We don't generally spend a lot of time talking about Judas, because he committed an unfathomable act of treachery. However, if we can step back for a second look, we may find a character who makes us squirm because he's just a bit too familiar. Before Judas betrayed Jesus, he was looking for a Messiah who would let him follow his own plans.
When Judas Iscariot, the disciple of Jesus, mouthed the Lord's Prayer, especially when it came time to say "Your will be done," perhaps he voiced this prayer with the tacit assumption that God's will paralleled his own. We have probably all been guilty of that sin before.
But what happens when God's will differs from my own? What happens when the fulfillment of the prayer, that is, the part when God's will is accomplished, flies in the face of my will?
'Shrewd as a Snake'
Judas may be the most intriguing of Jesus's disciples. He is certainly the most elusive. Over the centuries, Christians have characterized him, some maliciously so, in any number of ways. He was a heartless miser, a power-hungry schemer, or a green-eyed apprentice overshadowed by a more talented master.
Maybe, but maybe not.
Perhaps we should more modestly characterize Judas as a man who initially latched onto the magnetic personality of Jesus but eventually became disillusioned as Jesus's vision for the Messiahship began to contrast considerably with Judas's vision. And when Jesus the Messiah failed to fulfill the obligations Judas had imposed on him, he craftily bailed out when there was still time.
There is good reason to believe that Judas was the most perceptive—"shrewd as a snake," we might say—of Jesus's disciples. He may have been the first one to recognize that Jesus's intentions for the Messiahship embraced nothing pertaining to physical rebellion or military rule.
During their last week together in Jerusalem in celebration of the Jewish festival of Passover, on which occasion Jesus brought his ministry to crescendo, Jesus aggressively unpacked his teachings and did not mince words. As Jesus did so, he openly defied—in fact, condemned—the religious establishment to such an extent that he made his death inevitable. Jesus made enemies when he was in Jerusalem, and Judas, as astute as he was, knew it. It's possible that some of Jesus's other disciples also flirted with betraying their Master after their stint in Jerusalem. Within a few hours of Judas's betrayal, in fact, practically all of Jesus's disciples—even Peter—scattered like sheep without a shepherd.
When death is on the line, loyalty wavers. Unlike Judas, who knew exactly what was going on, the response of the other disciples evidenced their surprise at the betrayal, and their actions were clearly not premeditated. Peter wanted to fight, Mark ran away without his clothes, and John watched from a distance, while the others may have quietly left the scene.
Cashing Out While There's Still Time
We essentially have two options when God does not follow our plan for life: going our own way or readjusting our course. On the night when Jesus was arrested, Judas had previously made his decision to go his own way. That is to say, at some point in his apprenticeship to Jesus he rejected his Master and decided to cash out his chips while he still had a hand to play.
Unlike Jesus's other disciples, perhaps, Judas was an experienced player. The fact that Jesus designated him, of all the other capable disciples—Matthew the tax collector included—as the treasurer of the group's finances, suggests that Judas was shrewd and astute. Although, according to the Gospel of John, his serpentine shrewdness was not joined with the innocence of a dove.
The majority of the four Gospels place Judas's betrayal of Jesus immediately after a woman stepped into a room full of men laying on couches as they ate, which was the tradition for parties, and rubbed expensive perfume on Jesus. This was a scandalous act. Naturally, the disciples did not approve. They must have been acutely sensitive to the extreme poverty they had experienced in Jerusalem the past few days. In such a context, the woman's decision to rub expensive perfume on Jesus with her own hair must have come across not as heartfelt devotion, but as unbridled excessiveness. Judas, perhaps because he was the treasurer, voiced publicly what the others were saying amongst themselves. "Why this waste? For this [perfume] could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor."
In response to Judas, Jesus described her act in a way that surely must have silenced the room: "When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial." To make matters even more controversial, Jesus went on to say, perhaps intended directly for Judas, "In truth, I tell you, wherever throughout all the world the gospel is proclaimed, what [this woman] has done will be told as well, in remembrance of her."
Judas had seen enough. Whatever game plan Jesus was following as the Messiah, it differed from Judas's.
By Wednesday evening, at which time the woman poured her perfume on Jesus, Judas had probably made up his mind to cash out while there was still time. The Jews would celebrate Passover the following evening, and Judas may have reasoned that something had to be done before the end of the week in order to get out while he still could. If Jesus predicted that his own death and the destruction of the temple were both imminent, then Judas may well have concluded that the two events were linked. What would Jesus do to destroy both himself and the city of Jerusalem? As the end of week drew near, he didn't have much time left before finding out.
As is well known, Judas left the Passover feast early Thursday evening. The other disciples were clueless about Judas's duplicity. Only Jesus was aware of Judas's impending betrayal. The public conversation between Jesus and Judas the night before at Simon the leper's in Bethany went over everyone's head, and the same thing happened at the Last Supper: "What you are going to do, do it quickly."
