Judas Iscariot (1) – Betrayal

The Story of Judas Iscariot“You’ve given me the confidence to feel I can go out with someone else,” she told me on Valentine’s Day. Nearly 40 years on (and after over 30 with my wife) I can laugh at the back-handed compliment from a former girlfriend as she left me for another man. But at the time it felt like betrayal.

Please read Luke 22:4-6 & Luke 22:47-48

Judas has always had a bad press. Always the last of the Twelve to be mentioned. Often portrayed wearing black. His name used to denounce others. A victim, then? Maybe, but partly of his own making. Vulnerable to the rich and powerful? Pretty much undoubtedly.

Betrayal. Often deliberate. Always hurtful. Sometimes breaking confidence or trust. The object of the betrayal may be a specific person (such as Jesus) or towards a cause (as when Judas showed the chief priests where they could find him). It happens in times of war (and peace, for that matter) or by betraying a nation. It happens in workplaces and churches. And potentially most hurtfully in personal relationships. Being betrayed is a very painful loss. A loss of trust. And often the loss of a person we once trusted.

Judas also betrayed himself, though. Maybe he did it for the money and because he thought it would help him to be part of the ‘in-crowd’. To feel accepted and lauded as the one who dealt with a troublemaker. He sniffed fame and fortune and it smelt good. But he soon felt the consequences and it cost him his life.

We too can betray ourselves. We can make choices and decisions because we think that’s what others want us to do rather than staying true to ourselves or listening to God. We might live to the false self we portray to others because we want to feel accepted: or to fulfil an inbuilt need to know we are ‘as good as’ other people.

The desire for such acceptance, while quite natural (and important) can sometimes be at the price of who we really are – and at the cost of who God wants us to be. It can be at the loss of our true self. The loss of who we are as a person made in God’s image.

In fact, it takes a lot less effort simply to be oneself than to try to be like someone else. To just be the person who we are. If we can focus on being ourself – our true self – then we can be more fully equipped to address (and, as necessary, to change) the parts which make us feel we are ‘not acceptable’.

‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Jesus described those words as one of the greatest commandments.

Probably most people feel comfortable with the ‘love your neighbour’ bit. “Yep, I can do that. That bit’s OK.” It will be difficult to love those who have betrayed us, of course, and we can probably accept that there will always be some people we don’t like that much or get on with. But, pretty much, the act of loving our neighbour (however one chooses to define that word) can often be fairly straightforward and comparatively easy to do, especially if we have some choice about the friends we keep or do not keep, for example.

But what about ‘as yourself’? To love ourself in the same way as we love our neighbour? So many people find it difficult to love themselves.

The Gospel writers only tell us the bad bits about Judas. We don’t have a balanced view of him. Loving ourselves involves having a balanced view. For many people, for a lot of the time, the focus can be on the bad bits. The mistakes. The wrong words. The difficult memories. The hurts. The times when we got it wrong. The times when we felt betrayed.

But there are also good bits. True, sometimes it’s more difficult to focus on them but they are there. The things we got right. The successes (they don’t have to be huge and noticeable). The compliments we receive (even when we struggle to accept they might be true). Recognising our good bits is not about boastfulness (or the fear that doing so is somehow ‘sinful’). Knowing our good bits is about recognising and acknowledging that which God in his grace has given us and made good within us.

Knowing our good bits and having a balanced view of ourselves is crucial towards knowing our true self and loving ourselves. And by loving ourselves, not only can we love our neighbours more effectively as well, but we come to fully know the love that God has for us.

We topic of love is also considered in the story of another of the central group of twelve disciples, John.

In what ways might you be betraying your true self?

In what ways do you love yourself?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Mary Magdalene (1) – Fiction

Mary MagdaleneAfter considering Judas’ lasting reputation, we now turn to another of Jesus’ followers whose story has been embellished and fabricated long after they lived: Mary Magdalene.

