A Repentance Without Absolution
A Sermon on Matthew 27: 1-10
Recently in our Pastors’ Bible Seminar, we were discussing the tragedy of King Saul, his failed reign and eventual suicide, a discussion which led us to reflect on the tragedy of Judas - his betrayal of Christ and his suicide. Reading the moving funeral elegy or lament, intoned by David for both Saul and Jonathan, set me to wondering, “Who intoned the Service for the Dead at the burial of Judas? Would it have been the friends he collaborated with in the temple, the elders and the chief priests, perhaps even Caiaphas? Probably not because in the text we just read, they seem eager to disassociate themselves from Judas and his blood money.
Would the disciples have done the service for Judas? Perhaps, but the disciples seem so taken with negative assessments of Judas that they also probably wanted to distance themselves from him. Or was there no service at all for him—his body left to be thrown into the Field of Blood purchased by his 30 pieces of silver, a place for aliens, foreigners, those unclaimed who are considered to be nothing?
Then it occurred to me: If I were asked to do the service for Judas Iscariot, how would I do it? What would I preach?
One could do it in several ways. For one thing, by denial. Don’t mention his betrayal by a kiss of death. Don’t even mention his name. Pretend it didn’t happen. Sentimentalize it with poetry and sweet songs about what lies “Beyond the Sunset.” There is so much denial when it comes to death. But at least we can say that this is not the way of the New Testament. Nor is it the way I would go.
Another possibility. Rather than taking the route of denial, treat Judas as a hopeless case. Pastor Jim Sundholm of Community Covenant Church conducted the funeral service for a young man who was doing and dealing drugs. He was shot and killed. Jim’s opening words at the funeral were shocking but true: “Friends, there is bad news in this box. But I’m here to tell you there is good news in this Book.”
In the Gospels, Judas is only bad news. John calls him a thief and money-grabber, a devil from the beginning. Mark says it would have been better if he had not been born. And Luke says that he turned aside from the ministry and apostleship to go to his own place, meaning, I suppose, hell. But was this God’s verdict? A hopeless case?
Still one could hold up Judas as a warning, which, I think, is what Matthew is doing; a warning to those who might be tempted to desert, a warning not to cool, not to betray. William Willimon tells of going to a funeral held in a small, hot, crowded, independent Baptist country church where one of his relatives died. “It’s too late for Joe,” the preacher screamed, “he’s dead. It’s all over for him. He might have wanted to straighten out his life, but he can’t now. But it ain’t too late for you. People drop dead every day. So why wait? Now is the day for decision. Now is the time to make your life count for something. Give your life to Jesus.” On the way home, Willimon said to his wife: “Can you imagine a preacher doing that kind of thing to a grieving family? Why, I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap and inappropriate. I would never preach a sermon like that.” And his wife agreed that it was tacky, manipulative, even callous. “Of course,” she added, “the worst part of all is that it was true.” Judas is indeed a warning. “If you think you are standing, watch out that you don’t fall!” “Only those who endure to the end will be saved.”
If I were to preach the funeral of Judas Iscariot, I think I would want to do what David did in intoning King Saul’s death. I would intone a lament. “How are the mighty fallen! O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul. Weep over Jonathan. Weep over Judas.” And the lament might have three or four stanzas of a poetry similar to David’s—honest and, I hope, compassionate.
In the first stanza I would mourn the loss of an apostle. Though betraying his Lord, Judas was still chosen as an apostle, just as King Saul was still “the Lord’s anointed.” Most of the disciples Jesus chose were from Galilee. Judas was from Judea, the south, the Bible-belt of orthodoxy. But like the others, Jesus chose Judas, first of all, to be with him. I believe he loved Judas, that he saw in him true greatness. Which is to say, there was no mockery in Jesus’ calling this man. Nothing like, “Well, I’ve got to have me a devil. Judas, would you like to be the devil for me and betray me?” No. I believe Jesus chose Judas in the good faith that Judas would rise to true greatness. And I believe Judas saw in Jesus the fulfillment of his hopes for righteousness, for a kingdom of God in his day. I mourn what Judas might have been! His replacement, Matthias, was certainly a nonentity so far as we know.
