Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How High Minds Fall

Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. (John 13.29)

The Great Big Middle

This past Monday I joined over 1000 Chicagoans for CROSSwalk, a solemn, four-mile procession that mourned the loss of our city's youth to gun violence. We wore paper bibs that read, “632”—the number of minors killed on our streets since 2008—“more than we can bear.” In the time needed to produce the bibs, the number went up, as several more youngsters met with untimely death. The procession stuck to the sidewalks, where most of these inexcusable murders occur, where safety must be restored. It stopped at several points for prayer and remembrance before concluding at Stroger Hospital, where many of the city’s young gunshot victims are pronounced dead. The hospital’s imposing edifice reminded me of a tomb that was anything but empty. While we pledged to defeat this menace, inside its walls wounded teens and children were fighting for their lives.

The Right Reverend Jeffrey Lee, Episcopal Bishop of Chicago, closed the event with a quote from Martin Luther: “Pray like everything depends on God; work like everything depends on you.” It summed up the unspoken dilemma resting heavily on our hearts: how do we transform our sorrow and outrage into meaningful action? Yet throughout the walk, we were repeatedly told to “listen to what the Spirit is telling God’s people,” and the message rising in our spirits told us, “I’ll be with you to help you figure this out. You can do it.” I sensed none of the jittery impatience that often infects closing rallies at these kinds of events. The urgency to act was swaddled in calm assurance that, step-by-step, with God’s help, we can and will reverse this cruel tide of destruction and grief. Our commitment surpasses rushing to stop violence; we’re determined to eliminate it. That will take time.

Impatience is the natural-born enemy of kingdom work. All but a very few of Jesus’s parables—His lessons about restoring God’s kingdom on earth—involve patience. Seeds must have time to sprout; fruit and grain must ripen; investments must mature; lost children and sheep and coins must be found. In nearly every story, there is that great big middle where meticulous attention to growth must happen. The great big middle where we work and wait, where everything depends on God and us. The great big middle where we learn that time is on our side, offering a chance to tend to details that ensure bountiful harvests and lasting results. The great big middle is such a standard fixture in Jesus’s teaching that we wonder how Judas misses it. But he does. And that surprises us, as he’s the detail guy who keeps the books and manages the money. It’s his job to maintain what's needed to do the work of the great big middle.


For obvious reasons, the Gospels downplay Judas’s role in Jesus’s ministry. Prior to his betrayal of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, and Luke only mention him in passing as a disciple. They give his full name, Judas Iscariot, and note him as “the traitor.” John foreshadows his treachery by identifying him as the disciple who protests after a woman anoints Jesus with costly perfume that might have been sold to provide for the poor. We’re not really sure what John’s up to with this. Judas’s complaint at first casts him as a misguided activist. But then John discredits him by saying Judas wanted to bank the money because he skimmed from the coffers. That’s hard to swallow, though, since it seems unlikely he’d be given charge of “the common purse” if he were suspected of thievery. So there’s probably some revisionist shading in John’s accusation.

More reliable clues about Judas’s character surface in his surname, and even then, scholars aren’t sure what it means. Some speculate that “Iscariot” refers to a Judean town of no notoriety, while others believe it refers to the Sicarii, a group of Jewish assassins bent on overthrowing Roman rule. Still others theorize the writers assign “Iscariot” after the fact, alluding to Hebrew words that mean “the false one” or “choked” in reference to his suicide by hanging.

Perhaps the clearest window into Judas’s soul opens during the Last Supper when Jesus tells him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” (John 13.27) Quickly. The adverb misleads the other disciples to think Jesus is sending Judas on an errand—possibly to buy supplies to celebrate Passover (which begins the next day) or to donate some of their funds to the poor. In retrospect, of course, we know Judas has jumped sides in collusion with those who want to destroy Jesus. His impatience to see change he longs for (whatever that may be) burdens him with a false sense of urgency. Feeling stuck in the great big middle, forced to work and wait for lasting change, doesn’t suit him. His eagerness to speed progress along urges him to switch loyalties. Realizing He’s lost Judas, Jesus tells him, “Do whatever you need to do, and be quick about it.” Jesus has lost patience with Judas’s impatience. Jesus might have warned, “Rushing to judgment breeds injustice. Your plan is doomed to backfire.” Which is what happens. Both will be dead in 24 hours’ time. Only one will rise again.

High-Minded and Shortsighted

Succumbing to impatience with the great big middle is how high minds fall. The compulsion to make something happen soon distracts them from tedious tasks required to get the job done. Everything becomes expendable—ideals, people, loyalties, and even purpose—when the ends justifies the means. And when “any means necessary” becomes the justification for hasty, imprudent actions, we invite chaos and failure to the party.

We talk a lot of big stuff around here: truing our lives to Christ’s example and teachings, loving God and others without restraint, living by faith and not by sight, combatting Christian exclusion, striving for social justice and equality, eradicating violence and abuse, and on down the list of daunting challenges that come part and parcel with life in God’s kingdom. Every personal and social change we seek can’t come quick enough. Every step we make toward progress presses us to move quicker, to put less effort in the tedious necessities and more into giant leaps. We become high-minded and shortsighted and we fall. If, as some suggest, Judas was set on overthrowing Roman oppression, it clouded his understanding that Christ came to accomplish something far greater and more enduring. Jesus had no use for uprooting a regime. He came to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom in the hearts and minds of every human—a kingdom that would grow if carefully, patiently tended. The mission that plays out in His trial, execution, and resurrection is one of reconciliation and redemption, not revenge and replacement.

Faithfulness is lived in the great big middle, where we keep our heads down and do the hard work of God’s kingdom. Is that not Lent’s great lesson? Is it not epitomized in the agony of the cross? Is it not witnessed in the stalwart women who arise early in the morning to tend to Jesus’s grave? Judas teaches us where rushing to judgment and other acts of impatience lead. In our eagerness to reach the empty tomb, let us never forget that the road beyond it is long and difficult, that the work it calls us to do is tedious and time-consuming. There are miles of great big middle that we must travel—as individuals and the Body of Christ—to make good on Calvary’s promise of redemption and Easter’s restoration of life.

While we can’t say with certainty what Judas’s motives were for betraying Jesus, we can all relate to his impatience to act on his compulsions. His high-mindedness leads to shortsightedness and he falls.

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