Wrestling with Judas and choosing the smaller good

I had the blessing to watch a dress rehearsal of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” at the Barley Sheaf Players, and it put me to once again wrestling with Judas.  Watching a regular performance answered some questions, posed some others, and sharpened the rest.  What to do with this man?

I suspect that Jesus mostly regarded Judas with pity and compassion.  Jesus knew what was coming and how Judas was mistaken and how Judas would suffer from his actions.  At the Last Supper, though, we see Jesus as angry.  Jesus loved Judas, welcomed him and taught him and traveled with him, ate with him, probably slept beside him, and as the hour nears, the personal pain of this betrayal registers clearly.

That is Jesus talking as a man, which he was, but what about Jesus as God?  What is God’s relationship with Judas?

We have to start with our definition of sin.  The word is translated from a Greek term referring to “missing the mark” and it refers to being what we are not supposed to be by violating divine law.  Traditionally, sin is when we do something that we know is morally wrong.  Both parts have to be true for it to be sin:  it has to be wrong, and we have to know that it is wrong.  In that, it is consistent with mens rea, the mental state for committing a crime.  In neither circumstance do you have to know the exact chapter and verse of the code that you are violating but you must have an idea that this thing that you consciously choose to do is against the rules.  When there is no awareness of the morality of the act – in young children, in insane or demented persons, during sleep – or no capacity for rational choice – all of the above plus conditions of duress – then there is no violation, no sin.  It sounds really easy.  Damn, though, it is not.

In the Synoptic Gospels, the emphasis is on the sacrifice of Jesus.  Through our sin, our choosing of something other than God and God’s law, we separate ourselves from God and deserve to be destroyed.  We will stick a pin in that one for the moment and come back to it, but in the Synoptic tradition, Jesus takes the place of every other human, is one perfect death in substitute for everyone else’s death.  Jesus lays his body across the crevasse that we create between ourselves and God, becomes a bridge so that we can cross and rejoin God.  Jesus defeats death by dying, as a man, because God cannot die.

In that story, then, Jesus has to die, and someone needs to help the religious authorities in their persecution.  If not Judas then someone else, but was Judas actually wrong?  Tell me your answer and I will tell you what ethical model you prefer.  From a utilitarian perspective, this is a slam dunk:  a few hours of torture and then murder for one man to save billions from damnation?  From a deontological perspective, it’s also fairly easy:  you don’t have a rule allowing you to betray your friends.  Judas’ actions damage the good health and order of the group, so they are wrong from the standpoint of communitarian ethics, too. 

Of course, in an ethical model in which good is the will of God then acts that are consistent with God’s will, which further God’s plan, are good.  In an incident in which God’s will is the sacrifice of his own son to pay the wages of sin and death, Judas was right.

Judas clearly thought that he did something wrong.  We hear it in the anguished monologues in the play and in the account of Judas hanging himself, overcome and destroyed by his own guilt.  However, even the hanging is problematic.  Tradition has it that suicide is an unforgivable sin because the sinner dies in the moment of committing the sin and thus has no opportunity to repent, so we take Judas’ suicide as guilt and probably repentance for betraying Jesus even as he sins in a way that supposedly precludes repentance.  To this, we can add a bit of theological tradition that no one has ever been certainly condemned to Hell because there is always the possibility that in the last dying ember of life, that person inclined his or her heart toward God and sought forgiveness and thus was welcomed in Heaven. 

In other words, there is much reason to believe that Judas pulled it out and saved himself, or at least could have, but did he need to be saved?  Again, if Jesus had to die as part of God’s plan then was Judas wrong?  There has been some speculation that Judas betrayed Jesus with the expectation that Jesus would save himself by ascending, assuming his full might and instantly establishing his kingdom on Earth. 

We don’t know, but in the play, something that I caught the second time, Judas sounds as though he is coming from the Johannine Tradition, the Gospel according to John.   There, the emphasis is different.  Jesus must do what God wills, and thus to not sin, by proclaiming the truth, even though it will get him killed.  Judas sees the growing tension, the increasing chaos and instability of the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, and knows that it cannot endure, wants it to stop.  Judas is acutely aware of the social and cultural waves that Jesus is making, and perhaps Judas doesn’t think that Jesus is?  Perhaps Judas expected Jesus to rise up, or perhaps to shut up, put his head down, stop causing a ruckus.  If Judas loved Jesus, and he probably did, then perhaps this was his goal, to protect Jesus?

Pontius Pilate is stuck, too.  We don’t see a man who sought to kill Jesus but instead who found himself caught between one man and a civil rebellion.  If actions that further God’s plan can be wrong then Pilate was wrong to kill a man rather than risk a riot.  Sure, in that riot, many more probably would have been killed, and for a utilitarian, that is enough, but Pilate had enough martial power at his disposal to kill the rioters, the guilty, while sparing Jesus, who was innocent.

For that matter, Jesus is stuck, too.  As a human, he doesn’t want the humiliation and the beating and the crucifixion, which is a brutal, awful way to die, but what else can he do?  If he obeys God then he will be murdered.  If he disobeys God then he will be destroyed.  He asks to be spared, but he knows that he has to keep doing what he is doing and what the result will be.

As in the case of Judas, Pilate chose the smaller good.  Perhaps this is the nature of sin, and Judas and Pilate and the Sanhedrin were just doing what humans would inevitably do in those circumstances but God was able to turn their evil into something good.  That seems to be a specialty of God’s, something that happens continuously, as God turns acts that are certainly evil into circumstances of good.  For example, God doesn’t cause a divorce but God works through the willing spouse to teach and cleanse and prepare so that he/she is ready for the right and better situation that is coming.  It’s the principle of unintended consequences, such as when an oncology nurse gives a high dose of morphine to ease the pain of a dying patient while knowing that the dose will speed death.  The nurse isn’t murdering the patient.  There’s just no other way to ease the pain, which is a certain good, except through a drug that causes faster death, which is bad, but not what the nurse intended.  In this example, the nurse is legally and morally right because she chose the greater good, not the smaller good.  God accepts the certainty of sin by Pilate and Judas and concocts a scheme in which those sins are cogs in a machine that builds a greater good.  It could be that.

