Time to forgive Judas?

On the morning Jesus was condemned to die, Judas took his own life at the Field of Blood. His death makes me sad, since suicide always leaves a devastating wound among family and friends. Such a violent end for Judas is tragic, because good intentions may have motivated his decision to turn Jesus into the authorities. This disciple was a flawed character, even a thief (John 12:6)—but our Lord would have forgiven.

Hinnom Valley slopes, south bank, looking E at runrise

Sunrise in Hinnom Valley at the traditional location of the Field of Blood where Judas hanged himself.

Not long ago I rose before dawn and ventured alone from Jaffa Gate in Old Jerusalem down into Hinnom Valley where, by tradition, Judas died. Hinnom Valley skirts western and southern sides of Old Jerusalem, and in these depths some people of Israel once practiced human sacrifice (2 Chron. 28:1–3). In Jesus’ day the valley was a city dump and paupers’ cemetery called Gehenna.

Orange-red light wrestled with morning fog as I descended into Gehenna. Today this valley is a conflict zone in the turf battle between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. I entered with trepidation, aware of both current hazards and the torment Judas must have suffered here.

Judas received thirty pieces of silver for guiding authorities to Jesus, but money hardly was his motive. Judas and Jesus apparently loved each other: Jesus made Judas one of the Twelve of his inner circle. Judas accompanied Jesus through years of ministry, and at Gethsemane greeted his Lord with a kiss—perhaps a sign of genuine affection.

Most revealing is the fact that when Judas “saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.” He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” Then, throwing down the silver in the temple, he went and hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5). Evidently Judas did not want Jesus to die and did not crave reward money. Could it be that Judas was trying to force a final apocalyptic confrontation between Jesus and the Jerusalem authorities—an eschatological battle Judas was certain Jesus would win?

Other first-century Jews—notably Essenes who withdrew to the desert at Qumran—had such expectations of an impending cosmic battle between powers of light and forces of darkness. On the Mount of Olives, just before the ascension of Jesus, the eleven disciples asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Perhaps like Judas, they too were eager to bring on their own concept of the kingdom of God.

That is a spiritual hazard to which followers of Jesus are vulnerable today when we try to manipulate the direction of the church or use raw power to control. Manipulation is evident in some Western theologies that actually celebrate conflict in the Middle East because of belief that approaching Armageddon will hasten the return of Christ.

Rather than joining the long litany of condemnation against Judas, perhaps we should grieve his misguided motives. We might recognize the bit of Judas in our own hearts—the lure of greed and control that draws us from the way of the cross, away from patient love, away from trusting that Christ will build the church.

It is right for the church to show compassion for persons taken by suicide, and to give tender support to survivors. Some individuals live in such pain, or act with such determination, that no amount of human caring can save their lives. Then we entrust them to the mercy of a loving Creator, and walk alongside family and friends in the hard task of living toward hope in the wake of tragedy.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine in September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope

Are you going to wash my feet?

Two days after open heart surgery in January, I peed on my socks. You perhaps would do the same if a surgeon so recently had split open your chest, stopped your heart, and grafted in three bypass arteries taken from your leg, arm and inner torso.

Heavily sedated for pain and unsteady on my feet, I began—with limited success—to resume bodily functions. So it was socks got soaked, and a nurse came to my rescue. She was young and attractive. In my beleaguered condition, I felt old and singularly unattractive.

Without a hint of impatience, she cleaned the tile floor and removed my socks. Are you going to wash my feet? I thought. She knelt and tenderly washed them with warm soapy water.

“You are washing my feet!” I whispered hoarsely as she dried my toes with a towel. “Yes,” she replied, smiling. “Jesus did that once,” I said. “Yes, I know,” she answered kindly. Then in a tone that let me know she is a believer, she added, “I love that passage.” That day, at a most vulnerable and humbling point in my life, a young nurse was Christ to me.

“Are you going to wash my feet?” said Peter to Jesus after Passover meal in Jerusalem (John 13:6). If it was humbling for me to let a young nurse wash my smelly feet, it was even more difficult for Peter to let his Lord do the same.


Today these medieval buildings stand at the most likely location of the upper room where Jesus washed Peter’s feet. Roman armies utterly destroyed this part of Jerusalem in AD 135, so only foundations remain from the New Testament era.

Self-sufficiency and pride are difficult barriers to overcome, and part of me resented being in the hospital. I eat healthy foods, never smoke, and go to the gym three days a week. I take care of myself, thank you, and still something was wrong with my heart.

Peter, too, was self-sufficient—and did not think anything was wrong with his heart. But before that long Passover night was over, he badly peed on his socks. He impetuously lashed out with a sword at the High Priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemane. Then he got scared and fled into the night when authorities arrested Jesus. In the early morning hours Peter denied that he ever knew his Lord—then wept bitterly.

In March I expect to begin the Ornish Reversal Program, cardiac rehab that is designed to reverse the course of coronary heart disease. The name of the program is evocative, since reversing direction is the root meaning of biblical repentance (Hebrew shuv, Greek epistrepho). The Ornish program includes diet, exercise, stress management, and relational components.

Sinners like me and you need the comprehensive heart reversal program better known as conversion. We can fill up our spiritual horizons with activism, community, and self-righteousness. But until we confess the sin of trying to be self-sufficient without the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we have not owned that something is wrong with our hearts.

Letting Jesus wash our smelly feet might be the first step toward a new heart and a healing change in life direction.

© 2016 J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************IMG_0425

By God’s grace I am well on the road to recovery from surgery, and look forward to getting back to the Holy Land this autumn. Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine in September. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope