Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Judas . . . melodrama villain, or just like us?

Sydney Smith (1771-1845) one-time Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, said with characteristic wit: “I must believe in the Apostolic Succession, there being no other way of accounting for the descent of the Bishop of Exeter from Judas Iscariot.” 

Poor old Judas Iscariot! Our simplistic reaction to his role in the Passion is to hiss and boo when he appears as if he is the stylised villain in a Victorian melodrama. But that, it seems to me, trivialises Gospel passages such as the one we read at today's Mass (Matthew 26:14-25): 

"Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, 'What will you give me if I deliver him to you?' And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him. 

"Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?' He said, 'Go into the city to a certain one, and say to him, "The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples."' And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover. 

"When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; and as they were eating, he said, 'Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.' And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, 'Is it I, Lord?' He answered, 'He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.' Judas, who betrayed him, said, 'Is it I, Master?' He said to him, 'You have said so.'" 

Between December 1941 and October 1942 the BBC broadcasted Dorothy Sayers’ series of radio plays on the life of Jesus, "Man Born to be King." Her brief remarks on the Gospels were from the standpoint of a playwright trying to create a believable human context based on the texts themselves. 

When I first read Sayers' characterisation of Judas Isacariot, I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t seen him that way for myself ... a young, idealistic man, sincerely looking for the coming of God's Kingdom, who REALLY believes in Jesus as the one who can and will bring in the kingdom and get rid of the Roman occupying forces. As time goes on, however, Judas grows impatient and even disillusioned. Why isn’t Jesus using his “powers” to do what needs to be done? So - as a last resort - Judas decides to force Jesus' hand by putting him into a situation where he will either have to act decisively to overthrow the Romans or else face humiliation and death. Jesus, of course, does not act as Judas thinks he should, and instead treads the Calvary road of suffering and pain in order to redeem us, not from the Roman taskmasters, but from slavery to sin and death. 

Dorothy Sayers' Judas is very believable, very human, and far more realistic than the melodramatic villain! After all, how many REAL BELIEVERS, like Judas, love Jesus, but also try to manipulate him for our own ends (or for the sake of our ministries or churches!), thinking that by so doing we are working for the Kingdom of God? 

All we end up doing is betraying Jesus afresh. 


I’m not the only one who likes Sayers’ interpretation of Judas. Go HERE to read another commentator’s article comparing the mistaken Judas with the comforters of Job. I give you two extracts:

". . . Sayers does an excellent job of portraying Judas as she intends. There is always a hint, even when Judas is at his most sincerely devoted to Jesus, that it is always in his eyes Judas standing in judgment of Jesus (even if only to approve him) and never once Judas standing before Jesus in order to be judged. Judas knows what Israel needs; the question on Judas' mind all along is: Does Jesus know what Israel needs? He is walking, as Sayers says of him later, by sight and not by faith: so long as Jesus obviously seems conforming to his standards, Judas is the most loyal of followers. Once Jesus doesn't seem to be, however, Judas assumes that Jesus has sold out (and, worse, it turns out that Judas was simply mistaken in his interpretation of Jesus' actions) . . . 

". . . It seems to me that this is always a very deep danger; and that the more educated and intelligent people are, the more likely they are to make it. Hence the need for us all to cultivate the virtue of intellectual humility."


Anonymous said...

Oh how true, as they say, you can have everything in life including intellect and yet still be working by sight only and blinded in faith.
As our Lord is beyond intellect, as it is not needed, as His sight is perfectly formed and moulded with love. To see the true reality and not indulge in our petty mental wonderings.

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