The Judas Syndrome

The Judas Syndrome
Mark 11:1-11
Steve Hammond
Palm Sunday 2015

Mark’s story says that Jesus sent two disciples into a village on the way to Jerusalem to find the donkey he was going to ride into the city on. We have no idea who the two disciples were. I don’t think this is an insignificant detail in the story, though, because it gives us, I believe, some deeper insight to the forces that were about to clash in Jerusalem.

Any thoughts on who the two disciples might have been? There are no wrong answers because everything about this is pure speculation, including the scenario I have developed. I think Judas was one of those two disciples and the other one was whoever Jesus trusted to keep an eye on Judas.

There is lots of intrigue in the story of Holy Week, beginning with this business of fetching the donkey. It wasn’t like Jesus just assumed that some donkey would magically be available that he could donkey jack. Arrangements had been clandestinely made with folk who were evidently a part of, at least, a somewhat underground network that was trying to get this donkey ride into Jerusalem pulled off without the Roman occupiers getting wind of this. They would never have allowed such a blatant challenge to their rule happen. And who best to be in the middle of some anti-Roman intrigue than Judas? He had lots of experience with underground movements that were working against Rome.

This was not the only procession into Rome that was going to be taking place. Because it was the Passover and so many people were flocking into Jerusalem, security was on high alert. What better time for the Zealots and other groups fighting the occupation to stir up trouble? So to intimidate the people and remind them that Rome was in control, a few days before Passover the Governor, Pilate, you may have heard of him, rode into Jerusalem with a whole bunch of Roman soldiers. There were infantry and calvary and chariots and lots of weapons on display. The clank of armor, beating of drums, Roman standards blowing in the wind, the Eagle which was the symbol of Rome on prominent display. The Governor was all decked out in his uniform and was riding a white stallion that was bred for battle. It was political theater, and Pilate expected to be greeted by adoring subjects who were waving palm branches and extolling the glory of Rome. He didn’t care how his Jewish collaborators got the crowds there, just so they got them there.

This is why the bit of political theatre that Jesus was planning for the other side of town, that was obviously a parody of what Pilate was doing, had to be planned under wraps. But it turned out, even to the surprise of those participating in that anti-Roman street demonstration, most particularly Judas, perhaps, that this was more than a parody. Jesus was taking all that Pilate was trying to demonstrate about the violence that he could unleash if there was any trouble and turned it upside down. He wasn’t going to have their little laugh at Pilate and then gather the Zealots and start a popular uprising against Rome. That donkey was more than just a jab at Rome. It was a new way of looking at how you challenge the powerful in this world. Jesus was going to meet the power of violence with the greater power of non-violence. A donkey, and perhaps a nursing donkey when you read Matthew’s story, was much more Jesus’ style than a war horse.

Getting into Jerusalem was not the only bit of intrigue, of course, during what we now call Holy Week. Judas was in the thick of a lot of it. He was not simply a double agent, plotting to hand Jesus over to the authorities. He was, in effect, a triple agent. He wasn’t secretly working on behalf of the religious establishment when he turned Jesus over to them. It is not so much he betrayed Jesus, but the ideals of Jesus. I think a pretty convincing argument can be made that Judas never expected Jesus to be captured. He may well have not been turning against Jesus but trying to force Jesus to fight back, to actually start this revolution that Judas had so longed for. And it’s not that Jesus was surprised Judas would try something like that. There is a reason the word zealot has stuck. That’s why, if my imaging that Judas was one of those sent to get the donkey, that Jesus might have sent someone else along to make sure Judas didn’t have something else up his sleeve.

Judas and so many others were devastated when Jesus refused to fight for his freedom and the freedom of all Israel that week. They did not see how the way of Jesus could challenge the way of Rome. Nor could they see that Jesus had something more than Israel in mind. Maybe the most intriguing part of the week was when Pilate tried to figure out what kind of King Jesus was. “My kingdom,” Jesus told him, “is not like the kingdom you are used to in this world.” Pilate kept trying to figure that out but, like Judas, he only knew one way of running a Kingdom, through brutality.