In the second stanza I would mourn my own perfidy, my own unfaithfulness. At the last Supper when Jesus announced that one of the disciples was going to betray him, all of them began to ask, “Is it I, Lord?” Nobody had any real clue except Jesus. They all knew it might have been they. And you can’t forget that Peter denied his Lord three times with curses. And in the end, all the disciples deserted him and fled.
What seeds of betrayal live in me? The same seeds that were the undoing of Judas in trying to take two sides: the side of Jesus and the side of ecclesiastical authorities. In this recent Gulf War, haven’t you as a Christian felt the tension of denial and betrayal? “Kill the enemy. Kick butt. Destroy Hitler.” And then on the other hand, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Do not overcome evil by evil but overcome evil by good.” Whom do we serve? What kingdom do we belong to and live by?
Before the Crucified, I need to say in the words of the hymn that follows: Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.
I crucified thee.
Feeling my own kinship with Judas, I would mourn the seeds of betrayal that live in my own heart!
But most of all, in the third stanza I would lament that Judas, though repenting, did not wait for absolution. He did repent when he saw what his betrayal had done. But why, why didn’t you hang in, Judas, as Peter did for his sin? Why didn’t you wait for those words of Easter morning, “Go tell his disciples and Peter. . .?” Why didn’t you wait for the words, “Peace be with you,” wait to see the wounds given for your healing?
I lament that for his repentance in the temple, before the elders and chief priests, no one could say to him, “I absolve you of all your sins,” but only the words of rejection: “What is that to us?” So that the only thing left for Judas was to try to make amends on his own, to atone for his own misdeeds by ending his life.
So many, many people even in the church are down on themselves, held captive by their own lack of self-esteem. They may listen to a sermon on grace, on God’s forgiving love in Christ, and hear in it only the call to try harder, to do better, to achieve more, to make up for yesterday’s failures. They see hope for everyone else but no hope for themselves. A repentance without absolution. As Myron Madden puts it: “You either accept the atonement or you spend your life trying to repeat it, to make it yourself.”
That leads me to the final stanza of the funeral sermon for Judas, which turns the lament into praise to the one God who, as Hannah sings:
kills and brings to life;
makes poor and makes rich;
brings low and also exalts;
raises up the poor from the dust;
lifts up the needy from the ash heap.
Or as Isaiah sings:
The One who is the Lord and there is no other,
Who forms light and creates darkness,
Who makes weal and creates woe.
Friends, judgment belongs to God alone. And, blessed be he, this God sent his only Son into the world—not for the world’s condemnation but for its salvation. On the cross, by his “innocent sufferings and death,” Christ has lifted the curse by becoming a curse for us—not just the curse of boozing and womanizing and other warm-blooded sins of the flesh, but the curse of a cold hardened heart and spirit, the curse of denial and betrayal; the curse of cowardice. On the cross he bore it all. And from the cross he speaks the word of absolution: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He alone is the great High Priest for those who have none.
Perhaps Peter, thinking years later of Judas, says in his first Letter that Jesus “being put to death in the flesh and being made alive in the spirit” went and declared a general amnesty to those in prison, those who did not obey: “I absolve you of all sins.” That is why we say in the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into hell.”
Frederick Buechner says that “the way Judas figured it was that hell might be the last chance he’d have to making it to heaven, so to get there as soon as possible he tied the rope around his neck and kicked away the stool. Who knows? In any case, it’s a scene to conjure with. Once again they met in the shadows, the two old friends, both of them a little worse for wear after all that had happened, only this time it was Jesus who was the one to give the kiss, and this time it wasn’t the kiss of death that was given” (Peculiar Treasures, p. 83).
The Gospel of the Lord.