The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/28/02
Text: Matthew 26:14-49
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

As part of a study, a group of researchers from Harvard contacted an elementary school teacher at the beginning of a school year. They told the teacher that they had designed a test that would correctly predict which students were going to grow intellectually during the coming school year. (Someone called it "The Harvard Test of Intellectual Spurts" because he said it told which students were going to 'spurt' that year). The researchers promised it would indicate the right students. The test was said to be very, very accurate.

The researchers then administered, unbeknownst to the teacher, an obsolete IQ test. When the students had finished, the researchers threw the tests away. Then they picked five names at random from the roll book and told the teacher, "These are the students who are going to have a very good year. Watch these kids. The first one of them is Rachel Smith."

"Rachel Smith?" the teacher replied incredulously. "She couldn't 'spurt' if you shot her from a cannon. I have had two of her brothers and each one of the Smiths is dumber than the last." But the researchers maintained that the test was hardly ever wrong in its findings.

You can imagine what happened that semester, can't you? Rachel never had a chance to be her same old self. Under a barrage of "Rachel, would you write this on the board this morning?" or "Rachel, will lead the line to the lunch room today?" or "Is that a new dress, Rachel? It sure is pretty" or "Thank you, Rachel, that was very good," Rachel "spurted" all over that school. And so did every name they put on that list. One little boy said, "My teacher thought I was smarter than I wuz. So I wuz!"(1)

Suddenly, we gather for worship in a solemn setting and hear Jesus tell his followers, "This very night you will all fall away on account of me." As Rachel Smith spurted, we all sputter. And we know that truer words were never spoken.

Judas, of course, was the champion sputterer. Why did he do it? Was it the money, the 30 pieces of silver? He did have a reputation for dipping into the poor box from time to time(2) so the cash may have been part of it. But 30 pieces of silver was not that much, and he returned it after the deed was done anyway. If, like the other disciples, he was perennially worried about where he stood in the pecking order, he may also have been reacting to some imagined slight - after all, he was the only one of the Twelve who was not a Galilean. Shouldn't his job as treasurer have had him included with the inner circle of Peter, James, and John? Was it disappointment? Some Jews were fanatic nationalists who were prepared to go to any lengths to drive the Romans from Palestine. They were called the sicarii, the dagger-bearers, because they followed a deliberate policy of assassination. It may be that Judas was one of that number, and that he had looked on Jesus as the divinely sent leader, who, with his miraculous powers, could lead the great rebellion.(3) It may be that Judas never intended for Jesus to die, just to spur him into action, to start the longed-for revolution. Or maybe, because nothing human is ever uncomplicated, something of all of these was involved.(4) Who knows?

Perhaps it is significant that the gospel does not spell out Judass motivations. That leaves lots of room for us to consider the many reasons why someone...anyone...would stoop to betrayal.

Societies have always reserved their harshest judgment for those who betray. It is a sin against the trust that is critical to maintaining any kind of relationship, whether it is between two people or among the people of an entire nation. That is why betrayal can destroy a marriage, a family, a community, or even a church. It is why we are outraged at a man who chose to fight against his own country in Afghanistan, why we are disgusted with the executives of Enron, why we are repulsed at the repeated stories of pedophile priests. We have always been hard on Judas and all of his imitators.(5) We won't even name a dog "Judas."

Could it be that the real reason we show betrayers so little compassion is that we are afraid there is some Judas "gene" embedded in all of us? We hate the thought that we too are capable of betraying trust. When Jesus said that "you will all fall away on account of me," they jumped in echoing Peter saying, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." But beneath the surface we know they had their doubts. "We're behind you, Jesus...Far behind."

One of the messages of Holy Week is that sooner or later every disciple has the capacity to betray Jesus. We betray him at home when we hurt those who depend on us and trust us; we betray him in the workplace when it costs too much to think and act like a Christian; we betray him before the world by our indifference to the poor, by our mismanagement of resources, by our hatred of enemies. We betray Jesus. The Judas gene. We all sputter.

Fortunately that Judas gene carries with it, not only the capacity for betrayal, but the capacity for remorse as well. After the dastardly deed was done, Judas was nothing if not remorseful. He returned his ill-gotten gain to the Temple tyrants who had given it and then went out and hanged himself. Too bad his remorse was so strong that he could not have lasted for just another day. He might have heard some words from the cross which would have helped. He might have heard, "Father, forgive..."

Perhaps we can derive some comfort from George Bernard Shaw's quip that "The last Christian died on the cross." There is a certain absolution in realizing that we all fall pitifully short.(6) I am not sure I want to absolve myself quite so blithely (or you either, for that matter), but I do admit that I for one am glad that Judas was there that night. If he had not been, I am not sure I could be here tonight. Are you feeling the same thing? Remember that as you come to the Lord's table.

Remember this too: one of the earliest charges against Jesus was, "This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them."(7) You know, He still does, thank God. He still does.


1. Adapted from Bob Benson's See You at the House-: The Very Best of the Stories He Used to Tell (Nashville: Generoux, 1986), 18ff. Quoted in Homiletics, April, 1993

2. John 12:6

3. William Barclay, Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM, (Liguori, MO: Liguori Productions, 1996)

4. Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, (San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1979), p. 83

5. Craig Barnes, "The Judas Chromosome," The Christian Century, 2/27/02-3/6/02, p. 21

6. Ronald Goetz, "Judas as Patron Saint," The Christian Century, 3/18-25/87, p. 262

7. Luke 15:2

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