Repentance, Remorse, Judas and Peter
By Charles Rush
February 21, 1999
Matthew 26:47-50, 69, Matthew 27:10
all accounts Dr. Gordon Oliver was a great humanitarian. He
practiced internal medicine in Austin, Texas. For 20 years he treated
patients there and he was known in the community by the poor because he
would take whatever poor people had to pay. Over the years, he had
received a lot of strange stuff, chickens, a well worn .3030
Winchester rifle, and once even an offer for an aging ostrich. The
thought was nice.
With a couple of other people, he organized a community health
clinic that was open every Friday morning and all day Saturday. Poor
people could come in and get their children looked at. For migrant
labor that was often the only medical care they ever received.
Dr. Oliver suffered from bouts of depression that got worse as he
approached middle age and he had an awful spell. He found it
impossible to get out of the house, let alone go to the office and
complete a full day. He took more and more time off. Finally, his
wife called some of his friends because he didnít want to seek
treatment. She figured he might listen to his friends which he did and
they checked him to the hospital at SMU in Dallas. He was worse than
his friends imagined, worse than his family imagined and one morning he
opened a window on the 9
floor of the hospital and jumped to his death.
His wife was simply devastated and strangely guilty in the hours
right after it happened, as though somehow she could have prevented
this tragedy from happening if only she had done something different.
She was called over to the hospital to identify the body and the
wife of one of the treating physicians thought she needed support, so
she called her pastor from one of those large charismatic churches in
Dallas that has a pretty fundamentalist theology.
He showed up and Mrs. Oliver asked him about the fate of her
husband. She was in shock and needed to hear some words of assurance
in a deep way, a primordial emotional way.
The Minister asked Mrs. Oliver if her husband had confessed Jesus
Christ as his Lord and Savior. Had he been born again. It was a
puzzling question for an Episcopalian. She mumbled something about how
Dr. Oliver went to church occasionally but found the Episcopal service
The Minister asked if he had been anointed in the Holy Spirit.
Mrs. Oliver didnít know what to say. The Minister said ĎI
donít know how to tell you this Mrs. Oliver but I believe your
husband is in Hell.í
That was 25 years ago. Fortunately today, we have Clergy
malpractice insurance because that Minister would need it. Beyond the
legalistic religiosity, even reflecting on that story I am amazed that
he could say something so crushing to a woman in such vunerable grief.
As it turned out, he was something of an odd blessing because there
are a lot of feelings of rage around suicide, anger at being abandoned,
anger at not having the resources you would have, anger at being lonely
and afraid. But you canít be angry with the person that died. It
just doesnít work for quite a long time. So this stupid idiot
Minister became a surrogate for all that anger and for a few years
Mrs. Oliver could hate this man with impugnity and in some sense it
probably helped get her through. Boneheadedness is like that.
On one level, this Minister merely gave voice to some attitudes
that have been pretty popular in our culture, even if they havenít
been given voice. If you talk to families that have been through
suicide, they are worried about shame. It is not quite like other
tragedies, they feel that maybe they should be ashamed about this
That stigma has a long and variegated past and certainly part of it
in the West is wrapped up in our passage this morning. Judas is
portrayed as the ultimate evil man. He betrays the Messiah as one of
the disciples, one whom Jesus has trusted much. Surely, of all people,
he must be banished to the outer darkness where there is only weeping
and gnashing of teeth. Matthew even has Jesus say at the Last Supper
ĎWoe to the man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would have
been better for that man if he had not been born.í How much more
stigma can you get than that.
Look at what he does. In remorse over the depth of his sinfulness,
he hangs himself. It would appear that he is beyond grace. He is only
pariah. He is the ultimate exile.
I am told that in English common law from the Middle Ages, if you
took your life, you forfeited all your property to the Crown, and your
heirs got nothing. There is something peculiarly English about
attaching a property punishment to an already great emotional trauma.
The justification for such a law was that it would deter suicide.
Today most of our research goes into better understanding the
bio-chemical nature of depression. It is a malady that affects a wide
host of people for a variety of reasons but it ought not carry any more
stigma than suffering from diabetes.
And this is part of a wider shame that is unwarranted in our
culture. People are ashamed of psychiatric disorders. Physical
disorders are just that, diseases of nature. But psychiatric disorders
carry a stigma. Parents worry, even though they know better, that
their childrenís psychiatric afflictions reflect badly on their
parenting. We would never say that about cancer. There is nothing to
be ashamed of and we in the community of love ought to be about the
task of making sure that we are accepting and supportive, particularly
in this area.
Judas raises a wider question. Theologically, can you put yourself
beyond the realm of Godís redemption? My personal answer to that
is an unequivocal Ďnoí. If the resurrection means anything,
it means that nothing can stop God, not death, not our rejection, not
our indifference, nothing. The grace of God is what finally wins the
quite in spite of us.
The resurrection means that the initiative rests with God and not with
us. The resurrection means that we canít stop the grace of God,
we canít limit that.
Letís turn back to the story for a moment. I have never been
very comfortable with what happened to poor Judas. He died and never
got a chance to explain himself, so the church explained him instead
and they had a bit of embarrasment that he could be dispatched to
I think Carlyle Marney was right that in Matthew, Judas feels
phoney, staged, set up to take the fall. It reminds me of an
ignominious story from childhood. The regular gang of boys was playing
baseball at the elementary school one afternoon in Little Rock,
Arkansas. They grew restless and God only knows why little boys do
things like this but they decided to knock all the windows out of the
elementary school. One of them threw a rock and the window crashed.