Please read Luke 8:1-3

Coming from the fishing village of Magdala Tarichaea on the western shore of Lake Galilee, for centuries after her death she has been called a prostitute, depicted in art as semi-naked and as an isolated hermit repenting her sins in the wilderness – and even portrayed as Jesus’ wife.

This alternative story began 591, when Pope Gregory the Great declared in a sermon that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman described in Luke 7:36-50 were the same person. It was not until 1969, nearly 1400 years later, that the Roman Catholic Church decided Mary Magdalene was not, in fact, Luke’s penitent sinner. Further to that, in 2016, Pope Francis declared a major feast day for her (22 June) effectively placing her on a par with the male apostles. But even so, the reputation still lingers.

The second most mentioned woman in the Bible (the most being Mary, the mother of Jesus) and unlike any of the other women, she is not described in relation to someone else. She is not someone’s wife, mother or sister. She is Mary. Mary from Magdala. She has her own identity. She knows who she is. And she knows God knows who she is. And, as we will see, God calls her by name.

As with Mary Magdalene, history has a long record of other people making up all sorts of things or attributing words or actions incorrectly. The manipulation of information has existed since time immemorial. Even the Gospel writers wrote and edited the accounts and stories they heard from their sources to suit their own interpretation and the audience they wished to reach (e.g. Matthew wrote primarily to a Jewish readership; Luke for Gentiles). Governments throughout the centuries have conveyed the ‘facts’ in ways to support their manifesto and policy promises. The political ‘spin doctors’ of recent decades play a prominent role and, more recently, the rapid rise to prominence of ‘fake news’ has provided an alternative and even less palatable version of misrepresentation. From its origins in social media (presenting false stories as if they we true) the term ‘fake news’ soon found its way in to the language as a way of quickly dismissing criticism and other inconvenient truths. Society betraying itself perhaps.

On an individual level, probably all of us have felt misrepresented at times or that others have not understood our intentions and actions. “No, I didn’t mean it like that!” “What I meant to say was…” “Do you really think I would think that?” Times when the resulting hurt is immense. When lies that people tell become the perceived truth. When arguments tear everyone apart. When anger and bitterness becomes etched in the faces of the aggrieved. When no one believes we are the person we know ourselves to be.

History has presented us with a false image of Mary Magdalene and yet she has such a story to tell from her true self. Sometimes, we are not the ones responsible for the false image that is portrayed. Others may have made comments or spread rumours causing division and hurt, misunderstanding and pain. Colouring views, opinions and prejudices. Sometimes we can base our thoughts about others on such matters too.

Have your views of someone else been influenced by misunderstanding and rumour?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

NEW: Pontius Pilate (1) – Dilemmas

Second only to Julius Caesar, Pontius Pilate the governor of Judea who sent Jesus to the cross is one of the best-known Roman citizens who ever lived. His name is etched into the Christian creeds and is a vivid secondary figure in the Gospel passion stories.

Please read Matthew 27:1-2,11-23

Pilate dithers over what to do with a man who is clearly no political threat. But Pilate has powerful enemies among Jewish leaders who will report his name to the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, and also start a riot if he does not get rid of Jesus promptly. Pilate wrestles with his conscience over Jesus, but (in a fashion that strikes us as all too familiar in modern day leaders) essentially tries to avoid the problem in the hope that it will resolve itself.

The historian Josephus paints a picture of a headstrong strict authoritarian Roman leader who, although both rational and practical, never knew how far he should go in a given case. Pilate’s job was to keep order while waiting for Tiberius to award him a more prestigious posting in, say, Syria or Egypt. During his ten years in office, according to Josephus, Pilate was far from the worst Roman governor the Jews had seen.

The Jewish philosopher and civic leader Philo of Alexandria described Pilate as ‘inflexible, stubborn, and cruel’ and accusing him of all manner of violent acts against the Jews, including executions without trial. Indeed, Luke 13 tells us of Pilate’s involvement in the execution of some Galileans who had gone to Jerusalem to worship. Pilate had incurred the enmity of Jewish leaders in Roman-occupied Palestine by insulting their religious sensibilities, as when he hung worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and had coins bearing pagan religious symbols minted.

