Saturday, 30 March 2013

Judas Iscariot

Judas has always fascinated and puzzled me. Years ago I wrote a series of seven meditations for Good Friday, Witnesses of the Cross, in which I tried to enter, Ignatian style, into the minds of some of those who witnessed the crucifixion. Here is Judas. It is my attempt to imagine why someone might in good faith, betray a friend to death. The piece is designed to be read aloud in a 3 hour service, so the punctuation may seem a little strange. 

 Judas

I didn’t always hate the Romans. When I was a little boy I loved them. My mother and father would warn me about them, and at mealtimes, when my parents and my sisters and I gathered to eat, with the door of our tiny house firmly shut,  my father would talk strongly about overthrowing them and establishing the old ways again. But I would note that even as my mother complained about the taxes, she still went to the new aqueduct to fill the water jars. I noted that my father might speak strongly at home, but in the presence of even the lowliest legionary he would smile and grovel and give the imperial salute. And every day he went to work, building the new Roman amphitheatre and every day bring home the coin stamped with the likeness of the emperor with which to buy the food we ate. As for me, I saw them march past with their armour and their helmets and weapons and with the flags flying. I would hear the sound of the trumpets and the loud drums and the tramping of a thousand feet and I would be filled with awe and wonder and envy. I would watch them pass and think to myself that the old ways could never be as wonderful as the might of Rome in all her glory. Until I was fifteen I wanted nothing more than to be a legionary myself; to wear the scarlet tunic and carry the locking shield and a broad Roman sword. Until I was fifteen.

The day it all changed was a Tuesday. My mother asked me to go with my eldest sister Sarah to fetch water. It was the middle of the day, and we wouldn’t normally need water, but earlier that morning a jar had toppled over and spilled most of the day’s supply. I didn’t want to of course; water carrying is girls work, and I was nearly a man. But I went for the sake of Sarah whom I loved as much as my own mother. She was five years older than me, and was by far the prettiest girl in the village. Ever since I was tiny she had cared for me. I can remember being carried on her hip, although I have no memory of being carried by my mother. She was the one who sang me to sleep when I was sick and who chased away the big boys if I got into a fight. I knew that in a few months she was to be married to Simeon the son of Malachi, the stonemason and that she would leave our house for ever. I knew that Simeon wanted to move to Nazareth where there was a lot of work for stonemasons and that when she was married I might not see her again. I guess I wanted to spend every moment with her that I could. So I went.

We walked to the pool that is filled by the aqueduct and filled two jars. Sarah acknowledged my manhood by asking me to carry the bigger of the two jars, but I couldn’t help noticing that her jar, though smaller, held the most water. That’s how she was. We carried our jars past the new courthouse and down the alley between the butcher’s and the carpenter’s shop, when they appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. There were five of them, standing across the end of the alley, dressed in their legionnaire’s tunics but without armour or weapons. They made insulting remarks about Sarah, who ignored them and tried to push past. One of them grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her to himself. Her water jar fell to the ground and broke. He tried to kiss her and she pulled away from him. I put my jar down and rushed forward to try and help her. I could smell the wine on their breath. I found my self hitting one of them, shouting at them to let her go, kicking, lashing out in any way I could. Then one of them grabbed me from behind. I remember a crushing pain on the side of my face. And then I was on the ground. I remember the kicking and then nothing. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. When I came to, it was to see my sister lying beside me, weeping and crying out. No-one came to help us. No one. We walked home and Sarah would not let me touch her not even to give her my arm in support. I remember two things about the rest of that day. One is Sarah standing in the river crying and scrubbing herself until she bled. The other is my parents’ silence.

I could do nothing to save her. To whom could I go for justice? My own powerlessness was the greatest burden of all.