What a terrific noise it made. Then it became a dare. Others joined
in. Now, there were about 900 windows on this school. Somewhere after
the first hundred, one of the boys ran back home to tell some other
people how much fun the gang was having and a group of them came
running back to the school. Of course, some mother got wind of this
too and called the police who were on their way. Little Laurence
MacMillan, aged 7, was with them. Laurence was slow in all ways. He
couldnít run and he was mildly retarded but he loved to hang with
the big guys.
At some point, the police cruiser drove up, boys began a mad flight
into the woods, in every direction. By the time the police cruiser
actually got up to the scene of the crime, there was no one there
except Laurence who was still throwing stones at the windows.
Eventually, all the boys snaked back into their homes. Every mother
had been called. You could look down the block and see the police
cruiser with Laurence.
As far as I know, every boy had the same story. No, they
hadnít played ball that day though they heard everyone else had
been. They were in another neighborhood, visiting people that no one
else knew. No, they couldnít imagine that anyone would do such a
thing. Yes, I suppose Laurence could have knocked all those windows
out. No, I donít know what got into him to do it.
Judas feels like little Laurence to me. He has been dispatched and
set up because we donít want to remember that we all betrayed
Jesus. It was not a high moment and there were different faces to
weakness. But at the last supper Jesus said ĎHe who has dipped
his hand in the dish with me will betray me.í That was everyone.
One by one they fall away, so that at the end Jesus is alone, only with
God, who disappears too.
Judas may have been the one to actually walk up and kiss Jesus but
no one looks too good in this story. There was no courage shown that
night. Everyone was covering their backside. Peter, the man on whom
Jesus would later say he would build his church, denied Jesus not once
but three times and the third time he cursed his name.
But no one is beyond redemption and that is the point. For the
most remarkable part of the story of Jesus is the way that a group of
dispirited, frightened, aimless disciples get pulled together after the
resurrection and become filled with an incredible courage, purpose, and
mission. That doesnít happen because of some virtue that they
have. It happens because of the initiative of God. Redemption and
reconciliation are like that. They need a divine moment, a divine
We all know people that have been through a bitter divorce.
Dealing with the details of the divorce settlement and the terms for
child custody can open some wounds of bitterness and resentment that
can last for years. And I know people that stay bitter for the rest of
their life and canít get beyond it, it can be that powerful.
Usually, if there is a breakthrough towards reconciliation, one person
has to move toward their ex-spouse in a very vulnerable way, in an
unexpected way, in a way that appears at the time to be nothing short
of a miracle. It is a very powerful thing when someone drops their
legitimate grudges and says Ďthe relationship is more important to
me than the calculus of rights and wrongs.í It is a Spirit filled
moment and rare.
There is a tragedy to Judas and it lies precisely here. He is not
ultimately cut off but he did miss out on the opportunity to be
forgiven in the resurrection and have the experience of the grace to
start over his life.
This is often the irony of remorse. Remorse is a Greek idea,
though surely every culture in the world knows about it. Remorse is
when you feel bad for something that you have done. In ancient Greece
it was the sorrow you felt after you had drunk too much and said
something inappropriate or kissed the wrong person.
The God of the Bible is not much interested in remorse. The God of
is interested in repentance, which is a change of
behavior, a conversion towards a new character.
Judas felt awful about what he had done and in that sorrow took his
own life. So often remorse is like that. Because we feel bad about
how we have treated an ex-spouse, we end up just avoiding them so that
curiously no healing takes place. We just stay for an extended period
in a holding pattern of distance. We feel bad and we do
self-destructive things to ourselves- we donít eat right, we
anesthetize our souls, we undermine our careers, we isolate ourselves-
no healing takes place. It is just scars upon scars.
I donít know what Judas was thinking but I know that too many
people deeply believe- when no one is around and it is all dark -they
deeply believe that they are unworthy and that if people really knew
what they were like, no one would want to be with them. Whatever the
particular thing is that they did wrong, they put it together with a
whole other trove of evidence that keep to themselves, and then they
reflect on it and say Ďthis is what you always knew about
yourself.í And they feel worse and worse.
Judas took his life. It is simply the surest way of staying cut off.
It is the defining mode of an indefinite holding pattern.
And the only antidote for that malady comes from without. It is a
divine breakthrough that reaches out for you. It is a divine comfort
that holds you anyway. It is a fundamentally spiritual moment when you
know that you are accepted in a way that you cannot be unaccepted.
There will be no revocation of this grace.
I have this vision of the spiritual life that we are all on a
journey. Some of us are on a daily quest to get to the promised land.
Some of us wake up each morning ready to tackle the quest, no matter
how arduous. Most of us take quite a few side journeys- towards the
adventure of love, to the oasis of satiation, to the mountaintop of
power and reputation. And some of us are running away. But all of us,
at the end of the journey, whether we want to or not, we are headed
toward home. Not the alienated place that we grew up, with its quirky
dysfunction. We come to our real home. We are headed toward the real
place of safety and acceptance where we can realize our true potential,
where we can become the person that we were meant to be.
God has been drawing us home all of our lives whether we knew it or not
and we have been meandering in that direction whether we meant to or
not. Somewhere along the way, on our way home, I am sure we will run
into Judas too. And who knows what we will say. Probably it
wonít be all that important anyway. But we will be together. And
all of us will be headed in the right direction.
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