March 18, 2024


HOPE FOR THE HOPELESS? Luke 22:1-6, 22:47-53

Edward Song
Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara Sunday, 17 March 2024

“Judas has been called a thief, a money lover, a devil from the beginning. His betrayal has been called the act of a greedy man, a disappointed man, a man chosen for an ugly task, a man trying to force Jesus to act by precipitating a crisis. Here is one who was chosen after a night of prayer to be in the inner circle of Jesus. He was taught and then sent to minister with apostolic authority. He enjoyed the same success as the others on those missions to preach, to heal, and to cast out demons. He was in every sense of the word an apostle. What happened?” -Fred Craddock

Despair has been called the unforgivable sin—not presumably because God refuses to forgive it but because it despairs of the possibility of being forgiven.” -Frederick Buechner


Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It is a very great privilege to be able to share a word with you all today…but if I’m being honest, preparing this sermon has been stressful. For today’s readings are unusually challenging. We are looking at the two sections in Luke 22 that focus on Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon that focuses exclusively on Judas in my whole life. What are you supposed to say about the most infamous person who has ever lived, the person who betrays Jesus, and delivers him into the hands of those who would crucify him? What lessons could we possibly learn from the greatest sinner of them all? I don’t need a sermon to know that I shouldn’t be like Judas.

But in fact, I have come to see that there are some very deep truths here. So, hear these verses from Luke 22:

“Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.” (22:1-6)

“While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him,

‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as though I were a rebel? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour and the power of darkness!’” (22:47-53)

When I read this narrative, there are three questions that come to mind. First, how could Judas have done this? How is it that someone who was selected by Jesus to be an apostle, who spent three intimate years with Jesus, who saw everything that He had done and taught, who healed the sick, cast out demons, and brought many people to faith in Jesus—how could such a person betray him? Second, why would Judas have done this? This sounds similar to the first question, but here I mean to try to understand Judas’s psyche. What reasons could he possibly have had to have justified at least in his own head, why he should betray Jesus? And third, what is Judas’s ultimate destiny? Is there any hope for the greatest sinner?

I think these questions reveal deep truths about the full significance of Easter, the psychology of sin, and truths about human hopelessness, shame, and despair, and the depths of God’s grace and forgiveness.

So, let’s consider these questions in turn…


So, first, how could Judas have done this? What led him to betray Jesus? Here, Luke’s gospel gives a very straightforward answer: it was Satan. Verse 3: “Then Satan entered Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve.”

In Luke’s Gospel, Satan plays an unusually prominent role compared to other gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. For example, In Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, he writes: “When the Devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Neither Matthew nor Mark describe the temptation of Jesus ending this way; Satan simply leaves. Similarly, in discussing Judas neither Matthew nor Mark appeal to Satan to describe Judas’s betrayal. In Luke, however, we see Satan returning for that more “opportune time,” resuming his attempt to defeat Jesus, by influencing Judas, someone on the inside, a trusted figure.

Luke portrays Holy Week as the climax of a cosmic battle between God and Satan, good and evil. This struggle is initiated when Satan enters Judas, but it continues on in Chapter 22 with Jesus foretelling Peter’ denial of him: “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat.” Luke emphasizes that all the disciples are subject to Satan’s influence, not just Judas, as shown by their actions throughout the rest of the Chapter, which we have been looking at over the last two weeks. After Judas betrays Jesus, the disciples engage in debates about which of them is the greatest. They fail to stay awake during prayer, scatter when Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies Jesus three times. None of them look so great.

This frames the way that we should interpret all of these events. Yes, Judas is a key player in all of this, but in Luke’s Gospel, Judas is but a pawn. The chief actor is Satan, and Holy Week is the culmination of a titanic struggle between good and evil, a struggle that actually starts in Eden, and now finally comes to its culmination in another Garden, this time in Gethsemane. In her sermon two weeks, Pastor Colleen made the nice point that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness parallels the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Here again, we have the last temptation as it were, in another Garden, but this time Satan apparently is winning.


But while Judas is a pawn in a cosmic struggle, he is in fact is the one who was directly involved in Jesus’s arrest and eventual crucifixion. This leads to the second question: why would he have done this? This seems similar to the first question, but here I’m interested in trying to understand what was going on in Judas’ head from the inside, what motivated him? I don’t think Satan took over Judas in the way that people get possessed in horror movies where they are just taken over. That doesn’t seem to be what is going on here.

Scripture doesn’t provide any clear answer as to Judas’s motives. Most of us think that he acted out of greed, but other theories abound. Some suggest that Judas held the widely shared expectation that Jesus was going to violently conquer the Romans and drive them out of the Holy Land. Frustrated by Jesus’s lack of progress, Judas tried to force the issue by generating a conflict between Jesus and the chief priests, thereby forcing Jesus into action. Others suggest that Judas was hoping to profit from his betrayal, but expected Jesus to evade those who would harm him as he often had.

