What do you do with Judas? Do you heap coals on his head? Single him out as the bad apple in the group? Pronounce “good riddance” and move on? Maybe you say that his treachery regarding Jesus was inevitable, or part of some grand design, or initiated not by him but by the Tempter? It’s tough not to get stuck on him, or with anyone involved in such destructive behavior, but casting blame may not get us anywhere good.
Are you aware of similar patterns in your own family or workplace, the tendency to focus on one member who seems to be “the problem,” the fantasies you nurture about that person “just getting himself together,” or “taking care of her business” so that the family could have some peace? I am not suggesting that individual members of systems don’t bear responsibility for their actions, both good and bad, but healing comes from an honest look at the whole. Consider: what is at the root of a person’s actions or feelings or identity? How might the family inadvertently contribute to his/her struggle? Does the system in some way benefit from designating one person as the source of its pain, by taking others off the hook? What would happen instead if each of us faced our own demons?
No one can be sure why Judas did what he did. According to John’s gospel, he sometimes pilfered the money given for the poor. Since all of the disciples worried about where they stood in some imagined pecking order—who’s first, who’s last, who’s the one most likely to sit at Jesus’s right hand—he might have been reacting to some perceived slight. He might have gotten frustrated with waiting for Jesus to set the world straight, once and for all, and “hoped that betraying him might force (Jesus) to show his hand at last. Or maybe, because nothing human is ever uncomplicated, something of all of these was involved.” (Frederic Buechner)
Maybe we have to admit that “Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is unremarkable,” writes Dan Clendenin, not because it is inevitable, but because it’s ordinary. Even common. After all, Peter promised that he would never deny the Lord, but then he did so three times. The other 11 disciples each made the same pledge, yet when Jesus was arrested, they all fled for their lives. And after the fact, Judas and Peter respond to their betrayal and denial in similar ways.
On some days I hold the disciples at arm’s length and wonder about their hard hearts and even harder heads! But in my more grounded moments, I see myself in each of them and them in me—including Judas. Consider the old hymn:
“Ah, holy Jesus… By foes derided, by thine own rejected, O most afflicted! Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!”
This is hard stuff, but I bring it up because the alternative is often to cast the blame on a single person or issue… like the family that blames their pain on the teenager who has a drug problem, the sister who shuts out her depressed brother, the faculty room that buzzes about the teacher who lost her temper, the husband who holds his wife responsible for his infidelity, the country that demonizes the unemployed, the city that believes an ever more sophisticated police department will keep them safe. All of these “diagnoses” run the risk of choosing a quick fix over the difficult work of seeing all of what’s there and addressing it in some humble and holistic way. Remember Jesus’s practice of healing: he stops, he listens, he sees the person and her context, they engage with each other. Reconciliation is born of this kind of communion.
When a part of us is hurting, the whole is always affected and diminished, and while in rare circumstances an individual is so toxic to a system that he needs to be isolated for his and the other’s well-being, more often than not, the work ahead is group work and calls for shared accountability.
Consider the practice outlined in the Lord’s prayer—forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us—the model of Jesus calls us to hold ourselves accountable for what we have done and left undone, to consider how we are involved when things don’t work well for everyone, to demonstrate mutual respect especially for the wounded one, who is the one most likely to wound others. But we tend to scape goat when we are afraid. The easiest way out of a problem, we think, is to blame someone and move on. We can do better than that. We have to.
Blaming the other, the enemy, the one we have all the problems with, doesn’t get us anywhere, and Jesus offers us a better way. God goes to hell with the betrayer. God lives the hell with the part of us that is most in pain, most wounded, most lost, most hurt. Rather than heaping coals on our heads, God meets us in the hells that have been thrust upon us or that we have helped make ourselves. God goes to that place of deep darkness. And if God can be present with us in our most awful dimensions, then who are we to dismiss or discredit anyone? The one most likely to hurt others has been hurt herself. And when we struggle to love her, God goes there ahead of us, making a way where there was no way.