To an extent, though, history and the church have been kinder to Pilate than to Judas Iscariot. In John’s Gospel, Pilate is depicted as having accepted the Christian interpretation of the meaning of Jesus. Saint Augustine argued that Pilate believed Jesus was the King of the Jews.  Indeed, in some areas of the Eastern Church, Pilate and his wife are venerated as saints.

Jesus’ claim to be the son of God was seen as blasphemous by the Jews and warranted the death penalty but for the Romans, blasphemy was not such an offence to warrant such a punishment – and Pilate had the final say. So instead, Jesus was presented to Pilate as a king, a political revolutionary and thus much more of a threat to Roman authority. So we can begin to see the dilemma Pilate was in.

He would have been surprised at Jesus’ lack or response and silence to his questioning. Roman judges disliked sentencing an undefended man and the courts had established the practice of offering a defendant three opportunities to respond before convicting by default. This approach is in one sense paralleled by Pilate stating three times to the Jewish leaders and the crowd that Jesus is an innocent man.

I remember little that my schoolteachers taught me but I do recall how my R.E. teacher speculated that Pilate asked whether he should release Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Christ he misheard the crowd shouting ‘Jesus’ and in the pressure and pandemonium released the wrong man.

Pilate capitulates to the opposition he faced. His wife also sends him word of a dream she has had about Jesus and urges him to ‘have nothing to do with that innocent man’ and Pilate abdicates his responsibility with a symbolic washing of his hands.

Most of us, at some time or other, find ourselves ‘between a rock and a hard place’. A dilemma. A situation where there is no easy answer or way forward. It may be as relatively insignificant as which new pair of shoes to buy or which route to take to a destination. Or… problems such as do we spend money on food or fuel this week? Or… whether or not take up a job offer, start or end a relationship, make the decision not to resuscitate…

Like Pilate, we too can be swayed by the opinions of others. Sometimes helpfully. Sometimes not. It can be tempting to only ask those who we know will ‘agree’ with our own thinking. We may feel hurt if someone tells us we are ‘wrong’ or challenges us – but perhaps they are the ones who have truly joined us in the hard place.

You may like to bring to mind a time when you were in a dilemma (maybe you are now).

What feelings did you have?

What or who was helpful in finding your way through?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Thomas (1) – Doubting

Doubting ThomasBut what if Jesus hadn’t come back to life after all?

Please read John 20: 24-25

What do you have doubts about? The Virgin Birth? The Resurrection? The turning of water in to wine? Prayer being answered? The very existence of God in a world of war, hatred, corruption, injustice, accidents, illness, terrorism, abuse…?

Or doubts about God having sent is only son so that you – yes, you – might have eternal life? That you are loved? That you are loved by God?

Everyone has doubts – be that about matters of faith and belief, work and family, marriage and parenting, friendships and relationships, money and housing, health and illness, life and death… you name it, we have doubts about it.

Thomas was one of Jesus’ closest friends. A dedicated companion. Going everywhere and seeing everything. Thomas was one who sought to understand who Jesus was and what his purpose was. Asking questions when Lazarus was reported dead (John 11:16) and again in the minutes that followed Judas’ departure from the Last Supper (John 14:1-6). Three years spent in such company. And yet despite all that, we might say, he had doubts.

Not unlike others we have considered (such as Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot) , he too has been attributed a negative connotation: ‘Doubting Thomas’. Sometimes used derogatively towards those who don’t believe or agree with what others might be proposing, the phrase even has its own dictionary definitions: ‘an incredulous or habitually doubtful person’ (Merriam-Webster); ‘a person who insists on proof before he or she will believe anything; sceptic’ (Collins). And yet we can learn a lot from Thomas.

