Judas is given a specific amount, thirty pieces of silver. Jesus is the most unquantifiable presence in our lives. In the passion story, irony drips blood. We often trade the invaluable for the known quantity. We leave open ended grace and head for the certainty of written doctrine. We trade mercy for law. We trade the joy of seeking for the security of our life with the 99 in the fold. We move from being children of a heavenly father who owns the sheep on every hill, to the employees of an institution that provides us with a weekly allowance. We take our thirty pieces of silver and walk away from the mystery of what lies beyond door number 3.
I’ve been hearing a lot about church splits these days. The story goes like this, the denomination loosens one of its policies. The people go to their local priest or pastor and say, “Didn’t we always believe X-Y-Z?” The only real answer to this question is, “We are not in the ‘certainty’ business, we are in the ‘seeking’ business.” An oil firm may have a division devoted to exploration. If the management puts a production quota on these geologists, neither the division nor the company will last long.
If you start at the beginning of Matthew 26, the order of events is this:
- Chief priests decide to kill Jesus
- Jesus gets anointed with Messianic implications in Bethany (Literally, the House of Poverty)
- Judas takes the 30 pieces of silver
- Jesus speaks about his betrayal as an intimate act
… At some point in the middle of this sequence, Palm Sunday takes place.
Matthew presents Palm Sunday back in Chapter 21, but does a literary loop-back here in order to deepen the sense of horror and responsibility surrounding what Judas did. On Palm Sunday (Chapter 21), we see Jesus as the King of Love. In the chapters in between, he is the Teacher from God. In Matthew 26, he is the object of our betrayal. In concentrating the Judas plot line in Chapter 26, Matthew is trying to help us see the connection between the extravagant anointing of Jesus by an unknown woman and Judas’ decision to jump ship. There is a point in our religion when it makes sense to follow Judas and take the known quantity.
We have a choice, that’s what Palm Sunday is about. On one side is the crazy lady who pours out a gallon of perfume to show her love. Beside her is our teacher who answers every question with another question. Those who stand with these people have a very uncertain future. On the other side is Judas. He stands with respected, educated, religious authorities who have a clear policy to cover every issue. They have in their hands a secure retirement and a prepaid burial plot. Which do you choose?
One of the passion plays that I wrote has an offering being taken in the middle to defray the costs of the production. Four soldiers stand before Judas with the metal offering plates. Judas counts from one to thirty, dropping large silver dollar coins into the empty plates. The soldiers then go out to collect an offering from the audience. They have spears in their right hands, so the donations are always generous. They kid with the audience, saying that the offering is being taken now in case people don’t like how the play ends. Better to be safe and get the money up front.