For Palm Sunday, we read the account of Jesus foretelling his betrayal from Mark’s gospel. In Faith in Real Life, the group discussed two troubling considerations the text presents. Does Jesus’ telling the disciples that it would have been better for the betrayer “not to have been born” mean there are sins that are truly unforgivable? Also, Peter famously denies Jesus three times despite having promised in this text never to do so. Even the strongest of believers will fall away at some point. But as Vernon writes, exploring these questions reinforces the reality of our humanity and bolsters the amazing nature of God’s grace.
17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” 20 He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’
28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” 30 Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.
Initially I began with two different directions for these verses. First, the reference to Judas presented a challenge to those of us who believe in a God of grace for all. The disturbing implication concerning Judas is that some behaviors are so heinous that the perpetrator would be better off unborn. And secondly, the passage presents a simple but hard truth—even the most faithful, even the closest to Jesus will deny him. It is human hubris to think we are any different.
Judas is a problem. Look at verse 21: “woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” It is easy to read Jesus’ words as a just judgement on the man who sold him out. If a person should never have been born, it suggests there is nothing good in that person and it is an easy leap to assume such a person deserves any punishment imaginable. Dante certainly makes that leap when he places Judas into the deepest Hell. Fortunately for us the Inferno is a work of fiction and is not biblical.
Judas’ sin, however, is not really that unique. Many forces worked together to bring about Jesus’ death—not the least of which were Jesus’ own words that his death was a necessary part of his messiahship. If Jesus’ death is part of God’s plan, why should one agent of that plan be particularly singled out. The church authorities manufactured a case against him, the crowds yelled ‘crucify him’ and Pilate abdicated responsibility. If we are looking for blame, there is plenty to spread around.
I think something entirely different is going on as Jesus spoke to his disciples. I think this conversation was pastoral, not a calling out. Jesus knew that the capacity to betray and desert was as much a part of us as is faithful discipleship. He has already tried to prepare his disciples for the reality that suffering belongs to life and that the messiah must suffer. Now he tries to prepare them to know that everyone of them (and us) has it in them to desert him. I don’t know which Lenten lesson is worse—both are very hard to hear. And, as usual, the disciples did not listen. They insisted on their way of seeing themselves rather than listen to what Jesus was saying.
Though Jesus could see the capacity to betray and deny, he did not hold it against disciples. He shared a meal with them and he promised “… after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” The disciples’ goodness (or lack thereof) had nothing to do with Jesus’ care for them. That is a Godly concept we yearn for but it is one we struggle to accept.
The disciples immediate response was “to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” And though Peter gets the most notoriety, the last sentence of the passage simply states: “And all of them said the same.” We find it nearly impossible to believe that God will love us—especially when our shortcomings are exposed.
This is real life. In any relationship of love, we will be hurt by, and we will hurt, the ones we love. Who wants to face that truth about what it means to love? Most of us are painfully aware of the ways we have been hurt. That is hard enough. Harder still is the acknowledgement that we have been, and will be, the agent of pain. This is not something we want to know but it is nonetheless true. Every parent, child, friend and spouse has said and done things which have injured an important relationship. And sometimes the damage is irrevocable.
There is not a parent among us that hasn’t wished for a ‘do over’ for some aspect of our parenting. Our ignorance, fatigue and anger have us saying and doing things we know are neither helpful or kind. We watch children squander opportunities. Sometimes they lie to our face. Sometimes they are incapable. We fear for their futures. Sometimes, we and they are just lost. But there are very few parents that have not watched their children flinch in the face of our parental anger and frustration.
The promises we made, as we held our newborns, to love and protect, turned out to be statements of good intention. We can only pray that God is with us and with them. It is a rare family that does not have hidden troubles and fracture lines.
Marriages and deep friendships face the same predicament. We do not learn what loneliness is until we get married. Single, we imagine that having a life partner will ease our living. The vows promise for better or for worse. There will always be someone to share the load, to love and support us. But after those promises are exchanged, we live through those nights when we literally can not touch the one we love and need. Sometimes when we need love the most, it is not there. Sometimes, when we are needed the most, we cease listening and worse, respond with indignation and blaming.
No matter how human our behavior is or how we would justify ourselves, we must face that we desert and betray our own promises. Nobody tells us these things at our weddings or at the births of our children. It would be kind if that part of life could be frankly acknowledged. But unfortunately, we like the disciples likely would become distressed and say, ‘Surely, not I.’
I think Jesus was trying tell his disciples. ‘You will fail. You will do harm. Do not imagine otherwise. I know this about you, but none of this will separate you from my love.’ Christians call this amazing grace. It is just hard to believe.
And that brings me back to Judas. We learn elsewhere that Judas was desperately remorseful. He tried to return the money. But it was too late. In his despair, he killed himself. This was a self condemnation. He killed himself rather than consider that Jesus would also meet with him in Galilee. He could not imagine that forgiveness was possible. Many of us wish we could take back some of the things we have said and done. Sometimes we can not. It is then we must remember there is a big difference between irrevocable and unforgiveable. Judas could not imagine that possibility.
It was not Jesus’ love that was withheld, it was Judas’ shame and inability to accept the possibility that God’s love could extend to someone who had ‘caused’ such harm. All too often we share his predicament. We can not imagine much less believe God’s love. When that happens, we live self condemned. And sometimes people die that way. It is a hard and desperate way to live.
Judas’s death is death to grieve over. But how many of us have even considered the possibility. It is not a death we can say is ‘deserved’. That is not our call. It is not a death to be used as a silent comparison—- ‘At least I’m not that bad’. Judas should not be used as our scapegoat to grade sinfulness. Though it is always easier to look outside of ourselves, Jesus is calling his disciples to look inside themselves and to trust him.
Rather than focus on Judas as the great betrayer—or even Peter as the great denier, we should look into ourselves and say ‘It could be me’ instead of ‘Surely, not I’ . We are not different. We all sin and we all fall short. There are no exceptions. That is who we are.
Even at his last supper Jesus was reconciling us to himself. He sees into the hearts of his disciples of every age. Even knowing that those closest to him will betray and deny, he does not hold our sins against us. Trust him, he promises to be with us.
Easter cannot come soon enough. Let it be so.