March 22, 2020: Traitor

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Wednesday: The Traitor


Mark 14:1-11

We are now to Wednesday of that fateful last week in Jesus’ life. Three events are mentioned this day. First, there is a discussion among the priestly leadership about their desire to have Jesus killed; second, his anointing; and finally, Judas agreeing to betray him. Each is significant and we will look at them in a bit more detail.

We recall that throughout the first days of the last week of Jesus’ life, he is attracting large crowds. They are protecting Jesus from the threatened authorities. Several times it says that the leaders could do nothing because of the crowds. They threatened their authority because Rome did not like large unregulated crowds that could turn into mobs. If they could not do something, Rome would remove them from office. What were they going to do? Read Mark 14:1-2.

They have given up any direct confrontation, like what happened on Tuesday. It was too risky. If they were to do anything, they would need some help. They needed someone close to Jesus who was willing to betray him so they could arrest him by stealth. They needed a Judas.

We need to understand that for Mark, Judas is not the only one at fault. It is also the story of the failure of the other eleven as well. Judas’ story of failed discipleship, along with the others, is Mark’s warning to us all. For many chapters before their coming to Jerusalem Mark is relentless in his criticism of Peter, James, and John among the twelve. Jesus continually proclaims his upcoming arrest and crucifixion and they keep trying to deny it. We need to understand that those around Jesus, more than the twelve, had also been hearing this continuing word of prophecy. Yet, most had ignored or rejected these words, a type of betrayal. Like those first disciples, we too would like to avoid the implications of what this journey with Jesus might cost us. You need to be aware of this if you are going to understand what happened at Jesus’ anointing.

Sandwiched between the plotting of the High Priest and Judas’ betrayal we have a different story. At first, we wonder how it fits in with all the dark events of this day. It is the story of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus. Read Mark 14:3-9.

 She is different from the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of the Pharisee that Luke writes about. There is a tendency to combine the stories. Luke has a totally different message that he wants to get across with his account. Scholars debate whether these two accounts are one event remembered differently or that at different times people anointed Jesus as a sign of blessing and love. In Mark she anoints the head of Jesus with a costly ointment, the value being a year’s wage for a common laborer. Many scold her for the waste, but not Jesus. He celebrated what she did. Why? Because she alone, of all those who heard Jesus’ three prophecies of his death and resurrection, believed him and drew the obvious conclusion. Since you are going to die I must anoint you now because I won’t have a chance to do it afterward. She believed the words of Jesus and, for this, is lifted up as the example of one who faithfully followed.

She, through her actions, challenges us to listen, believe and then act.

Here is how the story fits with the other two. Her devotion and willingness to stand up against ridicule is a counterpoint to the actions of Judas. Read Mark 14:10-11.

Mark gives no hint of Judas’ motive. He does not say that Judas did it for money, simply that they gave him some. Other Gospels would not leave it there. They have him betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, which connects to a passage in Zechariah. John says he did it because he was possessed by the devil. From early times, people have tried to figure out why Judas would do such a thing. Other reasons given were that he did it because he was a thief or because he wanted to force Jesus’ hand and so the list goes on. We want to have a reason so we can say; well I would never betray Jesus for that reason. It keeps Judas’ actions at a safe distance. Mark won’t let us off that easily. He almost always refers to Judas as one of the twelve. Mark does not vilify Judas or give any motives to his actions. Judas is simply the worst example of how those closest to Jesus failed him dismally in Jerusalem. Judas ultimately aligns himself with those who collaborate with Rome. The other disciples, when faced with that same authority, denied or ran away. Judas is symbolic of all of our actions where we choose the easy route instead of taking a stand.

Mark’s account of Judas is not just a story about his betrayal but a story of failed discipleship by all twelve. The question to be asked is, “When and how have we failed Jesus?” Mark wants us to put ourselves into the story; wants us to understand that we can be like one of the twelve who collaborated or ran away instead of being like the woman who anointed, who was willing to risk criticism to do what she knew was the right thing. It is why we remember her actions and celebrate how she blessed Jesus by them.

So today let me share two ways where I think we are more like Judas than the woman. When we are silent because speaking up for our faith might cause ridicule, we are like him. When we hear messages, from some quarters of our faith, saying that if we are faithful God will give us wealth, and never challenge or question the message, we are like him.

Here are some ways, in these times we can be like the woman. We hear Jesus saying love our neighbor and we reach out to our next-door neighbor and connect in safe ways in these times of isolation. We hear the Bible say, “Trust in the Lord” and so we strive to replace the fear we might be feeling, with all the news about the Covid 19 virus, with trust in God. We intentionally celebrate all that is good that is happening and share it with others instead of focusing on the negatives. Hearing, believing and acting is being like the woman. Fear, distrust and rejection are the way of Judas.

Let me end with sharing this incident that my father liked to share. He was in a church that was suffering mightily because of one family. Everyone knew that they were very wealthy and all assumed that they contributed a lot to the budget. The man made it very clear that if the Finance Secretary ever divulged what he gave to anyone, especially the pastor, he would have them in court. More times than my father could remember, a church committee would be making plans that would require doing something different. If the couple did not like the idea one of them would say, “If this goes forward I think we will have to find a different church.” That would stop all conversation because everyone decided that there was no way they could survive without this couple’s money. No one would stand up to this naked use of wealth and power.

The church began a discussion about hiring a youth worker. The couple was opposed to spending money on something like that. The parents should volunteer to do things. If they didn’t volunteer then let the program go belly up. My dad recalled the meeting where the threat came out again. If you hire this person we may have to go to another church. A man who rarely said anything in meetings asked to have the floor. He came to the front and said to this man and to the church, if that is the way you feel, maybe you should leave. As for what you have been giving, I don’t know what it was, but I will up may pledge by $1000 a year to help pay for this person and to help cover the loss of your pledge. Hiring this person is the right thing to do. Who else will raise their pledge, and he looked at the other people and one by one they began to stand and in amounts of $100 to $1000 raised their pledge. The wealthy man stormed out of the meeting but before the evening was over they had covered the salary and a couple thousand more.

The wealthy couple came to see my father a few days later. Dad assumed it was to leave the church. Instead it was to ask him, “Do we sound as awful as he made it seem?” Dad swallowed hard and told them that whenever you see your gifts to God given to the church as the church owing you something in return, it is not truly a gift. The man thought about it and said, “You are right.” They did not leave the church and never again mentioned what they gave. But for too long that church had gone along, letting one couple define the ministry of that church because all were afraid of their wealth and power. This couple had been acting the roll of Judas without knowing it. All those who were silent were like the disciples who ran away. It took one person, to say no, this is wrong, to make a difference.

So hear the good news. We may all fail, but as we hear next week, forgiveness is an option. But for now let us look to the woman as our example of faithful discipleship.