Left unaddressed or unresolved, doubts can become all-consuming. They have the power to erode away confidence in our ability to make decisions. To the extent that we never make any at all. We can also find ourselves holding on to doubts even with the greatest evidence to the contrary. Paradoxically, having doubts can be one thing we can be certain about.

Having doubts is part of the human condition and as well as matters to do with faith and belief, they are an important element in the making of wise decisions. Doubts are part of the checks and balances we need in life. We will have doubts about the new job we’ve started, or whether the person we wish to marry is the ‘right one’, or about God’s calling to a vocation, to name just a few. Having doubts can help us to discern both God’s will and our own, and they enable us to ask and to answer questions. If we are 100% certain about something really important then we may just be deceiving ourselves or perhaps choosing to ignore some inconvenient truths. As Thomas was to discover for himself, having doubts can be helpful.

Having doubts plays an important part in becoming the person we want to be and God wants us to be. Uncomfortable as they may be at times, be thankful for your doubts. Acknowledge them. And challenge them. Ask God to show you the part they play in discerning what he is saying.

Write a list of those things – anything you like: faith, life, work, whatever – which cause you to have doubts.

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Woman from Samaria (1) – Prejudice

Woman from SamariaWhile the story of Nicodemus tells us that his initial encounter was deliberate, planned and at night, the woman from Samaria meets Jesus by chance (or so she thinks) in the heat of the day. Two encounters with the Lord. One a well-schooled and respected pillar of the community. The other, possibly, poorly educated and, seemingly, socially ostracised. What can they possibly have in common?

Please read John 4:3-7a

This wasn’t Jesus’ only encounter with people from Samaria. He was turned away from a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56) and out of ten people with leprosy who he healed, the only one to say thank you was a Samaritan (Luke 17:16).

In John’s lengthy account (the whole passage is John 4:1-42), we initially observe a very ordinary, domestic scene. Fetching water was normally done in cool of the morning or the evening. It was a community event where local women would gather to talk and to be together. Yet, this unnamed woman comes alone to the well in the heat of the midday sun. She meets a man who, much to her surprise, crosses all the normal social and human barriers of the time. In this encounter, Jesus challenges prejudices against foreigners, people of other beliefs, and women.

Firstly, he is in Samaria – a ‘no-go’ area for Galileans to travel through. Undeterred, Jesus crosses a barrier to reach out to a foreigner. Secondly, while the faith of the Samaritans has its origins in Judaism it rejects much of the Hebrew Bible and their worship takes place on nearby Mount Gerizim rather than in the Judean Temple in Jerusalem, some 40 miles away from where this encounter takes place. Here at the well, Jesus crosses the barrier to those with a different set of beliefs. Thirdly, Jesus crossed the gender barrier. Rabbis were forbidden from talking to women in public – let alone teaching them and a woman could find herself being divorced if she was seen speaking to a strange man. Jesus’ love not only crosses barriers but it also reaches far beyond those surface issues upon which such prejudicial attitudes are built.

Just like Nicodemus, whose position of respectability hid an inner confusion and need for direction, behind these outward barriers the woman from Samaria is unaccepted and has a deep need to be loved. She is a moral outcast. She has had five husbands and is now with a man who is not her husband. Whether she was repeatedly widowed or divorced (or a combination), we don’t know but there is something about her which means she keeps herself safe from ridicule by walking alone at a different time of day. She feels ashamed. She has no sense of pride.

The woman at the well is a victim of prejudice. But in her encounter with Jesus, she encounters the love of God which crosses barriers and challenges prejudices.

We all have prejudices. Opinions and views, sometimes favourably inclined but more often than not, not so. Prejudices are usually, if not always, based on very little evidence or actual experience. We judge people – indeed whole groups of people – based on a few ill-informed or unfortunate occurrences.

It can be helpful to recognise our own prejudices. Some may be quite innocuous and frivolous but others can be more deep seated. We may need to consider how we take down the barriers that have been erected between ourselves and other people.

What are your prejudices? Why not make a list of them.

How might you overcome the barriers they have created?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.