Today we celebrate Jesus as king. As Jesus commandeers the donkey and rides into Jerusalem, the capital city of his people, so he fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ (Zechariah 9.9) The hopes and dreams of the nation were that their Messiah would arrive on the back of a donkey. During his ministry, Jesus had often drawn back from identifying himself as that person, but now he takes on that mantel and rides triumphantly into the city. Crowds quickly gather to hail him as the Son of David. Tearing down branches from the trees and spreading garments on the road, they go wild shouting ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ (Matthew 21.9)
But it all changes very quickly as we know from the accounts of Jesus’ passion like the one we have just read from Matthew. As king, Jesus’ mission was not to liberate the Jews from the Romans but to save every race from the curse of sin. For this to happen, as he often predicted, he would be handed over to death and rise again on the third day.
How was it going to happen? How could it possibly happen if he was the Messiah, God’s promised king? The first indications come as Jesus takes his place at the table to celebrate the Passover meal with the disciples. He says: ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ (Matthew 26.21)
We all know the identity of that person: Judas. Rarely does Holy Week pass without a TV documentary or a newspaper article seeking to exonerate Judas; to portray him as the inevitable fall guy necessary to get Jesus on the cross. It is suggested he is motivated by disillusionment about the way Jesus’ campaign was going. He acts to shake Jesus out of complacency and is then alarmed when it all goes wrong. The New Testament on the other hand is quite clear about Judas’ motivation. It is money and materialism. He was entrusted with common purse but helped himself. (John 12. 6) He made a fuss when Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume suggesting the money could have been better used. (John 12.4) When offered thirty pieces of silver to hand Jesus over secretly to the Jewish authorities, he accepts (Matthew 26.15) and then returns the cash when his conscience gets the better of him. (Matthew 27.3&4)
But that does not make Judas a particularly bad or evil man. It makes him very much like the rest of us. Materialism plays a part in all of our lives. It takes the form of either an anxiety for the lack of money, or spending too much of our time thinking about how we will acquire more things. It may display itself in a compulsion to hoard, meanness, selfishness or over doing retail therapy.
As the disciples recline at table with Jesus, they all ask the question: ‘Is it I Lord? It could have been any of them. Like us, they all suffered to a greater or lesser extent from materialistic urges. They all had other guilty sins of one kind and another to hide. Judas is not exceptionally evil, neither is he uniquely fated to be the betrayer. It could have been any one of the disciples. It could be me or you. The sin which triggers the crucifixion is not Judas’ sin; it is the sin of all of us.
And Jesus? Well he calls Judas his friend. He calls him as one of the twelve and entrusts him as treasurer. He washes his feet and shares the last supper with him. Though Jesus knows what is in his heart, he does not reject Judas. Judas determines what he will do. When he could bear his guilt no longer, he took his own life. He heard that Jesus was to die and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10.45) but he did not wait, turn and receive that love. That is the tragedy of all like Judas whom we can only trust to God’s mercy.
As we contemplate Jesus’ crucifixion this week, let’s not pin it all on Judas. Let us ask the question: ‘Is it I Lord?’ Then aware of our sin, let us not deal with it like Judas, beat ourselves up about it. Rather may we take it and lay it at the foot of Jesus’ cross and know it is forgiven to all eternity.
Lent 6 Palm Sunday 09.04.2017