I’d like to show you the most famous painting in the world, The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci. The only possible exception is another of Leonardo’s works, the Mona Lisa. Frozen in time before you is the precise moment when Jesus said, “One of you will betray Me.” Here are the expressions and gestures of the disciples: shock, fear, disbelief, anger, sadness.
Of course, our eyes are drawn to Judas, the second person on Jesus’ right, sitting next to young beardless John, who by the way is not Mary Magdalene. That silliness from The Da Vinci Code has been debunked by all serious art critics. As one of them asked, “If that’s not John up there, who can explain why Leonardo left out one of the 12 disciples?” Next to John, there is Judas, as Jesus is about to say, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me.”
So here is Judas reaching. Notice he is using his left hand. Leonardo was a southpaw and knew of the prejudice against left-handed people. In fact, in Latin, the word for left is sinistra or sinister. So simply by using his left hand, Judas is now the suspect. Meanwhile, what is Judas clutching with his right hand? It is a money bag, a purse, a reference to the 30 pieces of silver he would earn for betraying Jesus.
Then one more tiny detail: In all the commotion with the use of his hand, notice Judas has knocked over the salt on the table. Can you see that? Still today there’s this superstition that spilling salt leads to bad outcomes. Also, notice Judas’ face is shadowed and darker than the faces of other disciples. Let’s now hear this scene described in Matthew 26:20-25:
“When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, He said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray Me.’ They were very sad and began to say to Him one after the other, ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?’ Jesus replied, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about Him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.’ Then Judas, the one who would betray Him, said, ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?’ Jesus answered, ‘You have said so.'”
Judas in the Mirror
I don’t know about you, but my Judas has evolved with time. When I was a young boy, I thought Judas was the personification of evil. I used to scare my little brother in the dark by saying, “Judas is gonna get you! Judas is under your bed.” Judas was the boogie man.
When I was in college, Judas got a makeover: “Poor misunderstood Judas.” He was a tragic, well-meaning figure who got his wires crossed somewhere and lost his way. Poor, unfortunate Judas.
However, neither the first nor the second image of Judas fits with Scripture. If Judas were this evil werewolf howling at the moon—Hitler in robe and sandals—why did Jesus’ announcement that one of them would betray Him catch everyone off guard? They’d have said, “Well, of course, Lord we knew it was just a matter of time. Judas, right?” Instead they were stunned and said, “Lord, could it be me?”
The monster myth gets further deconstructed when you think practically. What kind of person gets elected treasurer of most organizations? Think of the organizations you’re involved in. Who’s the treasurer? Maybe you should keep a closer eye on that person. Seriously, don’t we instinctively choose the most rock-ribbed, reliable person we know to be entrusted to oversee funds? When it came time to divvy up the jobs among the 12, they said, “Obviously, Judas, you were born to handle the purse strings.”
On the other hand, Judas was not a simple, pathetic victim. When Jesus called him “the son of perdition,” He was saying Judas was fully responsible and accountable for his actions. He betrayed an intimate Friend in the most hurtful way imaginable—with a hug and a kiss.
Think for a moment how well Judas knew Jesus, how close Jesus let Judas in to know Him. Judas knew what made Jesus laugh. He’d seen that spot of perspiration on Jesus’ robe grow as they hiked through the hills around Galilee. There were nights the two of them fell asleep while in conversation around the campfire.
One of history’s most baffling questions is: How could someone who knew Jesus so well hand Him over to His enemies? That question should send a chill through you and me this morning. An outsider never could have done that kind of damage to Jesus. Only an insider (such as one of us) who knew Jesus and followed Him could have hurt Him so deeply. I believe in the end Judas turned out to be very human—not all that different from us. I have mornings when I see Judas in my mirror.
A Craving for Control
One word, I believe, unlocks the enigma of Judas. That word is control. The one thing you and I crave in life is control.
The key to winning baseball games is control. I love the story Braves President John Schuerholz tells about the great pitcher Greg Maddux. One day Maddux was facing the Yankees. The score was tied; there were runners on base late in the game and coming up for the Yankees was one of Greg Maddux’s nemeses through the years, one of the few players Maddux consistently struggled to get out, Jorge Posada.
Braves’ Manager Bobby Cox went to the mound to encourage Maddux to play it safe and to walk Posada intentionally. A few moments later, Cox came jogging back to the dugout grinning and shaking his head. He turned to an assistant and said, “You know what Maddux told me? He said, ‘Look, if I get to 2-0 on Posada, I’ll go ahead and walk him, but I think on the second pitch I’ll be able to get him to pop up to the short stop or third base.” The amazing control and mastery of Greg Maddux: “I think on the second pitch, I can get him to pop up to the short stop or third base.” First pitch, a curve ball outside; second pitch, a fast ball in on the hands—pop-up to third base.
