In Mark 14:111, we read about a battle that was waged over Christ in the final days of his earthly life.
"It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest [Jesus] by stealth, and kill him; for they said, 'Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people.'
"And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, 'Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.' And they reproached her. But Jesus said, 'Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you will always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.'
"Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it they were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him."
There are many mysteries of human tragedy that have never been solved; they taunt us with their unanswered questions. Think of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Who really did it? How did it really happen? The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which came to our attention recently because of the recanting of James Earl Ray, and all the confusion swirling around it. Even something like the death of the actress Marilyn Monroe. These are unsolved mysteries, and the answers seem to lie in sealed vaults sunk into the black depths of the ocean abyss never to be raised to light to be understood.
Such to me is the mystery of Judas, the disciple of Jesus. I don't think there is any other character in Scripture who presents us with more complexity and intrigue than that of Judas Iscariot. The very name stirs the deepest emotions within us. For example, how many of you know of a child named Judas? None of us have named our children Judas. It didn't even come to our minds, did it? The name Judas comes from Judah, which means "God be praised." Yet, this man is the darkest character in all of Scripture.
With the exception of the story of Judas' betrayal, we have no description of Judas, other than this narrative. There's no other mention of him in terms of his actions or discussions with Jesus than what we have here, as well as a final little comment at the Last Supper. What does this reveal about him? Are there any clues as to what drove him to commit history's most despicable act?
[Editor's Note: The main points are in parentheses because this is an inductive outline, so the following point is not stated here.]
(The tension between giving God your best in worship and giving to God's work will always be with us.)
The starting place for our exploration of Judas is to reflect on this scene in which Jesus is within the final days of his life. He's at a meal at a home, and a woman comes anointing him with oil, which stirs a strong all of it positive. It reveals a struggle that is often present among God's people: many of us struggle with a strongly utilitarian faith.
Some of those present strongly objected to the anointing. This ointment was a lavish gift of devotion. It said in the passage, "This ointment could have been sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor." A denari was one silver coin, and three hundred of those would be nearly a year's wages, because often an ordinary laborer would receive one silver coin for a day's job.
I don't know what the average American laborer makes. Can we say $15,000 or so? I don't know. But imagine someone bringing about $15,000 worth of ointment in a jar, breaking it open, and anointing Jesus with it. There was a strong reaction there. There is a temptation for all of us to reduce our faith to a practical matter.
When I was growing up, the organ at our church died. My dad was asked to head the organ fund, and they put in a new Shantz's organ, which cost nearly $500,000. My dad and I, as his son, came under criticism, especially from the people who were active in missions. They said, "How can you spend all that money on an organ when all these people are dying?" At that time the church was giving about a hundred to two hundred thousand dollars a year to missions and mission activities, as well as evangelism programs. But people would say, "How can you waste all that money on worship?"
There are many conscientious reasons why we struggle to be wise stewards. We know the needs are immense. We don't want to waste God's resources. We think twice, ten, even twenty times before we invest our money in anything other than a necessity.
The tension between giving God your best in worship or in other ways and giving to God's work will always be with us. But sometimes it's simply a smoke screen.
The disciples criticize this woman, saying, "How dare she do something like this?" They reproach her, which means they looked at her and said, "Woman, what are you doing wasting your money like that on Jesus?" And Jesus says, "Leave her alone."
It's as if he says to his disciples, "You hypocrites, you say you love the poor but you attack a poor woman? You say you want to have compassion on the poor, but you humiliate her in my presence? You say you value the honoring of my name, but you despise her when she values me as a person? Don't say that to her. How can you do things in the name of love for people out there and not love the people who are right here?"
We live with this kind of tension. It's part of what it means to be human and to live within the dynamic of need and glory. If you had been present and the woman had come forward, and it was a congregational meeting and she said, "I would like to give this gift to Jesus and anoint him now. May I have a motion? Is there a second? All those in favor say 'Aye.' All those opposed, 'Nay,'" everyone would have voted against her. I might have been right there with them.
Ironically, Jesus contradicts our assumptions. He shows us that our idea of virtue is incomplete. He shows us in this passage that the way we treat Jesus is central to all of life.
Kindness to Christ neither excludes nor denies kindness to others. But is there not a place for kindness to Christ? Is there not a place for honoring God with your best?
(When we refuse Jesus's idea of who he is and what his kingdom looks like, we fall vulnerable to Satan.)
I want to move it a step further to show how that relates to the issues that Judas was facing because the scene is complicated. This idea of a utilitarian faith becomes seen as a smoke screen when we look at John's retelling of this passage. In John 12:25 we have a similar story.
"Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor." We learn that Martha served while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. "Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
"But one of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 'Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages.'"
Then in verse 6 John can't resist his own commentary: "[Judas] did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it."
This scene is complicated by the fact that Judas was the primary objector and that he used the needs of the poor to satisfy his desire for his own needs. At this point, we get into more than a theoretical discussion of stewardship. Should we spend all that money on an organ? Or should we give it all away for missions? We're moving beyond those kind of theoretical discussions at this point and getting into matters of eternal significance, because in Judas we see that our expectations can drive us further from Christ.
Judas' reaction arose from his refusal to allow Jesus to reshape his idea of what God should be like, of what the kingdom should be like. He refused to allow Jesus to reshape his expectations.
People have often been intrigued by the complexity of Judas' motives. If you study Judas, you'll come up with at least five or six reasons why he was such a complex character.