Couldn't Let Go
At this point in the story, we should see the other option we have when God does not follow our plans: rethink our plans and adjust accordingly. Faithful disciples of Jesus put their plans at the feet of their Master.
We all have motives for the things we do. And Judas must have had a motive for his betrayal of Jesus. Although money may have been a contributing factor, it was not the primary reason. Judas may have been a pilferer, as the Gospel of John suggests, but the fact that he very shortly returned the "blood" money he initially received from the Jewish leaders indicates that greed was not the whole story.
Whatever motivated him, the Gospel accounts make it clear that Judas did not readjust his course. At best, Judas found Jesus genuinely perplexing and completely misunderstood how Jesus's plans could be better than his own. At worst, Judas was so blinded by his plans and so desperate to secure a future for himself that he was willing to take part in a complex murder scheme. At the root of Judas's betrayal was a belief in a particular kind of Messiah who would lead him to a prosperous future. He could not accept a suffering servant who bears the sins of others and lays his life down in order to conquer death. If we're honest with ourselves, such things are not easily believed today, for that matter. Who wins through self-sacrifice? Who would want to trade in his or her own plans for a prosperous future and submit to a God-King's new plan? Who says that the first shall be last and the last shall be first?
Judas couldn't let go of his plans because he could not imagine any other way forward.
The story of Judas stands in stark contrast to Peter, who said to Jesus, "Lord where should we go? You have the words of eternal life." Judas wasn't about to let go of his life plans quite so easily. He had a plan B in mind: get some money to start over and win over the good will of Israel's puppet leaders. He wasn't all that interested in the words of eternal life if those words didn't mention the overthrow of Rome and the return of the Messiah to rule the land of Israel.
If Peter embodies the ideal childlike faith that rested completely on his future with Jesus, Judas trusted in himself and his own plans. I don't know about you, but I have a hard time just saying, "Wherever I end up is quite alright as long as I'm with Jesus!" That's the ideal we should be striving for, but how many times do we attach conditions? "I'll follow you, but I also really want to get that promotion at work." "I'll follow you, but I want to live in a big renovated farm house someday." "I'll follow you, but I want my kids to go to the best school possible."
Peter didn't have a plan outside of asking Jesus what he should do next. Judas waited to see whether Jesus would provide what he wanted. If Jesus didn't deliver, he was ready to split. While I'm not personally invested in the liberation of an oppressed country like Judas, I can at least relate to his tendency to try to cram God into his own plans. And keep in mind, Judas was not unusual for his times. Just about everyone in Israel wanted the deliverance of Israel from Rome.
A Surrendered Disciple
Plans come between us and God slowly, almost imperceptibly sometimes. There was a time in my life when I (Ed) didn't want to live in a city, and I resisted the possibility that I could ever offer anything of value to my poorer neighbors. In fact, I spent more time fearing that my neighbors would mug me rather than thinking of ways to meet them. As I've immersed myself in my city neighborhood, God is both revealing my own selfishness and opening my eyes to the joys and opportunities around me. It was hard to imagine that God could possibly have something better in mind than my own plans.
Over the years I wanted to follow Jesus, but I always kept backup plans stashed away. I had goals I wanted to meet, assuming that I could keep them along with my relationship with Jesus. I was quite far from Peter's statement, "Who do we have but you?" If I was honest, I would have said, "Well, I sure would like you to be in my life, Jesus, but I also have some other great stuff that offers meaning and fulfillment. In fact, I'd like your help with some of those things." Each time I let go of these plans or goals and allowed God to reshape them, I found that my original vision for the future wasn't all that great after all.
A surrendered disciple can say to Jesus: I will live anywhere. I will travel anywhere. I will do any kind of work. The details don't matter, as long as you are in my life.
Judas provides a stunning contrast between trusting in our own plans and a childlike faith that can hold loosely to goals and dreams for the future. His murderous plot isn't something we can imagine doing. However, once we understand his commitment to Israel with specific political, religious, and personal outcomes in mind, we can at least understand why he struggled to follow Jesus. As we begin to notice the ways our prayers wander from "Thy will be done" to "My will be done," we'll find that Judas, if anything, provides one of the most important warnings against confusing our plans with God's and one of the most visible contrasts with the childlike faith that helps disciples draw near to Jesus, even during the most trying moments of our lives.
Ed Cyzewski and Derek Cooper are co-authors of Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Follwing Jesus (CLC Publications). Cyzewski is a freelance writer who blogs at In.A.Mirror.Dimly. Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and and historical theology at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. This article is adapted from their forthcoming book, UnFollowers: The Oversights, Distractions, and Misconceptions that Keep Us from Following Jesus (February 2014, Wesleyan Publishing).