Sermon for the Sunday After the Ascension
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
May 13, 2018 10:30 AM
οὗτος μὲν οὖν ἐκτήσατο χωρίον ἐκ μισθοῦ τῆς ἀδικίας καὶ πρηνὴς γενόμενος ἐλάκησεν μέσος καὶ ἐξεχύθη πάντα τὰ σπλάγχνα αὐτοῦ·καὶ γνωστὸν ἐγένετο πᾶσιν τοῖς κατοικοῦσιν Ἰερουσαλήμ, ὥστε κληθῆναι τὸ χωρίον ἐκεῖνο τῇ °ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ αὐτῶν Ἁκελδαμάχ, τοῦτʼ ἔστιν χωρίον αἵματος.
This man bought a field with his wicked profits and falling forward [in it], he burst apart at his midsection, and all his innards rushed out [of him]. Now this became known to the inhabitants of Jerusalem with the result that they called that field in their own language Hakel-dama, that is, “field of blood.”
Did we really need to know about the bloody end of the Judas the traitor? Would the story of salvation have been any different if Luke had omitted this grizzly detail from the Book of Acts? Indeed, what difference would it make to us if Judas had lived to a ripe old age, enjoying the fruits of his ill-gotten gains for the rest of his days? Maybe Luke, the author of the book of Acts, had a vindictive streak and derived some secret satisfaction from telling his readers about how the turncoat had taken a fall within his newly acquired piece of real estate and quite literally burst open—one would suppose burst open with excruciating pain—as though a foot had snaked out invisibly from heaven to trip him up and send the miscreant head-over-heels into a well-deserved early grave. We can almost feel Luke’s anger, his sense of betrayal. So, when Luke tells us about Peter speaking to the small circle of Christians about how the disciples, now eleven in number, would need to select someone to fill out their company, the betrayer’s name, “Judas,” waves a red flag for Luke, and he can’t let things go without telling us about the man’s disgusting death: “Speaking of Judas, (in case you didn’t know it) that awful man met an awful end in a field he bought with the money the chief priests and temple cops gave him for helping them get rid of Jesus. Luke pictures the betrayer’s nauseating remains laying in a bloody heap on his new piece of property, an awful mess led the locals to name that piece of real estate Hakel-dama, ‘field of blood.’” Served the so-and-so right, didn’t it?
By contrast, Peter’s words about Judas lack Luke’s fury. Peter borrows David’s words from scripture to declare Judas’s place among the apostles vacant and to declare that the company of believers must find another to take his place. Pretty mild stuff. In fact, we look in vain through all the Gospels and Acts for condemnations from any of the disciples for their former colleague, who had sold out their Master with a repulsive kiss on the Mount of Olives. We have to leave it to the next generation, and the next, to Luke and Matthew and Bishop Papias to tell stories about Judas’s brutal demise.
The disciples knew better. Peter knew better. Peter knew that when asked whether he belonged to the company of the Nazarene, he denied it, and then denied it again, and yet again, the last time just as the cock crowed; and he saw Jesus, being led away roughly from his star-chamber trial before the Council, and Peter knew that Jesus had heard his denial. If Judas had betrayed Jesus, what had Peter just done? Perhaps we should not be surprised that Peter has no scorn to heap upon his fellow disciple.
But at least Peter had timorously tip-toed his way into the crowd huddled around a bonfire in the courtyard of high priest’s house to find out what would happen to Jesus. If he wasn’t very brave, at least Simon the Rock was willing to huddle anonymously among the curiosity seekers, the gossips, the off-duty policemen, and the household slaves, who enjoyed the suspense this reality show brought them. What happened to the other students, the other Galileans that had once thought their Teacher had the very words of life but whose courage failed them completely when the policemen showed up at the wine press at the foot of Mt. Olivet? Where were those brave souls that were willing to take a sabbatical from their fishing jobs to learn Torah from the Rabbi? They had disappeared like fairy dust. They didn’t deny Jesus for the simple reason that they had run as far away from Jesus as their young legs could carry them when the cops surprised them just wiping the sleep from their eyes. Were those fleet-of-foot renegades going to call Judas names?