Even though Jesus was so clear that his way is different than the ways of the empires of this world, there are still many who don’t understand how things could be any different. Look, for example, at the end times scenarios that are so common in much of the church in this country. In their view there is no place for a donkey when Jesus returns. Instead, he will borrow Pilate’s war stallion and reap death, destruction, and chaos on the enemies of God. Everything Judas, the betrayer, hoped for.

One more thing I find intriguing about Mark’s story is that it has such an anti-climatic ending. He’s left the crowds behind and he walks onto the Temple grounds. No palm branches, no cheering crowds. He doesn’t start turning over of the tables or driving out the money changers. Not yet, anyway. He just looks around and then goes back out of town to be with his friends, including Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. What do you think was going through his mind as he stood in the temple that Palm Sunday night?

This is from Jan Richardson from her website paintedprayerbook.com

After all this, Mark—alone of all the gospels—tells us that Jesus goes into the temple and looks around at everything.

He does not teach. He does not preach. He does not heal. He does not confront or challenge. He does not even speak; neither does he cross the path of anyone who requires his attention. Mark conveys the impression that here, in this sacred space that lies at the heart of his people, Jesus is quite alone, and that it is night.

Jesus simply looks around. What is it that he sees in the temple by night?

The gospels vary in their account of Jesus’ relationship with the temple, and how much time he has spent there. Taking together their accounts, we know Mary and Joseph took him there as an infant for the rituals that occurred forty days after a birth. He made the journey to the temple every year with his family for Passover, most memorably at the age of twelve, when his parents, missing him on the way home, went back and discovered him in conversation with the teachers. Matthew tells us that the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, urging him to jump, that angels would catch him. John in particular emphasizes Jesus’ presence at the temple earlier in his ministry, where the temple features in such stories as Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. It is at the temple, according to John, that Jesus proclaims himself as the river of life and as the light of the world, beginning to take into his own self, as Richard Hays has pointed out, the purpose of the temple as the focal point of the liturgy and life of the people of Israel.

This is the place that holds the memories of Jesus and the collective memory of his people. And it is to this place that Jesus returns, after the palms, after the procession, after the shouts of proclamation have vanished into the air. He will come back tomorrow, Mark tells us, and he will turn over the tables and drive out the buyers and sellers and castigate the people for turning this house of prayer into a robbers’ den. He will return yet again over the next few days to teach, to provoke, to watch a widow drop two precious coins into the offering box. And soon he will die.

But for now, for tonight, in this holy place at the heart of his people, Jesus merely looks. He peers into this sacred space that is inhabited and haunted by his own story. And perhaps it is this story he sees again this night. Perhaps he sees Mary and Joseph coming out of the shadows, carrying their infant son. Perhaps he sees Simeon gathering his young self into his arms, singing about salvation and a light for revelation, joined by the old prophet Anna, who raises her voice in praise. Perhaps Jesus sees again the twelve-year-old who conversed with the temple teachers, and the tempter who tried to lure him to fling himself from the pinnacle of this place. Perhaps a woman, once trapped and terrified, stands before him again, this time with the light of forgiveness and healing shining through her eyes.

And perhaps in this place, where Jesus is alone-but-not-alone, they gather about him, reminding him why he has come, calling him to remember, offering their blessing for the days ahead. Perhaps in this space, after the palms and before the passion, Jesus is able simply to rest. To remember. To breathe. To be between.

And you? What are you between? Where is the space that invites you to be alone but not alone, to allow the memories to gather and bless you, to offer strength for the days ahead? What is the place that beckons you to breathe, to rest, to look? What is it that you see in that space? What stirs in the shadows?

Blessings to you in the spaces between.

Palm Sunday: The Temple by Night