Matthew 26:14-25 (CEB)
Judas betrays Jesus
Passover with the disciples
John 12:1-11 (CEB)
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet
I have always been deeply disturbed by these Judas accounts – it’s a grim tale.
There’s an Anglican Church in the Dorset village of Moreton – The Church of St Nicholas and St Magnus – which has a fantastic set of engraved windows by Sir Lawrence Whistler. Me and the missus have been there – the windows are fantastic…
In the words of Jim & Julia Binney:
Over a period of 30 years the church or donors commissioned Whistler to replace all the windows with designs of increasing complexity, engraved from both sides of the glass creating a spectacular three-dimensional effect that changes in every light. The result today is the creation of a spectacular church interior that is well worth a visit. Not only are the windows themselves world famous, and a sight to see in their own right, but the transformation of the inside into a place of light and space is magical.
In February 1987, when Laurence Whistler had completed 12 full sized windows, he wrote a letter to the then Rector offering to create and donate a ‘thirteenth window’ to the church – an engraved window depicting Judas Iscariot. In his letter he made the point that many mediaeval churches often had uncouth and unholy figures sculptured on the outside, as if in contrast with holy scenes on the inside. He went on to refer to the thirteenth window near the south-east corner which was glazed but walled up. Adding that Judas was (in his opinion) ‘the thirteenth disciple’, Whistler went on to say that he would like to engrave on that window, to be seen only from the outside, ‘a shadowy figure, not clearly defined but sketchy, of Judas hanging with the thirty pieces of silver falling from his hand and turning into flowers on the ground.’ That would be the point – a hint that possibly even Judas might, at the moment of death, have sought and found God’s forgiveness?
The reaction of the Rector and the Parish Church Council at the time, however, was far from encouraging. Whistler’s treatment of Judas was seen as so startling that it divided the Parish Council and the village, with some regarding the window as unacceptably ugly, and others genuinely shocked. The PCC was split, the Rector opposed it, and the Diocesan Chancellor (who could have granted the necessary permission) appeared indifferent. The original objection, from 44 parishioners, backed by their vicar and eventually the local bishop, was because they didn’t want Judas darkening the doors (or windows) of St Nicholas, since the theme of the other dozen designs was ‘light’. Judas represented darkness. He was the devil’s henchman, the human face of evil. More particularly, they didn’t like Whistler’s image, as it suggested that there might be hope for Judas after all. Back then, many people also regarded suicide as an ‘unforgivable sin’. Even though Whistler, dubbed the window the ‘forgiveness window’, and showed the silver coins turning into flowers before they touched the soil, church authorities at the time deemed the subject of suicide unfitting. The Roman Catholic Church refused to bury suicides. The Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles argued that the gospel descriptions of Judas ‘could hardly be true if the traitor had been forgiven’! Sadly, these views were shared by Anglo-Catholics and many others within the Anglican Church and other Protestant Churches at that time.
Undaunted Whistler put his idea into effect and by September 1993 had engraved the panel which he subsequently called ‘The Forgiveness Window’. Whistler renewed his offer of the gift and meanwhile put it on view in an exhibition in Salisbury. After considering the offer once again, the PCC was still divided and, when it looked as though the issue would go to a church court, Whistler shelved the whole project rather than cause further unhappiness. He loaned the window to the county museum in Dorchester but insisted that if the church ever changed its mind it should go to Moreton.
The window is now installed:
“Judas” is a shorthand for someone who commits the ultimate betrayal – it is chanted from football terraces when a player or a manager signs for a rival club. I remember Burnley fans chanting and pointing “JUDAS! JUDAS! JUDAS!” at the first game between them and my club, Bolton, after we (misguidedly, as it turned out!) poached Owen Coyle from them…
Worse – Christianity long used the name of Judas to scapegoat the Jews. For centuries it was commonplace in the Church to refer to “Judas the Jew” – largely because his name in Hebrew, Yehuda, from the verb “to praise”, was so close to Yehudi, the word for “Jew”. Preachers exploited this overlap to scapegoat the whole Jewish race with the traitor’s characteristics – greed, love of money, untrustworthiness – and present them as the enemy within Christian society. St Jerome wrote elsewhere of Judas as “cursed, that in Judas the Jews may be accursed… Whom do you suppose are the sons of Judas? The Jews – Iscariot means money and price.”
(It was John’s Gospel that smeared Judas with the “thief” tag – see above.)
Judas’s role in scapegoating the Jews continued through the medieval period – when he was depicted with stereotypical Jewish facial features, dressed in yellow (which the Church had designated their colour), and grasping his swag-bag of silver coins – right up to within living memory, with horrific effect in the Holocaust. “As little as Judas Iscariot can be understood without the Lord whose community he sneeringly betrayed,” said the Nazi ideologue Walter Frank in a 1939 radio broadcast, “that night side of history called Jewry cannot be understood without being positioned in the totality of the historical process where God, Satan, Creation and Destruction confront each other in an eternal struggle.”
There – that’s why it makes me feel uncomfortable – this whole story…
Chronologically, among the earliest of the writings to be found in the New Testament is St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Here, he writes simply of Jesus being betrayed (or “handed over”, depending on which translation you favour) to a hostile authority and put to death. Quite who did the betraying is treated as irrelevant. It was the death and resurrection that mattered – the founding events of Christianity.
It seems that the scapegoating of Judas emerged later – Paul didn’t seem to be aware of it or didn’t seem to think it worthy of mention…
Of course – there have been attempts to rehabilitate Judas. Perhaps most famously, Thomas De Quincey, suggesting that Judas is merely trying to force Jesus’ hand – to back him into a corner so that he would have to act and fulfil his mission… This is often preached today – I have preached it myself.
But I think that won’t do, it’s a good start, but it’s a bit too easy.
I think we need to face up to what this story IS. It is an example of biblical smear and scapegoating. The early Christian community smeared Judas – perhaps it is easier to blame one man than to accept that it could be any one of us? Perhaps when you have decided to blame one man – then it is easier to further blacken his character and call him a thief as if that explains it and “distances” him from “us good people” – well, he was always a wrong’un.
The more genuine-sounding vibe from the accounts of the Last Supper – when Jesus declared that that very night one of them would betray him – is the startling revelation that each of the disciples said “Oh, God, please don’t let it be me.” (or words to that effect.) They each knew it could have been any one of them. And they were right. Peter denied even knowing Jesus – the rest of them ran off, leaving Jesus to face the music. It could have been any one of them – it could be any one of us…
So, Whistler’s haunting figure, swinging from a rope in a window not visible from inside, but only from the graveyard… I am glad it has finally found its place. Whistler’s window has the traitor dressed in Everyman’s clothing as he hangs at the end of a rope. His back is turned, with a shaft of light from heaven illuminating both his face in side-profile and the ill-gotten coins as they fall to the ground. Flowers spring up to mark the spot where they land. This is Judas redeemed. However terrible his sin of betrayal, it can still be forgiven.