We understand Luke’s anger, his insistence on telling us that Judas met a bad end. We want Judas to be the bad guy—the worst guy—the person you and I could never be. We need to meditate on his treacherous character and shameless betrayal to tell ourselves that we could never be like that. We couldn’t sell out our Lord, deny our savior, or turn our backs on Jesus. Judas did that. How evil he must have been! A painful death was too good for him!
Jesus told a story about us that gets at the heart of our anger at Judas:
Ἄνθρωποι δύο ἀνέβησαν εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσεύξασθαι, ὁ εἷς Φαρισαῖος καὶ ὁ ἕτερος τελώνης. ὁ Φαρισαῖος σταθεὶς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα⸃ προσηύχετο· ὁ θεός, εὐχαριστῶ σοι ὅτι οὐκ εἰμὶ ὥσπερ οἱ λοιποὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἅρπαγες, ἄδικοι, μοιχοί, ἢ καὶ ὡς οὗτος ὁ τελώνης··νηστεύω δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου, ἀποδεκατῶ πάντα ὅσα κτῶμαι. ὁ δὲ τελώνης μακρόθεν ἑστὼς οὐκ ἤθελεν οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἐπᾶραι εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν, ἀλλʼ ἔτυπτεν τὸ στῆθος αὐτοῦ λέγων· ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one of them a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed these things, “O God, I thank you that am not like the rest of these people, thieves, reprobates, adulterers or like this tax collector. I fast twice each week; I give ten percent of all that I earn.”
But the tax collector, standing far off, wasn’t willing even to lift his eyes into heaven but struck his breast, saying, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:9-13)
We’re mighty glad, aren’t we, that we’re not sinners, betrayers like Judas. But Jesus’s story reminds us that the Pharisee’s sin did not consist of being a Pharisee, of loving the Torah, of doing the commandments. His sin consisted of refusing to know how much he was like the tax collector he hated so much, how he, like the tax collector, needed God’s mercy, how he, like the tax collector, had to repent or else die in his self-satisfaction and fear.
Tax collectors weren’t very nice people. In the Roman system, they paid the taxes for their district and then marched out with armed policemen behind them to demand, extort, and rob the citizens of the district of as much as they could squeeze out of them. Public opinion held that the worst stuck-up, self-satisfied Pharisee was worth a hundred times more in the kingdom of God than a low-life tax collector. But the calculus shifted when both men stepped into the temple to pray and the tax collector knew with absolute certainty that he was a sinner who could only beg for God’s mercy. The righteous, tithing, law-abiding Pharisee, though, hadn’t read the memo and had somehow forgotten that every breath he took, every morning his eyes opened to a new day, every caress of his children, and every sweet drop of water that passed his lips were God’s gift to him, that he depended on God for all things that were good in his life and that stubborn refusal to know his faults and repent was no gift at all but a curse.
Peter and the other disciples got the message. They remembered. If they had not betrayed their Lord with a kiss, they had betrayed him a thousand times over by hiding away in their secret places of shame, paralyzed by their fears. They did not welcome their new colleague Mattathias into a hall of fame but into an assembly of wounded sinners who knew that when tested, they had failed. But they had gotten the memo. They could have no illusions about their courage, and they had no reason to believe they could do anything for God’s kingdom except to fail its high calling. They needed mercy. And that mercy they needed from God was the very thing that would conquer the world, not their bluster, not their righteousness, not their steadfastness, but God’s sweet grace, God’s mercy never failing.
You and I have no other prayer worth praying, no other gospel worth proclaiming than the tax collector’s prayer and the message that God stands ready to supply the mercy that sinner implored for himself and much more mercy besides. Let that mercy pour down on the thousands of teachers who will raise their voices in Raleigh Wednesday and on the students, who depend on them for their knowledge and wellbeing. Let that mercy pour down on our Staples clients and on those who use Lyn’s Medical Loan Closet. And let us get the memo the Pharisee missed about how much you and I need that mercy just as much as those precious students and teachers, just as much as those who hunger, just as much as those afflicted with disease and infirmity. Given the test of mercy, you and I might well fail it flat, but God will not fail. We step into the company of disciples not because we are fearless and righteous but because our Lord Jesus is gracious and merciful. He cannot fail.
 Papias was Bishop of Heliopolis c. 95-120 CE. His story of the demise of Judas occurs in a fragment of Apollinaris c. 310-390 CE. See Bart Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers 2 (“Loeb Classical Library” 24; Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2003): 105-106.