Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why does each disciple wonder if he might be the Betrayer?

Part 4 of Caiphas' Dilemma, a set of Holy Week reflections how the tragic dimension of the Passion narrative sheds light on the tragedy inherent in the conflict of human interests and passions.

One can hardly blame Jesus’ disciples for being confused—and more than confused. Jesus has led them a merry chase from the euphoria of his promise-laden beginning, through more than one hint that a vivid restoration of God’s intimacy with Israel is at hand into a time of perplexity and a slowly creeping dread.

As far back as the beginning of the pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, he has muttered shocking and unbearable things about betrayal, even his death. The disciples have been headed for triumph, but Jesus seems lost in forebodings of defeat. When asked a question about possible status and rank for the disciples in the coming kingdom, his response was both enigmatic and ominous. So, we are told, even as they set out for Jerusalem “they were amazed, and as they followed, they were afraid.” (Mark 10:32)

We may well imagine that some of them hoped he might snap out of it and return to the ecstatic hopes of the Galilean days. For one bright moment the mood seemed lighter as he entered Jerusalem in a not-so-subtle proclamation of kingship by riding on “a colt, the foal of an ass” in a seemingly self-conscious reference to an ancient prophecy. The symbolic of attacking the money changers, coupled with “not allowing anyone to carry anything” (Mark 11:16) through the outer courtyard (which took a coordinated effort of many people, surely) went off without a hitch, short and sweet enough not even to risk arrest. Point made. Profaning the temple judged.

And the crowds! He has been teaching to a growing audience in the Temple courtyard each day, challenging the powers that be with his usual message of God’s love for every level of society and the necessity of returning to the core values of social justice and personal righteousness the ancient prophets first proclaimed.

Yet in the face of all this, the Man they follow has only become more morose. They are more than confused. They are, increasingly, lost in a maze (“amazed) and afraid. They have “left everything behind” — that is, left their wives and children in the care of extended families, left gainful employment, left the safety zone of ordinary life — and now he talks of some mysterious defeat that will somehow turn out all right.

Frayed Loyalty?

As he presides at what will be their final supper together, they are revealed as full of uncertainty as to how they feel about their Master. He “messes with their heads” yet again, as we might say, by the promise that they will be “the judges of Israel” in days to come. Then this curve ball: “One of you will betray me.”

Note carefully what happens next. They don’t cry out “What rascal would do this to you?” Quite the contrary, every single one of them wonders if he himself will be the betrayer: “Lord, is it I?” To me, this speaks of profound ambivalence, self-doubt, and even deeply harbored hesitancy about Jesus himself. Who is this Man who has led them to invest their lives and futures to a misson which he sees as doomed to catastrophe?

“Lord, is it I?” is a give-away sign of just how close to the edge these followers are. And Jesus forces them even further toward the edge by saying that they will all forsake him when push comes to shove later in the night. His apparently changed trajectory and their barely sustainable investment in what they thought was his cause collide.

One response to a crisis of faith such as this is, of course, denial. Peter speaks up quickly on behalf of burying the anxiety, amazement, ambivalence and doubt: “Everybody else may forsake you, but I will not.” Perhaps everyone else at the meal nodded vigorous agreement. Bearing the reality of one’s own mixed emotions, conflicting desires, and dark, dangerous thoughts is a hard skill to master.

Jesus presses further, even into this inner cauldron of ambivalence by saying to Peter (and perhaps to the rest) that “Satan has desired to sift you like wheat” — and implies that he himself has given Satan permission to test them. He offers this as a word of hope, because he anticipates that the “sifting” inherent in going through what they are about to experience with his arrest, trial and death will sort them out into stronger advocates for his cause.

Entering into “The Test”

He is “entering into the Test” himself, as he leaves the supper, travels with the disciples to an olive grove outside the City which ancient tradition believed was family property where his own ambivalences break surface in an agony of prayers. Having already decided that God is leading him toward death for mysterious purposes, Jesus falls into a wrestling match with his own passionate resistance: “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus prays, we are told “with loud cries” (Hebrews 5:7) to be delivered from the fate he has helped bring about (see yesterday’s blog post).

But what of Judas? A disciple’s story of this evening tells us that, during the “one of you will betray me” conversation that “the devil entered into Judas Iscariot.” Whatever this means on the existential level, it would seem to involve any ambiguity on Judas’ part resolving itself into an action plan—another prime way of escaping from ambiguity or doubt.

Was Judas disillusioned, thinking Jesus’ social or religious mission had gone astray? Was the alabaster jar with the ointment that might have “better been given to the poor” the last straw? Or did Judas expect that if he forced the issue and brought on Jesus’ arrest the crowds would rise in rebellion—or that the occasional glimpses of a “larger than life” spiritual reality would break forth from Jesus to miraculously paralyze his enemies? Was he an eschatological radical who thought the Man could summon legions of angels for the Final Battle, as the Dead Sea Scroll community believed?

As the story is told, confusion reigns in Judas’ soul, because when he sees that Jesus is, in fact, slated for execution, he repents for having “betrayed innocent blood” and kills himself in shame, sorrow, or self-loathing.

“It was night,” St. John tells us in a highly symbolic sentence as Judas leaves to summon the Temple police and Roman cohort. Night indeed, when the clash of different needs and visions — the disciples’ sincere investment in Jesus’ mission, the high priest's practical need to avert mob violence, the Roman geopolitical interest, and Jesus’ own resilient determination follow this difficult path — begins to weave the crown of thorns he will wear on the morrow.


Dilemma or staged drama—is Pilate’s hesitancy real?


  1. In a world that is quick to demonize the opposition and discredit the loser, this rings so true. It also corresponds to my own Ignation meditations when I have sought to put myself at the scene. How I imagine myself and want myself to be the loyal believer and steadfast witness! In the merciless honesty and spontaneity of the effort, however, a more ambiguous story in my own heart emerges. The perils of being human...

    Great reflections Bob, thanks again.

  2. an action plan—another prime way of escaping from ambiguity or doubt:

    This troubled church is constantly being propped up with action plans. I wonder how we do that with each other. What should our plan of action be? Jesus words in the garden that night offer a plan: Stay with me. One devastating action plan is to quietly withdraw from Jesus and from each other. This may be the most devastating action plan of all. Diana Clark