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Remorse and Redemption with Judas and Jesus

Written by Martyn Percy, posted on Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Holy Week 2020

The story of how the Samaritans began - the organization founded in 1953 by the Reverend Chad Varah - at the time a young curate in the city (and diocese) of Lincoln. It is no exaggeration to say that the organization, which is now international, and counsels the lonely, depressed and suicidal, grew out of a particular encounter that Varah had with shame and remorse. Cycling back to his clergy lodgings one day, he was greeted by the housekeeper at the door, who told him that his Rector was ill, so he would need, at the last minute, to take a funeral.  He cycled off the cemetery, cassock flapping in the breeze.

When Varah arrived at the cemetery gates, the funeral was about to start. At this point, he did not know the name of the deceased, but was curious about why the body was laid to rest in the part of the cemetery that was not consecrated. He finished the funeral, but then began to ask some questions. Varah discovered he’d presided over the funeral of a girl of thirteen who had killed herself when she had begun menstruating.  Mortified that she had to be buried in unconsecrated ground, with parts of the burial liturgy redacted (for a suicide), Varah felt his own remorse. The family were there too – and no less remorseful. Shame and guilt lay thick in the air, held together with the collective remorse of the mourners.

Varah’s response to his remorse, and the guilt and shame of the mourners, was constructive and imaginative.  He became concerned about the state of sex education for teenagers in the city and started to work with young people, especially listening to those who were contemplating suicide. Varah’s Samaritan movement grew rapidly when he subsequently moved to London. Within ten years, the Samaritans were a sizable charity, offering a supportive and empathetic listening service that is not political or religious.

Remorse is not an easy subject to write on. But it is ironic that it should be so neglected in our world today, when shame, vilification and regret are so amplified in our social media often with such tragic consequences.

As one recent celebrity pleaded before taking their own life – with their final social media post to their many followers – “in a world where you can be anything, be kind”. Heartfelt.

I am writing this in a week where I have learned that an old friend of mine from school days has taken his own life. His father is a bishop; his older brother a priest, and his sister married to a priest. The deceased was married, with grown-up children. They were a clergy family through-and-through, deeply embedded faith and love, and in the hope and grace of the gospel. And yet, and yet…

My friend took his life after a prolonged period struggling with depression. The cycle of shame, remorse and depression pulled him ever-downwards. But only I think, and ultimately, into the everlasting arms of God. The days when mourners were left with the remorse and stigma of a family member who took their own life are, thankfully, mostly gone.  We now speak differently of these deaths. For we understand the power of remorse to cause deep damage to individuals, and to families, communities and nations.

It is only in recent times that we have begun to understand quite why so many German citizens too their own lives as the Second World War ended. For a few, it was their Nazi zeal, and not wanting to live in a world without their Fuhrer-leader, and where the Reich was decimated.

For many, however, it was their own multiple overwhelmings of shame and remorse that did for them.  The raped; the silent witnesses and by-standers who had watched the trains trundling to the camps, and always leaving empty, but said nothing; those who had saved their own lives and betrayed others – but only in order to save themselves.  Indeed, many chose to symbolize that sense of being swamped by their individual and collective sins, by drowning themselves and their children. (On this, see Christian Goeschel, Suicide in Nazi Germany, Oxford: OUP, 2009).

The scriptures are full of remorseful characters, and they pepper the Old and New Testament with their biographies. Lives lived out of regret are painful to engage with, and the scriptures give us plenty of insight into this, yet as part of the overall ecology of salvation.

Without question, the primary case-study in remorse is Judas. In Christian tradition the name of Judas is synonymous with betrayal and possession. In Dante’s Inferno Judas belongs in the inner ring of hell along with Cassius and Brutus, the Arch Traitors.  And yet the New Testament tells us very little about Judas; who he was, why he betrayed Jesus, and what on earth possessed him.

There is a very old tradition that says that Judas was the nephew of Caiaphas the High Priest, and persuaded to become a secret agent to plot the downfall of Jesus. In the Gospel according to St John we are told that Judas betrayed Jesus for the money (John 12: 6) and that the Judas was a thief.  In the other gospels the name ‘Iscariot’ seems to be linked to a fanatical set of Jewish Nationalists who were determined to overthrow their Roman masters. According to this tradition of possession, Judas is gripped zeal-otism, and when he realises that Jesus is not going to be the new political Messiah he had hoped for, he hands him over for betrayal. As one modern poet says (Judas Restored, by Ann Lewin, 2010):

My road to hell was paved

With good intentions:

I thought he’d fight, and show them

He was king.

But I was wrong.

I couldn’t live, knowing I had

Betrayed the one I loved. I thought

I’d have to bear that guilt for ever. 

But I was wrong again.

No Sabbath rest for him:

He came in awesome power,

Trampled the gates of hell

And conquered Death, taking

All who were trapped in darkness

To live with him in everlasting light.

