John Bennison Words and Ways | Betrayal and Denial: Cheaters or Liars, Take Your Pick

Betrayal and Denial: Cheaters or Liars, Take Your Pick

[For context it will be helpful to be familiar with the Common Lectionary Text from Matthew,  provided witht a pdf version of this Commentary found here.]

A Commentary for Passion Sunday and Holy Week

 

Judas went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?”  … “The one I will kiss is the man.”
 
While they were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they all became greatly distressed and began to say to him, one after another, “Surely not I … Is it I, Lord?”
 
After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!”

Mt. 26:14-27:66

Prologue

Consider this: The four canonical gospels give somewhat different versions to explain how and why Jesus — the itinerant preacher of peasant stock from lower Galilee early in the 1st CE — got himself done away with by the ecclesiastical and political domination system of his day.

But all four gospels do include similar accounts of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial; leaving us to have to decide forever afterward who was the bigger jerk.

What’s worse, betrayal or denial? Who’s worse, cheaters or liars?  Which is the greater faux pas?  And what can possibly redeem such falderal?

 

Commentary on this portion of Mathhew’s Passion Narrative

Had the plotline to this story been submitted for an episode of Law and Order, the script would have been found to be riddled with inconsistencies.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  Unfortunately, the gospel writer felt compelled to try to make sense out of it anyway; and explain why, in retrospect, it all had to happen the way he spins the tale.

Ever since boyhood, when I first heard this story told in all its gruesome detail, this is what I could never understand: If the entire crowd accompanying the arresting party could identify the one who had committed the alleged crime of preaching blasphemy in the temple, what need was there in bribing Judas to point him out?

And, if Jesus was going to incriminate himself in a kangaroo court, where the predetermined verdict was pretty much in the bag — despite the lack of credibility of conflicting false witness testimony — why even go through the motions of providing such a long-winded tale?

Equally problematic is any attempt to read any of the passion narratives in the gospels as resembling an accurate account of historical events; beyond the basic fact Jesus was executed.  For instance, if Jesus’ potential eyewitnesses all dozed off in the garden, who was left to record verbatim the master’s three tortured

soliloquies when he wandered off “a little further” by himself? Maybe he kept a journal, and just left it behind in Gethsemane?  Maybe some unnamed source with a very good memory was eavesdropping from the bushes; then able to repeat the account decades later?

And finally, because Matthew is always so hot on the idea that Jesus is the long-awaited messianic fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecies, the lines attributed to Jesus  (e.g., “But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”) makes everything a foregone conclusion; and hence all the details rather superfluous, while the characters are merely unwitting pawns in the game.

On the other hand, if we were to consider the differing gospel versions from the perspective of each early post-resurrection faith community’s attempts to make sense out of the actual historical event of Jesus’ execution, the characters developed in the passion stories could be indicative of their own stories; including the very real and common human experiences of betrayal and denial.

It is not hard to appreciate how the story of Jesus’ execution became of penultimate importance to the early Christian church movement.  This bewildering turn of events was made even more tumultuous for this radically-new emerging religious sect’s own break from Judaism after 70 C.E., with the sacking of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and all it represented.

Not only that, all this was happening as the early church struggled to create for itself a persuasive narrative that would have to compete to win hearts and minds, in a marketplace filled with various other religions that all had their own stories about dying and rising saviors.

The simple fact of the matter was this: What made this story of this particular execution of a no-name religious rabble rouser different was the difference it had made in the lives of those who had subsequently sought to know and follow a way of life embodied in the living presence of the one who had once walked the paths they still trekked.  For them, his voice could almost be heard in the wind.  And his most authentic teachings resonated so deeply within them, it was as if they’d been inscribed in their hearts.

How could they betray those words?  How could they deny the wind?

For them, his voice could almost be heard in the wind.  And his most authentic teachings resonated so deeply within them, it was as if they’d been inscribed in their hearts.  How could they betray those words?  How could they deny the wind?

