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Matthew 26:14-27:66

We all know what it feels like to be betrayed. We have experienced the pain of finding out someone we love has conspired against us, that they have held in their heart a false narrative about ourselves and acted on it, without ever once consulting or asking for our true feelings. We have felt the sting of loss, the grief of a friendship gone in a moment, the way we may find ourselves a little bit more hesitant to trust the next friend who speaks gladly of us.

“What do they hide in secret?”

“What don’t they tell me?”

“What do they say when I’m not there?”

Today’s Gospel reading opens with Jesus’ betrayal at the hands of one of his twelve closest friends. This was not a temporary lapse in judgment. This wasn’t a momentary anger at what might’ve been a harsh word from Jesus, either. He had done nothing to Judas to deserve this, at least, not in any recorded scripture. This was a concerted, deliberate effort, with its desired result the destruction of Jesus’ legacy, possibly even His life.

Jesus calls this out at the Passover feast, acknowledging without directing his statement towards Judas that He knew of the betrayal, or at least, expected it to happen. The brothers are eating together, sharing in their last meal, when Jesus warns them of some secret snake, a betrayer and liar at the table. Judas dares to ask, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” (Mt. 26:25) Judas knows what he’s already done, what he’s already promised to the Chief Priests, but still asks, “Surely, you don’t mean me, teacher?” He may have been trying to parse out whether Jesus knew the truth, or perhaps he was asking himself as much as he was asking his betrayed Rabbi. The response from Jesus doesn’t necessarily answer the question - “You have said so.” (Mt. 26:25) The Message translates it as “Don’t play games with me, Judas.” (Mt. 26) though, it isn’t quite implicit that Jesus is telling the table that Judas is incorrect, or responding with some sort of sarcastic, sassy retort. He merely affirms Judas’ words, his question, “Surely, it isn’t me?”

Jesus offers the bread and wine we still take today at a table where Judas is still sitting. He is telling them what is soon to happen, though they don’t recognize it. He then makes another broad accusation, this time that every single disciple at the table will turn and desert, leave Him behind, and pretend they never knew Him. He will be left by the twelve after the betrayal of the one. He takes them to the garden of Gethsemane, where He prays and finds the disciples sleeping, unable to sit in patience or recognize the heaviness Jesus exudes. He’s always had a strange, serious presence, but they fail to see the uniqueness of His presence that night.

This carries on until they are interrupted by the betrayer and his band of soldiers, here to carry Him away. The snake has cornered the lamb and is arched to strike. He leaves a kiss on the cheek of Jesus, who greets him, not as Snake, not as Betrayer, but as Friend. Jesus meets the next set of accusations, dragged before the city and its leaders, with the same calm, gentle grace He always has, embracing and embodying His status as Messiah.

Jesus walks through each of these trials, knowing that in the background, all of his closest friends are abandoning Him, deserting all the miracles, faith, and grace they saw for the last three years of ministry, scampering like rats off a sinking ship to whatever hiding hole feels safest. Yet, Jesus persists. He carries Himself with strength, grace, and focus. There is something new, soon to happen, that He is determined to see to its birth. He is crucified, mocked, and ultimately dies hung on wood, an execution process designed by Rome in a manner solely meant to humiliate those they saw as scum of the Earth. There is no greater pain imaginable.

Yet, at the final moment of this brutal, humiliating torture, as He cries out His last, two strange things happen. The curtain which sat in the Temple for generations, intended to hide away the fullness of God’s presence from the world, drifts to the ground in two pieces, as if something ripped it open from the inside. Then, the earth shakes and rocks split open, rocks that barred the tombs of long-dead saints shatter and those saints get up and walk back into the city. The Holy Spirit is re-unleashed back into the world and the power of death is broken. The curtain has split in two and the dead have risen.

While all this was happening, Judas had found his final hiding place. Paul later tells us his body had split open into two and fallen onto the ground. The curtain is torn, the dead saints have risen, but Judas, Jesus’ betrayer, is left open and dead. No one would even go to collect his body, as it was the season of Passover and considered unclean.

We have all experienced the pain of betrayal. Jesus bore that pain and carried it through to the end, where God brings life out of death - but some life is returned to bones and other life is left for the earth to do with it what it will. Of course, the obvious explanation for the distinction between the two is the state of the heart before its last beat. Judas made the long-term, conscious decision to betray the friendship of his Rabbi, giving Him over to a brutal and painful death for some petty cash. The saints aren’t named, but their sainthood makes their devotion implicit. However, elsewhere in the Gospels, Judas is listed as the manager of their finances. He doesn’t seem in need of money. What motivates a man, then, to kill the One who has come to make him whole? What drives us to betray a God who just wants to see us grow in Him? How can someone see all that Jesus has done, every miracle and grace He offered, then turn Him in like a common thief?

The Roman guards, at the end of this passage, prepare themselves for “the last deception”, the final work of someone they see as an actor, pretending to be someone He isn’t, leading others to a pointless life of devotion to Him. Judas, too, began to see the work of God as deception, even while standing right in front of it. Scripture doesn’t necessarily answer what Judas’ motivations were - but we do know how Jesus responded to him. Friend, not traitor. The facts stated, “You have betrayed me.” But, the status of “Friend” did not change. The placement of Judas’ faith and hope changed. Jesus did not change his open posture to Judas after his betrayal, rather, Judas found himself too engulfed by his shame to truly experience the sort of conviction that leads to new life. The story of Judas’ suicide, as Matthew tells it, implies two things: One, that Judas realized what he had done, that the perception of deception had unraveled. Two, that when he did, he did not find himself worthy of returning to the One he realized had been right all along.

We all know what it feels like to be betrayed - but don’t we all know what it feels like to betray? To realize we have done wrong against someone who didn’t deserve it? That we’ve rejected and cast as a liar the One who came to show us the ultimate truth? But, don’t we also know what it feels like to be welcomed back home to the friendship of Jesus? Judas was not willing to come back. Perhaps it takes a strong faith to believe Jesus when He calls us Friend.