Purged by another kiss

He’s set me free

To love him to eternity.

We also read in John 13: 27 and in Luke 22: 3 tell us Judas was possessed by Satan, giving us the idea that Judas is somehow taken over by the devil in order to accomplish the wickedest of deeds. 

One modern writer suggest that Jesus is ‘betrayed somewhere in the lost childhood of Judas’.  It wasn’t his fault – blame his parents.The Gospel writers all seem to agree that Judas is sick and evil, and appear to give us at least three possibilities as to why: he was in it for the money; he was politically disaffected; or, he was possessed by the devil. Of course these are not in themselves competitive theories about Judas’s betrayal; they may in fact turn out to be complementary.

The point is that when a gross and evil act is committed, even the gospel writers are not above the language of blame and scape-goating. In shifting the responsibility – all too easily from a tragic and suicidal human individual on to an evil and cosmic dimension – in which Satan appears to triumph over God, they miss a trick.

Judas is part of a problematic economy in the Gospels: those who are vilified by the Evangelists. Even gospels of salvation name their enemies, and this problem, ironically, reaches its peak in Holy Week. It begins in churches all over the land on Palm Sunday, with the dramatic reading of the Passion Narratives. Congregations are reminded that it was the Jews who called for Jesus to be crucified: ‘let his blood be upon be upon us, and our children’s children’. The readings leave us in no doubt that the blame for Jesus’ death comes partly from a Jewish crowd, baying for blood. Judas is at the end of this narrative, the arch-betrayer and instrument of Satan.  Greed and disenchantment get the better of him.  The Romans, strangely, are just gentiles going about their job; Jesus’ execution isn’t their fault.

The anti-Semitic tone set to some of the Passion narratives make many Christians squirm today. This is part of our remorse for the Holocaust, and for which we bear our share of responsibility. Likewise, the treatment of Judas at the hands of the Gospel writers is painful to read today. Placing blame on one race or one man seems crude, simplistic and even primitive. Is not abrogation just as much of a betrayal?

Yet our society has not evolved as much as one might hope. Those crude instincts reflected in the Gospels live on today, as any failed national sports hero or politician can bear witness. One person to blame is convenient and neat; it lets us off the hook.

Judas is, in reality, a mirror to Jesus. He too can cry ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do’.  He is despised and rejected, a man acquainted with grief. He gets mixed up in the politics and passion of the week, and kills himself in despair. He dies with no hope or security; like Jesus, he has been misunderstood, his mission has failed. This sentiment is captured in Peter De Rosa’s poem, Judas:

Judas, if true love never ceases,

how could you, my friend, have come to this:

to sell me for thirty silver pieces,

betray me with a kiss?

Judas, remember what I taught you:

do not despair while dangling on that rope.

It’s because you sinned that I have sought you;

I came to bring you hope.

 

Judas, let’s pray and hang together,

you on your halter, I upon my hill.

Dear friend, even if you loved me never,

you know I love you still.

Judas, of course, is not the only betrayer in Holy Week. Consider Peter, who now realises that there is nowhere to hide and no one else to go to. So he leaves the threatening light of the fire in the high priest’s house, and goes out, not into the darkness of Judas’s damnation, but into darkness of the night – where Christ is already to be found. 

Dorothy Sayer’s poem ‘The Gates of Paradise’ captures the encounter with Christ in the darkness of hell’s most powerful night. The poem tells of the journey that Judas makes in the hours immediately after his death, across a lonely desert. He meets the two thieves who died with Christ. But when they learn who he is and of what he is guilty, they refuse to accompany him. Eventually Judas encounters a grey-hooded man who agrees to walk with him to the gates of Hell and beyond:

The second robber went his way,

And Judas walked alone,

Till he was aware of a grey man,

That sat upon a stone,

And the lamp he had in his right hand

Shone brighter than the moon.

‘Come hither, come hither, thou darkling man,

And bear me company,

This lamp I hold will give us light,

Enough for thee and me.’

 

When the two reach the gates of Hell and are greeted by Satan, the grey-hooded man is revealed to be none other than Jesus.

 

Satan looked out from Hades gate,

His hand upon the key,

‘Good souls, before I let you in, first tell me who ye be.’

‘We be two men that died of late

And come to keep Hell’s tryst,

This is Judas Iscariot,

And I am Jesus Christ…’

Many years ago, the artist Sir Laurence Whistler created a set of thirteen engraved glass windows for a church, consisting of twelve disciples, with the thirteenth being for Christ. It was the twelfth of these windows featuring Judas that was the subject of much controversy, because the parish rejected it. (Though the parish church in Moreton, Dorset, did eventually accept and install the window almost thirty years later, in 2014). What might have caused the church to say ‘no’ to this window?  It might have been the disturbing image of a man committing suicide that caused the parish to reject it.  Or perhaps that some in the parish felt Judas belonged in hell, with Cassius, Brutus.