Yet somehow, for some very real reasons, the stories of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial must have struck a chord in them, as well.  As much as they’d have liked to have denied it, the stories of those two-faced, treacherous, fickle, frightened numbskulls might have been more reflective of the struggles of these subsequent would-be believers than they would have like to have admitted.

Which means, of course, that we too – removed as we are from any firsthand knowledge, so we might also be tempted to try to cloud the real issues in this story with irrelevant details — might be able to look and see a little Judas in us, and a little Peter, as well.  And, then we have to choose.

We can choose to either join the crowd, who always loves to find a scapegoat; the one in whom we can try to rid ourselves of our own complicit cheatin’ hearts (like Judas), and feign innocence, if not ignorance (like Peter).

Or we can own up to the times and places we betrayed someone or something, or acknowledge the harder truth when we were betrayed ourselves; when we thought love was real, or forgiveness had wiped the slate clean, or amendment of life counted for something, or we thought everyone believed in resurrection.

Or the times we’ve shrunk back from the fear of knowing more than we wanted to know about the meaning and the message of what it means when love gets nailed to a tree, and given up for dead.

We could peal away from the self-righteous crowds of certainty, judgment, and even fleeting orthodoxy; then withdraw to a lonely place, where we might just dare to ask ourselves just who do we resemble more, Judas or Peter?  And, perhaps more important still, can love crucified still find us, and bring us home?

We could peal away from the self-righteous crowds of certainty, judgment, and even fleeting orthodoxy; then withdraw to a lonely place, where we might just dare to ask ourselves just who do we resemble more, Judas or Peter?  And, more important still, can love crucified still find us, and bring us home?

So, first a word about Peter, then Judas.

Peter’s denial carries a double meaning, of course.  Fearing guilt by association, he disavows himself of any affiliation with the one with whom he’d been traipsing all over the countryside, sidling up to this charismatic charmer whom the crowds loved to throng.  He’d been Jesus’ right hand man, and he’d enjoyed the status and notoriety that had come with his association with the Man.  Now he was as eager to disown him as Judas was ready to hand him over.

The other meaning to Peter’s emphatic insistence that he did not know the man was, of course, that he didn’t really know the man.  Time and again in the gospel stories, Peter’s fickleness and fear is exceeded only by his lack of grasping what Jesus was saying, and who Jesus really was.

When the cock crowed it might have been more than making good on Jesus’ prediction.  The cock may have been mocking Peter’s feeble mind, as much as his trembling voice and those knees shaking with fright.  At least Judas may have had a better idea who Jesus was, and what he was all about. So, about Judas:

Perhaps Peter had a habit of nodding off before, like on one of those earlier preaching missions, when Jesus had been droning on, delivering that Sermon on the Mount, for instance.

Perhaps Peter was daydreaming about who-knows-what that day, while Judas had hung on every word the master uttered; weighing the implications and potential consequences of that subversive message about a different kingdom that was supposed to be right around the corner.

It must have been one of the Master’s most amazing sermons.  It was about a new reign of God, where the poor and the meek (not the rich and the powerful) are the ones who are blessed and would inherit the earth.

If you recall, it was Judas’ radical love of the poor in Mark’s tale in the earliest gospel tradition, when he criticizes Mary for squandering her money on costly oil to anoint the feet of the teacher; the one whom Judas came to fear he knew all too well.

As one hymn writer later composed it,

 Said Judas to Mary, “Now what will you do
With your ointment rich and so rare?”
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of the Lord,
And I’ll wipe it away with my hair,” she said.
“I will wipe it away with my hair.”
 
“Oh Mary, O Mary, O think of the poor.
This ointment it could have been sold;
And think of the blankets and think of the bread
You could buy with the silver and gold,” he said,
“You could buy with the silver and gold.”
 
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll think of the poor;
“Tomorrow,” she said, “not today;
For dearer than all of the poor in the world
Is the love who is going away,” she said,
“My love who is going away.”
 
Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep
Today, you may do as you will.
Tomorrow, you say, I am going away,
But my body I leave with you still,” he said,
“My body I leave with you still.”
 
“The poor of the world are my body,” he said,
“To the end of the world they shall be.
The bread and the blankets you give to the poor
You’ll know you have given to me,” he said,
“You’ll know you have given to me.”
 