My wounds healed in a week or two. Sarah’s never did. From that day onwards the demons entered her. She was fearful and silent. She would not let any man come near her, not Simeon, and not even me whom she had carried on her hip and sung to sleep. My once lovely sister, grew silent and old before her time, drinking wine and always washing herself and talking to no one. One day they found her dead in the river. She was naked and the blood and scratches on her body told us she had been scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing herself again

From the time of the water jars I have hated the Romans. All the admiration and excitement I once felt seemed instantly to be turned on its head and I found whatever way I could to harm them. I had never been much of a scholar, but since that day, I began with a vengeance to learn the scriptures and to keep the law and I discovered the power and beauty and dignity of my Jewishness. I found companions amongst others whom the Romans had hurt. I met with those who dreamed of the end of the oppression. I rediscovered the powerful words The Lord himself had given our ancestors: justice. Righteousness. I learned that we are truly the chosen people and that The Lord himself will cause us to triumph over the ungodly Gentiles. I learned from our people’s history that the righteous saviour will come and lead us to freedom as Moses lead our ancestors out of the tyranny of Egypt.

About three years ago my friend, another Simeon, who had recently left the Zealot party to become one of Jesus’ disciples took me to hear him speak in the synagogue in Capurnaum. Jesus read one of my favourite passages, the chapter in Isaiah in which the blessed prophet speaks so movingly of the coming reign of Justice. But just before he got to my favourite verse of all, the part where the prophet promises the day of vengeance for the hated oppressors of our people, Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down. He finished his reading not at the appointed place, and not even at the end of a verse, but in the middle of a sentence. The congregation was stunned, and we all sat in awkward silence, wondering what on earth he was doing. Then he stood up, turned to us and said, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” There was uproar, as it dawned on us what he was saying: that he was the fulfilment of scripture. The crowd surged forward, ready to drag him to the city gates and stone him, or perhaps to cast him off the brow of a hill. But he stood tall and walked calmly, quietly out through the middle of the crowd. And no one, not even the most outraged of us lifted a finger to stop him. It was such an exhibition of personal power and charisma that I knew right then that even if he wasn’t the one promised in the prophesy, he had such authority that he could make the prophecy be true. I left and followed. And I have followed ever since.

It has been a strange three years. Sometimes exhilarating and exciting. He has shown me great love and in his presence I find a release from the anger which constantly gnaws like a rat within me. But increasingly, it has been frustrating and disappointing. You have no idea how powerful Jesus is. You could not possibly imagine, unless you had seen it with your own eyes, the effect he had on people.

Like Mary, for instance. One day we were passing through a town in Judea when we came across a demoniac, a woman. She was dressed in rags and her hair was uncombed. She looked to be about 50. The front of her tunic was stained with her woman’s uncleanness and even from twenty paces away the smell of her was appalling. One of the people of that town told us that she had been abused by the soldiers and that she had been possessed of demons ever since. When I heard those words, my heart stopped. All of me stopped. I felt as if part of me wanted to go to her and do some small kindness. But she was so unclean, so dangerous. I was terrified of her and she brought such memories to me that I just wanted her gone. I looked at the master. He had stopped still in his tracks and he looked at her with tears rolling down his cheeks. She saw him staring at her and she came towards us, running,  screaming,

“Men! Men! I know you, despoilers and thieves! All of you! I know you!”

We, all of us pulled back, fearful lest she should touch us, but not the master. He stood as still as ever. “Don’t think I don’t I know you”, she screamed. The master stepped towards her.

“I know you”, he said

She stopped only a foot in front of him and she was quiet. You could see her, puzzled and uncertain as if trying to recall something she had long forgotten. And then the master did something that astonished us all. He touched her. He took her hands and he smiled at her. 
"Mary," he said. 
And at that moment I saw the demons depart. She stood there, still filthy, still dressed in rags, but now I could see she was a young woman, not much older than me. She was pretty, and there was softness, humour and grace and huge relief in her eyes. She looked down at her dirty hand and at Jesus’ hand holding it, and as if suddenly remembering that this was not allowed for a man she was not related to she said, “Do I know you?” 
We all laughed, her, us disciples, the master.

Then he said “You will”, and he took her filthy face in his hands and kissed her forehead.

And he said, “Blessed are you Mary. Beautiful virgin daughter of Israel.”