But Whistler drew on other Christian traditions. Julian of Norwich, for example, who in one of her Shewings, went to Hell and found no-one there, ‘not even a Jew’.  Catherine of Sienna said she could not go to heaven if there was anyone in Hell.  Whistler’s window was nicknamed ‘the forgiveness window’, and it has Judas with a rope around his neck being pulled into Heaven. As he did so, the coins (blood money) fell from his hands and became petals and blossoming flowers on the ground.  This is the very inversion of Dante’s vision of what befell Judas, and, of course, it ties in with another rather nice modern myth about Judas.  Noting that on Good Friday and after the death of Jesus, all the disciples dispersed and ran away, one modern poet, Norma Farber (‘Compassion’) asks where we might find Mary, the mother of Jesus on that day? 

In Mary’s house the mourners gather.

Sorrow pierces them like a nail.

Where’s Mary herself meanwhile?

Gone to comfort Judas’s mother.

An ecology of kindness and grace is part of the deep core rubble that forms and underpins the foundations of God’s love. Judas’s remorse is an extreme mirror of what could befall any of us. We all make mistakes. We all have regrets. We can all be imprisoned by remorse. We can then, all too easily, travel the road to deeper despair, instead of being drawn into the route and home of abiding, abundant love. Understanding remorse, and but knowing we can’t let it shape the rest of our lives, is what allows the prodigal son to take one step back towards home.

So, Judas is a compelling person to take with us on this theological and spiritual journey into Holy Week. This is bound to be to be journey inwards. But always, outwards, into the boundless love of God. This remarkable poem by Ruth Etchells (‘The Ballad of the Judas Tree’) captures something of the essence of that road, less travelled.

 

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree

Where Judas hanged and died

Because he could not bear to see

His master crucified

 

Our Lord descended into Hell

And found his Judas there

For ever hanging on the tree

Grown from his own despair

 

So Jesus cut his Judas down

And took him in his arms

“It was for this I came” he said

“And not to do you harm

 

My Father gave me twelve good men

And all of them I kept

Though one betrayed and one denied

Some fled and others slept

 

In three days’ time I must return

To make the others glad

But first I had to come to Hell

And share the death you had

 

My tree will grow in place of yours

Its roots lie here as well

There is no final victory

Without this soul from Hell”

 

So when we all condemned him

As of every traitor worst

Remember that of all his men

Our Lord forgave him first.

So, for the one who reaches out to the despised and rejected, God says, through Christ, that he too will know something of that rejection. The scripting and patterning of this in the life of Jesus is as important for the story of salvation as is the cross. You have to see it as a whole. Sometimes the rejection is active, and sometimes quite passive. But Jesus is sensate to both; this is integral to God’s incarnation: the word became flesh.  God knows precisely what it is to be human. 

Jesus is, after all, the body language of God.  Jesus enacts what God would do with our shame and remorse. So, Jesus touches the untouchable; sees the unseen; hears the unheard; speaks for and to the unspoken; embraces the excluded. This includes inculcating our own deepest pains, which are often not only imprinted on the body, but also in the soul and heart.

Some years ago there was a competition on BBC Radio 4 to write a short sermon.  The winner was called ‘The Kiss’, and it went like this:

“Good to have you home, son.  Sorry you were in so much pain”.

“It wasn’t the nails that hurt, dad.  It was the kiss”.

Our attention is drawn to deeply physical act of kissing. The kissing of Jesus’ feet by an unknown woman; the kiss of Judas in betrayal. But whatever kind of kiss it was, the point is simple. God dwelt with us, amongst and as one of us: the word made flesh. 

And it is that flesh that returns to heaven in the ascension. Even flesh marked by pain, torment and torture. The flesh that Jesus returns to heaven with is even more like ours; it has been loved and cherished; but also weathered, beaten, rejected, despised and defeated. Finally, it has died. This is the flesh of the resurrection too. The one still marked with nails, but now raised.

To understand remorse properly, we have to appreciate something obvious but seldom stated enough, right at the start of our journey. That is, to know that God’s love is complete, total, free, overwhelming – so much so, that it is, in human terms, irrational.  God is to be praised not to be appeased, but because God loves us totally and enjoys us as we are, remorse and all.

A friend of mine, and a fine theologian too, used to say that the biggest problem facing the Church throughout history, now in the present, and in the future to come, was always, ever, the same; coping with the overwhelming abundance and love of God. My friend said that the churches never really understood it, and constantly struggled with the immeasurable grace, love and mercy of God. The Church wants to direct this love, and ideally ration it out to the (apparently) more deserving. But the life of Jesus embodies the body language of God. Love for all – especially the marginal, and those crippled with guilt and remorse. 