“My body will hang on the cross of the world
Tomorrow,” he said, “not today.
And Martha and Mary will find me again
And wash all my sorrow away,” he said,
“And wash all my sorrow away.”

Said Judas to Mary, Sydney Carter

I wonder if Peter ever felt the least bit conflicted about what would later end up that strange dichotomy of the church of Christ the Victor, Christ the Vanquished; simultaneously bearing a message of deference to the poorest of the poor, while adorning itself with the opulence of the kind of self-adoration Jesus of Nazareth would have found utterly corrupt and blasphemous.

 Of the two, Judas certainly gets the bum wrap.  He’s singled out as the traitor, selling out the one whom they’d all previously made a commitment to follow.

Legend has it Judas couldn’t live with himself, and didn’t stick around for the end of the story.  And, the thirty pieces of silver was considered blood money, as untouchable as was he; or, so the story goes.  Tradition would relegate him to a place lower than the ranks of the marginalized and outcast; the place, coincidentally, where the one he’d once sworn he’d follow anywhere often associated himself.

Tradition would relegate him to a place lower than the ranks of the marginalized and outcast; the place, coincidentally, where the one he’d once sworn he’d follow anywhere often associated himself.

And for all his trouble?

I like to imagine the money might have been given to the poor, just as Mary’s extravagant, choice could have.

And in yet another imagined telling of his story, I wonder if he could have recanted his betrayal, following his guilt and regret; just as Peter repented of his own forsaking of Jesus.

 After all, that other culprit, Peter, the Rock — whose faith and fear were forever competing until such time as he discovers how to lose his own life to save it — becomes the cornerstone of the church.  He retracts his denial, and takes up the mantle of love crucified.  So much for denial.  So what of Judas and his one-time betrayal?

That other culprit, Peter, the Rock — whose faith and fear were forever competing until such time as he discovers how to lose his own life to save it — becomes the cornerstone of the church.  He retracts his denial, and takes up the mantle of love crucified.  So much for denial.  So what of Judas and his one-time betrayal?

By the time some of us gather Sunday on Easter Even, the retelling of the story of a dying and rising savior will have played itself out again.

 All the religious descendants (modern-day believers) of those first disciples who had fled in fear at the time of Jesus’ arrest, will have returned once again to at least get within earshot, to hear the outlandish tale of two women and an empty tomb.

 As Luke’s tradition will continue to weave the tale (and we will re-live it), late in the afternoon, two unnamed disciples will be met by their risen Lord on the road to Emmaus. Though neither will recognize him, both will finally come to know him in a moment that will change their lives forever.

The two unnamed disciples?  Perhaps their names were Betrayal and Denial.

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

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This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to <http://173.254.107.125/wordsnways>

2 Comments

  1. About Judas: from one point of view, he is essential to the grander story. Without a betrayal, there is no death followed by a resurrection. Without a resurrection, there is no Easter Story, and maybe no subsequent religion called Christianity. What if Jesus had not died on the cross? I always wish he had the sense to avoid that fate. But then maybe we would still be worshiping Zeus.

    • Thanks for your good comment. Here’s a thought: I personally don’t think Jesus’ execution was pre-determined in some great divine plan of salvation; wrought by some all-sufficient act of (blood) atonement for my wretchedness. It may be a predominant assumption in what popular Christianity has become, but I think it’s a weak and ultimately indefensible theological argument.

      At the same time, while I don’t believe Jesus’ execution was “necessary,” it probably was inevitable; given the domination system of his day which was diametrically opposed to his radical message that was politically incendiary.

      One well-know contemporary biblical scholar, J D Crossan, makes the important point that it was not particularly newsworthy that someone was later identified or credited with being a dying/rising savior — that was fairly common. But what would have been controversial was that someone from such lowly human status as Jesus would be accorded such divine status.

      My sense is there’s a lot that needs to be de-constructed in much of what passes for Christianity these day; then reconstruct something that is worthy of being called good news, that has both heart and intellectual honesty. JB

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