Control is what wins baseball games. You and I are hardwired in life to seek control. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has written:
“Our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control…A study of nursing home residents had a sad and unforeseen end. Researchers arranged for student volunteers to pay regular visits to nursing home residents. Residents in the high-control group were allowed to control the timing and duration of the students’ visit (‘Please come to visit me next Thursday [at 1 p.m.] for an hour.’)…The residents in the low-control group were not. They were told, ‘I’ll come visit you next Thursday for an hour.’ After two months, residents in the high-control group were happier, healthier, more active, and taking fewer medications than those in the low-control group. At this point, the students concluded their study and discontinued the student visits. Several months later, they were chagrined to learn that a disproportionate number of residents who had been in the high-control group had died. Only in retrospect did the cause for the tragedy seem clear. The residents who had been given control and had benefited measurably from the control while they had it were inadvertently robbed of control when the study ended. Apparently gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having it at all.”
What does that say about us?
Why won’t it be fun to watch a delayed telecast of the final holes of the Masters after it’s over even if you don’t know the outcome? Because the fact that it’s already been played precludes the infinitesimal possibility that somehow my yelling and screaming might go back into the TV, travel through the cable system, and somehow influence the final roll of the ball. Even our fantasies are about control.
I have a dear friend who’s an orthopedic surgeon and a total control freak. A while ago, he blew out his knee in a skiing accident—and, of course, had one of his associates perform the surgery—but he made sure his anesthesia was a spinal block so his associate would wake him up and consult with him as he did the surgery. What if he were a brain surgeon? I think we’re all like the girl who said to her boyfriend, “My last boyfriend said I was a control freak. Do you think so? If so, say yes.”
Could Judas have been a bit more human than the other disciples, a tad more of a control freak, a little less willing to let go and let God?
Who was Judas Iscariot?
We get one hint in the scene where Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs. Mark reports the pairings: Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James the Less and Judas (not Iscariot), and finally Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. Could the latter pair have been two peas in a pod? The zealots were an early version of Al Qaeda, urban terrorists who instead of bombs on the streets used stilettos to kill Romans and their sympathizers at random. Could Judas have had zealot leanings?
We also get a glimpse of Judas’ politics one day when a woman got so carried away in her love for Jesus she smashed open what today would be the equivalent of a half-gallon of Chanel No. 5 and lavished it on Him. Judas hit the ceiling! “You could have fed 50 families for a year with all the money she wasted,” he huffed. When Judas disappeared at the Last Supper, the others assumed he was going to give money to the poor.
Add one more critical piece to this puzzle, an incident that took place just after Jesus fed the 5,000. Those impoverished masses rose up, and these hungry people tried to make Jesus king by force. We read in John 6:15, “Jesus, knowing they intended to come and make Him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself.” Jesus said, “No way.” He ended all speculation. Verses 26 and 27, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for Me…because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you…” Then Jesus predicted His death, verses 48 and 55, “I am the bread of life. For My flesh is real food, and My blood is real drink.” Translation: “I will not be king. If nominated, I will not run, and if elected I will not serve. End of conversation.”
Now these words in verse 66: “From this time, many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him,” whereupon Jesus turned to the remaining disciples and—now listen to this—said, “There are some of you who do not believe,” whereupon John editorializes, “for Jesus had known from the beginning which of them…would betray Him.”
One disciple would not let this go. One disciple would not rest until Jesus sat on the throne of the world. Why not? Imagine for a moment Jesus as king running the affairs of this earth. You’d have to go to a museum to see a bomb, weapon or an operating table. Police stations would become candy shops. Hospitals would be torn down to make room for more parks. There’d be no more bleeping out with the N-word or the F-word in dialogue because they would have been long forgotten, along with terms such as hopeless, despair and terminal.
Imagine knowing the person who could make this all happen, who had authority in Himself to bring the kingdom of God down from heaven to earth. Judas was saying, “Jesus, You have to do this. The world is waiting. You have the power, and I have the plan.”
Take this Judas and drop him into the swirl of Palm Sunday. Today would be the greatest day of his life. Thousands would be surging through the streets of Jerusalem shouting, “Hosanna to the King!” Judas was beside himself. The city was a powder keg, and Jesus was the spark. Bring them together, and “Boom! Away with the Romans; hello, kingdom of God!”
However, Palm Sunday came and went. Jesus did not make His move. Judas saw Jesus following the path He’d spoken of earlier as His Father’s will: to suffer, die and establish a kingdom of love in the hearts of His followers. To Judas, that was ridiculous. The moment was now. The revolution was at hand.