Partly for this reason, I find this modern poem by Harry Smart (‘Praise’) particularly compelling:

Praise be to God who pities wankers

and has mercy on miserable bastards.

Praise be to God who pours his blessing

on reactionary warheads and racists.

 

For he knows what he is doing; the healthy

have no need of a doctor, the sinless

have no need of forgiveness. But, you say,

They do not deserve it. That is the point;

 

That is the point. When you try to wade

across the estuary at low tide, but misjudge

the distance, the currents, the soft ground

and are caught by the flood in deep schtuck,

 

then perhaps you will realise that God

is to be praised for delivering dickheads

from troubles they have made for themselves.

Praise be to God, who forgives sinners.

 

Let him who is without sin throw the first

headline. Let him who is without sin

build the gallows, prepare the noose,

say farewell to the convict with a kiss.

Too many Christians are “closet Pelagians”: they profess belief in the unmerited grace of God, but behave as though salvation cane be earned if they try harder. But the church is not meant to be modelling some kind of business that runs a reward-card scheme: the more you attend or buy, the better the perks for ‘members’.  The Church is a field hospital for the wounded and broken; the sinner and the despairing; the remorseful and repenting. That is to say, it is for all of us. 

The English Christian mystic Margery Kempe (1373-1438) claimed God once said to her, “More pleasing to me than all your prayers, works and penances that you would believe I love you”.  Christ died for all, and all who receive him (Jn. 1: 12 & 3: 16).  Paul, writing to Titus (3: 4-7) put it better than any theologian:

“…when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life….”

We cannot save ourselves. True, Paul’s letter to Titus goes on to extol the importance of virtues and good behaviour.  But Paul does not add “or else…!”.  No threats are made. Salvation is not something we eventually acquire, but only provided we are very, very good. We are invited to throw ourselves on God’s mercy; accept Christ as our redeemer; and rejoice. We have all sinned. We all fall short of the glory of God.  No-one deserves heaven. The gospel is simply this: accept Jesus, and welcome him in to your life and habitat; and God will share his life and home with you for eternity. 

The gospels often chide the church for trying to act as a kind of ‘Border Agency Police’ for heaven; or Christians offering their well-meaning services to Jesus as self-appointed Immigration Control Officers for Paradise.  But Jesus is not impressed with these proposals to police his kingdom.  Hence, the gospels offer extreme cases of God saying “let it be”, or “let them come to me”. The dying thief on the cross is an obvious example (Luke 23:32-43). The criminal could not have known Jesus for more than a few minutes, or even an hour. Yet on the cross, for the most minimal confession, the thief is promised paradise. 

Had the disciples still been around to witness this exchange shortly before the death of Jesus, they must have wondered to themselves what on earth the point of giving up everything and forsaking all for the Kingdom of God. Had they not been with Jesus for three years?  Had they not abandoned their jobs? Had they not left behind their families, even leaving the dead unburied? 

Of course they had. So how is that Jesus is offering precisely the same, namely paradise – and no more and no less – to a man who has been committed to a lifetime of violence and crime. It does not seem fair, somehow.

Fairness is something Jesus asks us all to reflect on. The younger son in the parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15: 11-32) is not treated fairly at all. He is treated with lavish generosity, and absurd, abundant, unmerited grace.  The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16) gives an equal portion of the rewards to those who are least deserving. God gives to those who are clearly quite hopeless the same – the identical amount – as those who toiled all day.  So the parable reminds Christians that salvation isn’t measured out in fractions. You cannot be half-saved. You cannot be half-baptised. You cannot be half-loved by God. 

In all of this, we must remember that God’s love is broader and deeper than anything we can conceive of.  God’s love is not rationed.  In fact, it is so comprehensive as to be almost irrational.  And so we offer a church for all, because God’s kingdom is for all.  The scriptures are so beautifully frank. God lives in love (1 John 4: 16): “God is love. Everyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in them”.  In the words of F. W. Faber’s inclusive early Victorian hymn:

 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy

Like the wideness of the sea

There’s a kindness in his justice

Which is more than liberty.

 

There is no place where earth’s sorrows

Are more felt than up in heaven

There is no place where earth’s failings

Have such kindly judgement given.

 

For the love of God is broader

Than the measure of man’s mind

And the heart of the Eternal

Is most wonderfully kind.

 

But we make his love too narrow

By false limits of our own;

And we magnify his strictness

With a zeal he will not own.

 

There is plentiful redemption

In the blood that has been shed;

There is joy for all the members

In the sorrows of the Head.

 

There is grace enough for thousands

Of new worlds as great as this;

There is room for fresh creations

In that home of upper bliss.

 

If our love were but more simple

We should take him at his word;

And our lives would be all gladness

In the joy of Christ our Lord.

The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church

Holy Week 2020