From that time forward she has followed him, walking with us as closely as any of his other disciples. It causes some problems, but the master never seems concerned about them. For me she is a constant reminder of Sarah, which brings me joy but also reminds me daily of my own and my parents and our nations’ failure to stand for what is right.

I could tell you a thousand other stories. For a while it was intoxicating. I could see how the crowds responded. I could see how the priests and the other lackeys of the Romans feared him. I could feel the power he exerted over everyone he met. But all the while I also saw that the might of Rome continued. The soldiers still stood on every street corner. The insults to our nation and our God went unanswered. The abuse of our women continued. And Jesus talked and taught and told stories. But that’s all he did. I have argued with him, pleaded with him begged him to take his rightful place. And he answers with words. With meaningless answers about the Kingdom of God, which once filled me with hope, but which now I see, cannot come unless someone actually does something to make it happen

Several times the crowds around him would be inspired by his teaching and would be ready, under his leadership, to rise and do what was right. Twice that I know of, they rose to the point of proclaiming him king. And with him at our head and in the power of our God there is nothing that could have stopped us. We would have smashed the power of Rome, and I would have delivered to my Sarah the only recompense that would have been worthwhile: the same dowry that David paid for Michal dumped at her feet.

Just this last week there was another opportunity. After he had taught and performed an astonishing feat of power at Bethany, and when the whole city was abuzz with the rumour of his name, the master rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. All true Jews who know the words of the prophets could not miss what he was saying:

”Behold your king comes, meek riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

He was not a hundred yards into the city when the crowds recognised him and what he was saying. They broke palm branches from the trees and laid them at his feet. They took the very cloaks from their backs and laid them under the hooves of the donkey. They cried out with one voice, “Behold the son of David!. Behold the King of the Jews! Blessed is he that comes in the name of The Lord!” I knew from watching it that our time had come. At Passover there are so many Jews in Jerusalem that all the Romans in the East could not have stopped us if we had him at our head. This was the moment when Justice would roll down like thunder and Righteousness like a mighty stream. All it would take was a word: one word from him. And he did nothing. And he does nothing.

But I know it is not too late. The crowd is still excited and speaks of nothing but Jesus. The authorities are confused and frightened. All it will take is one small act to force Jesus’ hand and get him to do, finally, what God is calling him to: to grow beyond his words; to give himself for our people. It is time for us to rise from our cowardice and stop the rape of our beloved country.

So I have done it. 
For Israel. 
For Mary. 
For Sarah. 
No more running away. 
No More silence

3 comments:

Jenny Dawson said...

Dear Kelvin,
This is a wonderful and moving story. Thank you for sharing it. I have developed some similar ones around Christmas, and am really trying to get into telling instead of preaching. This does it beautifully.

“A story is like water that you heat for your bath.
It takes messages between the fire and your skin.
It lets them meet
And it cleans you.
Very few can sit down in the middle of the fire itself.” Rumi
Jenny Dawson

Anonymous said...

I would think that envy and jealousy were the prime motivators for Judas.

Your piece here better fits Jesus' own family. Jesus' mother and brothers didn't understand him and tried at times to push him into the role they thought right. See the Wedding at Cana and Jesus' brothers urging him to go public in John's Gospel. There is no evidence of Judas ever pushing Jesus into a larger role.

Kelvin Wright said...

Im not sure there is any evidence that Judas was motivated by envy either. In fact there is so little evidence in the Gospels about the motivations of any of the key players we have to fall back on imagination and conjecture whatever way we see it.

My starting point for this particular work of fiction is the question, "what leads a man to betray his friend?" for me, envy doesn't quite do it. Remember that Judas, like all the others had given up everything to follow Jesus. That's why the motivation of the silver doesn't quite stack up for me either.

There were other things I was trying to portray as well, of course, in concert with the other 6 stories in the series, I was hoping to show something of the world in which Jesus lived out the last few weeks of his life - the political and social dimensions and the fractions developing in the stressed little band who lived with him as they realised he wasn't going to be who they hoped he was going to be.

I think Judas, in this piece was trying to push Jesus into a smaller role, by the way.