Judas masterminded a plot to force Jesus to unleash His power. The temple authorities had been trying to find a way to get Jesus alone away from the crowds so they could arrest Him. Judas had seen Jesus again and again slip out of His enemies’ hands, and he thought Jesus would do the same this time. So Judas tipped them off: “Thursday night in Gethsemane. I’ll take you there.” That night amid flickering torches, Judas arrived flushed with excitement, “Hail, Master!” Then the hug, the kiss, and on to victory! Peter grabbed a sword and sliced off a servant’s ear. “Yes!” thought Judas. “We’re on our way!”
Then Jesus stayed Peter’s hand. Judas watched incredulously as Jesus let Himself be led away. As the voices faded there in the garden and he was left alone, the sledgehammer of reality came crashing down on Judas Iscariot.
By trying to be the god of God, he was now the instrument of Satan. By trying to be in control, he had set in motion events that spun out of control and took away his Lord, his dream, his life. Scripture says, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.”
In other words, Judas was bad enough to do what he did, but good enough not to be able to live with the burden of guilt for what he had done.
There are three tragedies of Judas’ life.
First, at the fundamental level, Judas betrayed a Friend. He loved Jesus. All the gospel writers preserve the fact that Judas did not want Jesus crucified. All say he repented. All say he tried to give back the money and undo what he had done. Why doesn’t Judas appear at the trial? He’d have been the star witness for the prosecution! Judas was crushed when his arrogant plan went awry, then he took his own life. Judas betrayed a Friend.
Second, Judas used Jesus as a means to an end. At first, all the disciples saw Jesus becoming an earthly king. All were looking forward to government jobs. John and James jockeyed to be the ones sitting on Jesus’ right and left when He became king. These other disciples, though, eventually surrendered to Jesus’ own vision of His kingdom, but not Judas.
Third, and at the heart of it all, Judas would not let God be Lord over his life. He really thought he was smarter than God. A.W. Tozer once said, “Inside every human heart are a cross and a throne. Whenever I put myself on the throne, I put Jesus on the cross.”
That’s the Judas I too often see in my mirror. I enthrone myself as my own two-bit ruler under my tinsel crown, lord of my own little private kingdom. With me on the throne, there is no other place for Christ in my life except that I put Him on that cross.
Is this the morning for you to swap places with Jesus and let Him be on the throne while you go to the cross? After all, Jesus already went to the cross. Now His rightful place is the throne.
That’s why the apostle Paul said in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. The life I now live is no longer my life, but the life Christ lives within me.” A.W. Tozer has said to be crucified with Christ means three things: “The person on the cross is facing in only one direction. Second, he’s not going back; and third, he has no further plans of his own.”
Oh, Judas had so many plans of his own, and so do we; but when you go to the cross, you die to your plans. You surrender the managerial control of your own life and relinquish all outcomes to God.
I have a friend I roomed with in college. We roomed together simply because he was a Christian, and so was I. Other than that, we had zero in common. He’s sensitive, artistic, brilliant—and sadly, schizophrenic—and at times has been suicidal. In college, he had such a fragile grasp on reality that at times I would find him in very bizarre situations. He had a scrap of paper taped over his desk with which he had an almost mystical relationship. The following words almost literally held him together. One day, I went in and wrote them down. They’re by the great Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman. I’ve never read words that better describe what it’s like to let God be in control:
“Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, my perplexity or sorrow may be necessary causes of some greater end, which is beyond me. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life. He may shorten it; He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sick, hide my future from me—still He knows what He is about. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.”
Come to think of it, aren’t those the words Jesus prayed in Gethsemane? Jesus had no plan other than to play His part in the plan known only to His heavenly Father for the salvation of the world. He became our Savior by going through His week saying again and again—on Sunday, on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday, on Thursday, and especially on Friday—”Not My will but Thine be done.”
As for my friend who struggled in college, he’s made it…big time. He’s been a pastor for 40 years, happily married, a father, a grandfather and a published poet.
As someone has said, God’s in management. We’re in sales. He’s doing His job. Let’s do ours.
Lord, how we want Judas to be a monster, to be nothing at all like us; but this morning, some of us have gotten a peak of him peering back at us in the mirror. We, too, have betrayed friends in the crunch; we, too, have been dumb enough to think we’re smarter than You. We, too, have taken circumstances into our hands in ways we shouldn’t have and done great damage. Instead of trusting and surrendering, we too foolishly try to be the god of God.
Lord, in these moments, we vacate our thrones and invite You into Your rightful place. Be with us as we go to the cross in love, service and surrender to You. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.