1. Covetousness. He was stealing from the treasury for his own good. He was probably putting away a slush fund. When Jesus came into his glory, literally an earthly kingdom, Judas would have a stash that he could begin drawing on, and few people would notice in that setting.
2. Deceit. Judas was a deceitful person by nature. Look at how he trapped Jesus in the garden.
3. Jealousy. Jesus was always taking Peter, James, and John with him. Judas may have gotten his nose out of joint.
4. Ambition. He wanted Jesus to establish a political kingdom in which he would have a major post. He wanted to be secretary of the treasury.
5. Fear. Maybe his betrayal came because he was afraid that the plan of revolution was falling apart. It looked like it was all crumbling, and this seems to have been the last straw. Jesus would not bring about such a kingdom, so Judas wanted to look out for himself, and he turns state's evidence. He basically said, "I want to be in good standing with somebody. I'll turn him over to you, and then maybe you'll make me secretary of the treasury."
Whatever his motives, Luke tells us he became vulnerable to Satan. None of those things may look huge in and of themselves: ambition, jealousy. Some of those things can look petty. It only takes a crack to allow the evil one to come in and begin to use us to bring conflict, division, and destruction. It may be a seemingly virtuous crack such as the conflict I saw over an organ fund.
(When we see Jesus as a cause and not Christ, we create God in our image and idolize our desires.)
Judas was consumed by lesser things, things that distracted him from Christ. My concern is our fascination with the other issues: Why did he do it? Is he in heaven? Did God forgive him? What about his suicide? Was that a type of atonement? Those other issues can take us far afield from the spiritual message we are meant to derive from his life.
In fact, the silence of the Bible should quiet our speculations. Where the Bible doesn't say much we shouldn't presume much. There are mysteries of the human heart that are buried in the ocean abyss, and they'll never see light until God brings them up from the depths.
Judas portrays the idolatry of our desires. It is easy to idealize our desires and want our way. Judas' action most likely arose from the rage of a scorned dream. He had a preconceived notion of what a messiah should be like. They were expecting Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom, throw Rome out, cleanse the scribes and Pharisees, and set up a righteous, city council and kingdom. Judas felt he should be rewarded. He had an agenda for God, and he wanted it fulfilled at all costs.
Judas saw Jesus as a cause instead of as the Christ. He saw Christ as a cause instead of as a person. And when we create God in our image, we feel driven to destroy any competitor that will unmake our mold. Why did people get so angry at Jesus? Because they weren't receiving "the truth" from him; they wanted him to confirm their truth.
If you want to really learn from Christ and he tells you something unsettling, you won't throw him out. You'll throw your wrong thoughts out.
In one congregation I served, a couple, new to the church, came to me; they were and respected for their teaching. They were rich and made that known. They told me on my first visit how much they would give to the church annually.
After several months, they wanted a ministry. They wanted to take leadership in the church. When we didn't let them, they left the church in an ugly way.
From that situation I discovered that sometimes I want to use even the church to put forward my cause rather than the cause of Christ. That's what Judas wanted.
Unless God sifts false expectations from our lives, we will demand things of God he never intended to give, and we will reject the greater gifts he offers.
(Rather than honoring Jesus as a cause, worship him as a person.)
In contrast to Judas' false expectations stands the witness of this woman's anointing, the gift of her worship. She surrendered what she had to Jesus' purposes. Wherever Jesus went, whatever Jesus did, she sought his honor not her own ends. She teaches us that we honor Jesus Christ as a person, not as a cause.
There are at least four fascinating contrasts between the woman and Judas.
1. Judas' greed vs. Mary's generosity. She gives Jesus the equivalent of three hundred pieces of silver. I say the words "pieces of silver." What did Judas agree to betray Jesus for? Thirty pieces of silver. She gives Jesus three hundred; Judas betrays him for one tenth [of that].
2. Judas' covert deception vs. Mary's open act of worship. She doesn't care who sees. She doesn't care what people think of her. Judas slinks.
3. Judas' pride vs. Mary's humiliation. She humbles herself in front of all. This woman anoints Jesus' feet and then wipes them with her hair. Even today that would be tremendously humbling.
4. Judas' cool detachment vs. Mary's unmeasured devotion. Judas was calculating, watching, always keeping himself above the fray. Mary cared for Christ through worship; she gave her best. And Jesus said, "Her deed will be remembered." She reminds us that caring for Christ through worship and the giving of our best is important. We can lose perspective and balance, this woman warns us, especially if we see Christ as a cause instead of as a person.
What does Jesus mean to you? Is he a cause or an ideal? If you say, "I follow the principles of Jesus Christ," most people will respect you. But if you say, "I'm a follower of Jesus Christ..." See the difference?
False expectations put the cause ahead of the person. Judas wanted to see that nard sold and given to others because, frankly, he was embarrassed by that kind of emotion. He was embarrassed by that kind of devotion. I'm sure that Judas turned his head and clucked at that sort of an open expression of love.
Judas sought to gain personal wealth, political power, and prestige. If we seek those things apart from Christ, we will never find peace. In this passage I find an entirely different mystery to Judas. The mystery to me is not why he did that to Jesus Christ. The mystery to me is why he never let Jesus in.
Jesus invited him to be his follower. Jesus took him as one of the twelve. He prayed over him. He taught him in secret when no other ears could hear, just those twelve. He entrusted him with their finances. He washed his feet. He even gave him the privileged piece of bread at the Last Supper. Jesus did everything to say to this man, "Open your heart."
And the mystery to me is that he said no.
Douglas J. Rumford is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fresno, California. He is author of SoulShaping and Scared to Life.