there is no betrayal, a handing over of Jesus, there is no crucifixion or resurrection, no Easter Sunday. So was the betrayal a part of Jesus’ plan? I know that sounds a bit crazy but stick with me for a minute. Early in John’s account of the gospel Jesus says to the twelve, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is the devil.” ( John 6:71) He was speaking of Judas who even at this point is identified as the one who will betray him. Was Jesus just a bad picker of disciples or did he choose his betrayer? 

And how much say so did Judas have in all this? Did he choose this or was he chosen for this? Before they all sit down for the last supper and foot washing John says, “The devil had already put it in the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray [Jesus]” (John 13:2). And after the foot washing Jesus knows who will betray him and that the betrayal “is to fulfill the scripture” (John 13:18). Is Judas just a pawn for scriptural fulfillment? And finally, “Satan entered into [Judas]” when he receive the piece of bread from Jesus (John 13:27). Does Judas know he’s the one and is that who he wants to be and what he wants to do? 

John is emphatic that Jesus knows that a betrayal will happen and who the betrayer is (John 6:71-72; 13:11, 21). Is that a prediction? Does Jesus have some kind of special foreknowledge about the future? Is the betrayal a prearranged plan between Jesus and Judas? Jesus gives Judas the piece of bread, identifying or perhaps naming him as the betrayer, and then Jesus sends him into the night saying, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13:27). Is Jesus giving consent or resigning himself to the inevitable?

You and I know Judas to be the betrayer. For most of us that’s who he’s always been and always will be. Of the twelve, we see and know him as the bad or failed disciple. It may be obvious to us, but if he really is the bad apple of the bunch why isn’t it obvious to the other eleven? Why don’t they see what we see? 

When Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me” the other eleven disciples don’t immediately look at Judas and point the finger. They don’t name him as the betrayer. No one says, “It’s Judas, that sorry so and so. I never did like or trust him.” They don’t do any of that. Instead, they “looked at one another, uncertain of whom [Jesus] was speaking” (John 13:22), and the beloved disciple, at the urging of Peter, asks Jesus, “Lord, who is it?” 

That’s some of the messiness I see in this story. I’m not asking these questions in an attempt to reach a final answer and resolve all ambiguity. I want the questions to open and enlarge our thinking and invite us to be a bit more self-reflective on the betrayals in our own lives. I want us to engage the messiness for ourselves. 

Here’s what that messiness brings up for me:

  • I don’t think Jesus had some kind of supernatural foreknowledge about the future. That’s another variation on Jesus as the Magical Other that I talked about yesterday. And I don’t think he had a prearranged plan with Judas. I think he was insightful and recognized the natural consequences of his words and actions. He knows that when you cleanse the sacred temple of power, money, and control, and declare the human being to be the sacred temple of God, ruling authorities will rise up and resist. He knows that when you care for the poor, challenge injustice, welcome strangers, forgive the worst in people, the system will push back. It’s the same thing Gandhi, Dr. King, and Archbishop Romero knew and faced.

    And it makes me wonder in what ways you and I push back against Jesus. What about him and his teaching challenge us and make us uncomfortable? What are we most resistant to? The place of our resistance is also the place that can heal and enlarge our life. 
  • In some ways the betrayal had to be one of the twelve. They were Jesus’ closest friends. Every relationship in which there is any level of trust, vulnerability, or intimacy is a relationship subject to betrayal. Trust presupposes the capacity for betrayal. That’s the risk Jesus took with his disciples and the risk he takes with us.

    And it’s the risk I hope you and I will take in our relationships with one another. I want to live with depth and vulnerability. I want to entrust myself to others without reserve. And I hope you do to. If that’s what we want then we have to face our fear and whatever else it is that keeps us from trustfully investing in ourselves and others. What is that for you today? In what ways do you hold back and what would it take to deepen your relationships?
  • The disciples looked at one another, uncertain about whom Jesus was speaking. “Lord, who is it?” That they don’t know and ask that question opens the door to the possibility that it could be any one of them. Today a piece of bread is dipped in the dish and Judas will betray. Tomorrow a rooster will crow and Peter will deny. And the next day? “Lord, who is it? Is it me?”

    In what ways are you struggling to remain true to yourself? It’s so much easier to look at Judas instead of ourselves. But that is just another self-betrayal that denies us healing, wholeness, and a future. It’s an avoidance of our own life. What are our betrays of others and ourselves. And what if we saw our betrayals as a diagnosis naming a hurt place in our lives rather than a crime by which we are forever defined and known? Where do you hurt today? What need healing in your life?
  • I want to take seriously but not literally the devil, Satan, and the fulfillment of scriptures in this story. Think about a time in your life when you said or did something and then said, “I don’t know what came over me. That’s not like me.” Have you ever asked yourself, “What on earth possessed me to do that?” We say those things when we recognize that we were not ourselves and something possessed us – fear, anger, resentment, disillusionment or disappointment, painful wounds or memories, grief, jealousy – and when it does we usually betray another but not before we first betray ourselves. Judas betrayed himself before he ever betrayed Jesus.

    What is possessing you today, asking to be given attention and dealt with? Look at your betrayals of another. What was the self-betrayal that preceded that? In what ways are you turning away from yourself today? What’s gotten ahold of you and won’t let you go?

“And it was night.” That’s how the betrayal in today’s gospel ends. Judas “went out. And it was night.” That’s not describing what time it is. It’s descriptive of betrayal. Betrayal – whether of ourselves or another – is a darkness. And the further we go into the darkness the more difficult it is to turn back.

I wonder if that’s the difference between Judas and Peter. Peter was able to turn back from his denials but, for whatever reasons, Judas could not return to himself. That’s why I’ve asked all these questions, tried to enlarge our thinking about betrayals, and why I’ve asked us to look at and reflect on our self-betrayals and betrayals of others. It’s the start of our turning back, and isn’t that what Holy Week is about, returning to ourselves?

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