Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Readings for tonight: Exodus 12:1-14; Ps 116.1,10-17; 1 Cor 11.23-26; Jn 13.1-17,31b-35
Two weeks ago during our bible study, we looked ahead to the passion story from St. Matthew and someone remarked that they had never before noticed that Judas was present at the Last Supper. We all took a moment to be still with the idea that betrayal was present at the table with Jesus’ love, that one heart was closed Our Lord’s compassion. I found it emotional to think of that contrast.
Tonight, as we have heard St. John’s account of the Last Supper, the contrast seems even sharper. Jesus washes all he disciples’ feet, including those of Judas, and even as he stoops before Judas with towel and basin, Jesus “knew who was to betray him” (Jn 13.11).
Betrayal of trust is one of the worst things that one human can do to another. A parent, teacher, coach or clergy who abuses children, infidelity in marriage, selling secrets to the enemy, these are offences that most of us would struggle to forgive. Abuse carries stiff prison terms, and treason sometimes carries the death penalty. Even today, to call someone a “Judas” is to utter a profound insult.
To betray the Son of God, who has shown nothing but love, healing power, and forgiveness in his time with his chosen friends, seems altogether incomprehensible. Of all the evangelists, John’s displeasure of Judas is sharpest. John alone calls Judas a thief (12.6) and only John and Luke attribute his betrayal to the work of Satan (Jn 13.27; Lk 22.3). In John’s gospel the fact that Judas leaves the Twelve to betray Jesus “at night” is significant, since from the very beginning of this gospel, darkness represents all the worldly forces that oppose Jesus, “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5-10).
So it’s easy for us to turn our backs on Judas. Our human nature and our abhorrence of betrayal thus prepare us to see Judas as the great villain of the piece. This is especially true for those of us who aspire to piety, for after all, as I like to say on Sundays, are we not all saints of Collingwood?
Before we scapegoat Judas, let’s go back a little bit in the story to another dinner, just a few days before Jesus’ last Passover. We are at a house in Bethany, and Jesus is being anointed with expensive ointment by a devoted woman. In some accounts she is simply a sinner (Lk 7.37), in others she is Jesus’ friend Mary (Jn 12.3).
Despite the differences in the accounts, in all the gospels, she is the one person who seems to recognize that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. Her actions are pure devotion, a simple, pitying, adoring love for Jesus, the same love we feel tonight as we look ahead to Good Friday knowing that the cross awaits our teacher and our Lord.
In John’s account, Judas who hypocritically objects to this costly devotion, saying the ointment could have been sold for the sake of the poor. However, in Matthew’s version, it is “the disciples” who get angry and who object to the waste. In this sense, Judas is not unique. He is more like his fellow disciples than we might care to admit. The disciples share his petty outrage at the woman’s lavish display of love. They think in earthly terms, whereas she somehow recognizes with gratitude that Jesus will die for her and for all people.
Thus, when Jesus predicts his betrayal at the Last Supper, and the disciples “looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking” (Jn 13.22), they really don’t know because they are all capable of betraying Jesus, and they do. They fall asleep in the garden, they abandon their shepherd, Peter denies Jesus, and they leave the faithful women to keep their sad vigil at the cross. They are like Judas in that they all betray Jesus, and the differences in their betrayals are only a matter of degrees.
We often think of the foot washing in John’s gospel as Jesus teaching the disciples humility and service, but what if it is all a necessary cleansing? “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13.1). Here in his last hours with them, Jesus pours more than water into a basin. As Mary did for him with her ointment, so Jesus now pours himself into his disciples in a final act of love and devotion. The foot washing is an act of service, but it is also an act of cleansing.
Jesus says to Peter, “Unless I was you, you will have no share with me” (13.9). Pouring water into a basin, pouring himself into them, Jesus is saying to the disciples, “you belong to me”. Jesus is saying “Death will not keep us apart”. He is saying “Your sin will not keep us apart”. And here is the wonderful thing about this story, that Peter needs the love of Jesus as much as Judas does, that we need the love of Jesus as much as Judas did.
In a wonderful and theologically brave passage, the theological Karl Barth allowed himself to wonder if Jesus’ love was sufficient to save even Judas, whose sins were less unique than we might care to think. No one this side of eternity can say for sure if Judas is forgiven. In taking his own life, Judas judged and punished himself. We cannot know what judgement the God of love and grace finally gave to Judas.
What we can say for certain is that we can never underestimate the love and compassion with which our Lord took basin and towel and knelt as a servant. Maybe all we can say this night is what Barth said, that with basin and towel, Jesus showed his absolute care and love for a sinful world. In the face of such love, all we can offer is our gratitude. And maybe our gratitude can extend to this statement, that if there is grace and hope and love for us, then maybe there is grace and hope and love for Judas.