ON Scripture: The Politics of Betrayal

The Politics of Betrayal: John 6:56-69

By Karoline Lewis

Broken Promises

Imagine being introduced for the first time, not by your name or what you have done, but in reference to what you will do. Such is the case for Judas in the closing section of chapter six in John's Gospel, "For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him" (John 6:64 NRSV). Typically, we are recognized by our past, whether achievements or hardships. Then there's something to go on. But not for Judas. There is no mention of Judas before this moment. As a character in the unfolding story of Jesus, he is first known by and immediately indicted for an act he has yet to commit. Perhaps not fair, but every bit true.

With the Republican National Convention just days away, promises of future actions will take front and center in speeches, testimonies and campaign slogans. A political candidate's character and identity hinge on his or her potential accomplishments. While there is certainly ample citation of voting records, previous governance, and political experience, it is the hope in what a candidate will do that can significantly influence a vote for or against. In the months gearing up to the November elections, we have heard already the charges of broken promises, unmet expectations, and general disillusionment. In other words, expressions of betrayal.

When Betrayal is Not What it Seems

But, what if betrayal is far more complex than going back on a promise? The story of Judas narrates one such complication. The translation of "betray" is "to hand or give over." Judas will betray Jesus, but not in the way we think. Judas's last appearance in the story before accompanying the soldiers to arrest Jesus occurs during the final meal shared between Jesus and his disciples. Satan enters into Judas.  He exits, going out into the night. His crossing over to the dark side is complete.

Yet, when we get to the scene of Jesus' arrest in John 18:1-13a, Judas himself does not actually hand Jesus over to the authorities. In the other Gospels, Judas identifies Jesus with a kiss. In John's Gospel, there is no kiss, no identification at all of Jesus. We know only that "he was standing with them," presumably with the Jewish police representing the chief priests and Pharisees and the Roman soldiers. Jesus comes forward out of the garden, of his own accord, and willingly gives himself up to the authorities.

The arrest scene is the last we ever hear of Judas in John's story. There is no recounting of remorse or repentance to explain Judas's actions.  Greed is never given to justify his betrayal. And there is no act of suicide to assuage guilt. Instead, John leaves us without answers, without reasons for Judas's behavior, and with the lingering question of "why?"

The answer to that seemingly simple question might be equally as simple. Only verses before the introduction of Judas, many of Jesus' disciples say, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" Jesus responds with his own question to them, "Does this offend you?" (John 6:60-61 NRSV). What if affronted by the challenges of Jesus' words, and even offended by them, Judas has no choice but to betray his teacher?  It's Jesus' fault.

When Betrayal is of the Self

When all is said and done, the true nature of Judas's betrayal is not in response to Jesus' unfaithfulness or inability to fulfill promises. In fact, Jesus will be faithful to the end and will come through on every single promise he ever uttered. At the heart of the betrayal of Judas is his own disbelief. He does not believe that Jesus is who he says he is, the Word made flesh, the very presence of God right in front of him. It can't be. That's not the God he has known. That's not the God he really wants or can accept. This is difficult, even offensive. He didn't sign up for this God. And as soon as we construe God in ways that God must conform to our standards, there is no choice but to fault God for betraying us.

The story of Judas in the Gospel of John calls attention to those times when being offended by or disappointed in someone is really more about us than the other. Rather than take responsibility for our own sense of betrayal, we cast blame. Instead of questioning the appropriateness of our reaction or ask why our response is allegations of dashed hopes, we accuse, as if others are obligated to fulfill our expectations.

This may be a bit hard for us to hear, that sometimes feeling betrayed has less to do with the conduct of another and more to do with ourselves. That the impression of betrayal comes not from a deliberate act perpetrated against us, but that we have made the other something or someone they are not. And, then, it is we that have done the betraying by being unfaithful to another person's true self. Of course, this is certainly not always the case.

The story of Judas exposes the intricacies of betrayal that we would rather ignore or to which we rarely admit.  Judas reminds us that sometimes the origin of our hurt lies deep within ourselves.

In these next few months, we might do well to listen carefully to those who feel let down by their political candidates or parties. Were they really betrayed by the politician in whom their hope was placed? Or did the person they elected to office end up not being the person they wanted him or her to be? We might also ask, when someone slights our confidences, why is it that betrayal is so close at hand as an accusation? What makes the power and potency of betrayal take hold so quickly?

The story of Judas asks us to look long and hard at our own, possibly unreasonable, expectations of the other, and to speak the truth about what stands behind our own disappointments.