I love Reese’s cups.  Wawa puts them on the counter to tempt customers, not me specifically, though it certainly works in my case.  With my weight being what it is, I do not need to be eating Reese’s cups, but where is the line?  Surely one Reese cup will not cause a heart attack or stroke, and surely 100 in a week would substantially contribute to a heart attack or stroke, but where is the line?  Can’t I eat to that line minus one?  To the extent that a Reese’s cup can destroy me, I am wrong to destroy a person loved by God by eating them, as that would be a sin, but because I do not know for a fact that this particular Reese’s cup is One Too Many, I don’t know where the line is.  In other words, I don’t actually know for a fact that what I’m doing is wrong.

Oh, and by the way, those cups are on the counter.  Like everyone else, I am tempted to grab, which is to say, steal, one.  Because you never know who might read this blog (almost no one, but this post would be the exception…), I will state unequivocally that have never ever ever stolen a Reese’s cup and I have never ever ever stolen from Wawa and I have no plans to do so.  Ever.  Being tempted is not the same thing as committing the wrong, but the temptation is there and Wawa has done the cost-benefit analysis, which it can do, because such things are within the realm of human understanding.  Wawa knows that a certain percentage of counter-basket Reese’s cups will be stolen and that the loss from those thefts is less than the percentage increase of sales by putting Reese’s cups in a basket on the counter.

Remember, though, our concept of sin is based on our understanding.  If turning on my dishwasher floods and damages the apartment below mine, I am not morally or legally responsible for that damage unless I know or suspect that there is a leak.  Turning on my dishwasher is a reasonable act, a moral choice, unless I know about the leak.  However, I also know that if I am informed that washing my dishes has damaged my neighbor’s apartment, I am going to feel badly – guilty – even though, without prior knowledge of the leak, it could not possibly have been my fault.

When you start to search online for definitions of sin, you encounter the concept of a conscience pretty much immediately.  Every definition of this concept amounts to this:  conscience is an inner awareness of morality.  I have confronted persons who have hurt me and heard that their actions were correct because their consciences never bothered them.  To put a finer point on it, many monks become so aware of their own sinfulness that they confess their sins daily.  A sociopath has no sense of right and wrong and will hurt others with indifference.  To sum up, then, conscience is you telling yourself that your actions were right or wrong and a monk is wrong every day but a sociopath is wrong never.  So much for letting your conscience be your guide.  It can’t get you out your front door and as someone who is in the world beyond your door, if your conscience is your only guide then I am content to let you stay home.

Scripture says that no one can understand all of the good things that God plans for those who love God, that, in a sense, Heaven is beyond our understanding.  So is Hell.  If the only sin that I were ever to commit in a lifetime were to steal a Reese cup from Wawa, that sin, by itself, would be enough to send me to Hell, even though I don’t really understand the Heaven that I sacrifice or the Hell that I accept in stealing that Reese cup (which I would never do anyway).  I do know the penalties for shoplifting, do understand that the arrest would cause serious damage to my life.  Unfortunately, I also know that no judge will sentence a first-offense shoplifter to prison and that ARD could eventually, after a lot of time and money, clear my slate.

I have a problem with a God who would send me to Hell for nothing worse than stealing a Reese cup. From the punitive side of things, that seems excessive.  It also makes no sense from the sinner’s side of things, hardly a fair trade, eternity in Paradise for a free Reese cup?  No one with any understanding would make that trade.  It makes no sense to me, and probably not to God, either, and so the life and death of Jesus to erase those troublesome dynamics.  The slightest thought of repentance, of returning to God, is enough to get me across the bridge created by Jesus. 

If, as was said in “The Matrix,” you really want bake your noodle then you can wonder why the law of sin and death exists if God was willing to go through all of this trouble to abolish it.  Yeah, who is writing rules that God has to follow?  Beats me.  Don’t beat me, though.  That would be a sin. 

Let’s come back to that bit about eternity for a moment.  Eternity refers to all of time, not to infinity from this moment on, but infinity before and after this moment.  Eternal life means that we share with God in being alive for all of time and no, I cannot even remotely understand that, but it’s what the word means and it fits with the Bible’s description of the Kingdom of God as something both present now and to come in the future.  Whenever God intervenes directly in human affairs (a miracle), whenever we listen for and follow the will of God (discernment), whenever we love each other as God intends, then we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom, and I suspect that if I am not seeing it peak through from time to time then I will not see it at all after I die.

It is easy for children to understand Judas and the rule against betraying your friends.  Children also live in a world of good guys and bad guys, but as adults, our moral dilemmas rarely take the form of, “Should I punch that guy in the face?” or “Should I call her that awful name?” because we already know those answers.  Instead, it seems, we fail when we choose the wrong good, the lesser good, and those are not choices that typical moral and character education teach us to handle.  It’s very easy to say that you know what you would do in a given situation, but until and unless you are actually there, no matter what you tell others or yourself, you don’t know what you would or will actually do.
So in the death and resurrection of Jesus, all sins are forgiven, the sins before Jesus’ birth, the ones still to come in human history, those of Judas and Pilate, if in fact they sinned.  My sins, millennia later, were on the cross, causing agony for Jesus and I, with more understanding and thus more responsibility than Judas, have also betrayed him.  This, and that pesky notion of sin as choosing the smaller good, are what I get from wrestling with Judas.