At St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle upon Tyne, England there is a stained-glass window depicting the last supper. It is about 140 years old. In the picture, Jesus is surrounded by his disciples, all blessed with handsome features and dressed in bright colours with gold halos above their heads. In stark contrast, Judas, his betrayer, is wearing a dark coloured cloak, has an ugly face, flame coloured hair and holds a bag of money in his grasping left hand. Most telling of all is the black halo above his head.
Judas has long fascinated me. Not with the aim of excusing him or trying to rehabilitate him but to understand what lay behind the decision to betray his friend and once he had, what options remained. A previous blog has looked at this (Pathways: Restoration instead of Despair; April 2020). What has intrigued me this Easter is less about the pathway of Judas, and more about Jesus and how he coped with the betrayal by his friend and his experience of increasing powerlessness through this betrayal as he journeyed from arrest to trial and execution.
Throughout his life, Jesus consistently showed the way of love – to all those he met along the way and most especially to his close group of twelve disciples with whom he spent the final three years of his life. At the last supper he shows this love in a symbolic act of service when he first washes their feet and then shares in a meal where he talks of his impending death. He knows Judas is about to leave and betray him and Judas knows Jesus knows, yet he still does it. The love of Jesus reaches out, but he is powerless to stop Judas. Love is like that. The families of addicts know this only too well. How many parents, children or partners of addicts have loved and reach out in love, desperately hoping that this will be enough to draw their loved back to sobriety, back to sanity, back to them. But they are powerless to stop them, all they can do is love, and that brings with it immense pain and sorrow.
In the story of the last supper, John responds to Jesus’ prediction of betrayal at the hands of one of their number by asking him who it will be. Jesus indicates that it is Judas. Throughout the gospels, the disciples seem to display a high level of crassness and misunderstanding about whatever Jesus says and I’ve always assumed that in this instance John, (and probably Peter too who overheard what Jesus said about betrayal) simply didn’t understand what he meant. But on reading the story again, it now seems obvious that this wasn’t the case; they did understand, yet they did nothing. This is shocking. The anguish which Jesus felt about Judas’s impending betrayal must have been compounded by an immense sense of bewilderment and perhaps an even greater sadness that Peter, John and any others who’d overheard the conversation did nothing to stop Judas. He’d loved them all fully yet at this point, each of them betrayed Jesus in some way by their indifference and passivity.
Soon, as the story shifts to the arrest of Jesus and his trial, Jesus becomes physically powerless in the hands of the Roman authorities, initiated and urged on by the religious leaders. But at this point he is experiencing a different sort of powerlessness – his powerlessness to influence and change the people he knew and loved. We know that this is not the end of the story and that ultimately, they do change – that is, everyone but the tragic Judas who takes his own life before the love of Jesus can finally break through. But today, Maundy Thursday we stay with Jesus and stand in solidarity with all whose love is powerless to change the behaviour or circumstances of someone they love. Despite everything – the hurt and sadness, the suffering and confusion, the rejection, doubt and despair, they stick by their loved one and continue to offer them love and hope. We give thanks for these people. We pray for them too because they continue to love against all the odds. Love is never easy and it’s costly, but ultimately, it’s the only way to bring healing and life to others and to ourselves too, remembering that we love because God first loved us. Whether we know it or not, it’s this love of God which helps us to keep on loving others.