Whatever his reasons, the canonical testimony of the gospels is that Judas comes to regret his actions. Luke doesn’t talk about this. In Luke’s gospel, Judas is never mentioned again after the attempted kiss. But in Matthew’s gospel, it becomes clear that Judas comes to regret and repent for his actions. In Matthew, after Jesus has been arrested and sentenced to be crucified, it says that Judas “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.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, [Judas] departed, and he went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27: 3-5).

The striking thing here is the speed with which Judas comes to repent of what he had done. Only a few hours before, Judas had betrayed Jesus. Now when he has seen what he has done, so great is his remorse, that he ends his own life. What happened?

This turn of events might seem surprising, but it illuminates something important about the psychology of sin, and the stories or lies that we tell ourselves to rationalize our actions even when we kind of know that they are wrong. So, we say, “it’s not that bad.” “He deserved it.” “No one will notice.” “It’s not a big deal.” “Just this one time.” “It’s not really a lie.” “I don’t have a problem.” And then sometimes, a moment of clarity occurs, and we realize to our own horror that in fact it is that bad, it is a big deal, it isn’t just one time, I do have a problem. I think something like that is going on here. In one crushing, tragic instant, the scales fall from his eyes, and Judas realizes that he has done something terrible.

We never (or at least rarely do we ever) think to ourselves I know this is wrong but I’m going to do it anyway. Rather, we rationalize, or tell ourselves lies to minimize or obscure what we are really doing. Think about how Satan often acts in the world: he tells lies. We would do well to pay attention to the way in which we allow ourselves to be taken in by lies that obscure what we are actually doing from ourselves.


And now let’s look at our third and final question, what is Judas’s ultimate destiny? Is God’s forgiveness big enough to include Judas? Is he saved?

When I was in high school, we read Dante’s Inferno. The only thing that I remember is that not only is Judas in Hell, but he is in the lowest circle of Hell, experiencing the worst torment. But the history of the church reveals a little more ambivalence, with some figures declaring definitively that Judas is damned, while others hold out hope. We obviously don’t know.

But maybe what we can say here is that if Judas is among the damned, it isn’t because of the smallness of God’s mercy, but rather because of Judas’ own overwhelming sense of shame. This is the picture that we get from Matthew’s gospel noted above. Judas comes to see the horror of what he has done. He repents and tries to give the money back, and overwhelmed by his own shame, he finally takes his own life. We might say that Judas’s unforgivable sin is that he thinks that he is not worthy of being saved.

People often say that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is feeling bad about what one has done, while shame is feeling bad about what one is. If that is true, then we should certainly feel guilt about bad things that we have done, but we should never feel shame about what we are. For we are, all of us, from Mother Theresa to Judas, children of God, creatures made in the image of God. We have a special value simply in virtue of what we are. In Genesis, we see that human beings are the crowning achievement of God’s act of creation, and are made in His image. In Psalm 8, David writes: “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them. Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.” We are like little gods— little, but gods.

The idea that we are made in the image of God is a familiar one—so familiar in fact that it is easy to forget how radical and profound it is. It is also a dangerous idea. The truth is that we are “little gods.” The danger comes from forgetting one or the other of those two words. If you forget that we are “little,” and just remember that we are gods, this leads to all of the sins of pride, of vanity, of thinking that you are better than everyone else, all the sins of injustice and ignoring the needs of others. It leads you to forget that everyone is also made in the image of God, despite how they look or how they act. The homeless person is made in the image of God. The immigrant is made in the image of God. The criminal is made in the image of God. But all of that is a sermon for another day.

Equally, however, it is a mistake to forget that we are gods, and remember only that we are “little.” It is a mistake, for people to think that they don’t have value, that they don’t have an intrinsic worth. This is where Judas finds himself. He is so overwhelmed by his own shame that it leads to utter and total despair at his own unworthiness.

Now the good news for all of us here is that none of us have betrayed Jesus in the way that Judas did. But many of us do carry around shame. That shame might be rooted in things that we have done. Equally it might be rooted in things that have been done to us. Either way, shame can have the same effect, the effect of leading us to think that we aren’t worthy, that we don’t deserve forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, or inclusion. We remember only that we are little, and forget that we are gods. But there is nothing that we can do, and nothing that can happen to us that can change what God has made. Jesus’ crucifixion is particularly concerned with this.

Consider, why did Jesus die on the Cross? I think the common answer would be, “in order that our sins might be forgiven.” That is true, but it actually doesn’t answer the question. The question was, why did Jesus die on the Cross? Could Jesus have died after being hit by a car while crossing the street? Could Jesus have had a heart attack, died and was buried and then rose again on the third day? These are kind of nonsensical questions. What’s the significance of the cross?

It is easy in our modern day, when crosses are purely religious symbols or jewelry, to forget the true meaning of the cross. For the Romans, the cross obviously wasn’t a religious symbol. It wasn’t even just a tool of torture and execution. It was the most painful way they knew to kill a person, but the true awfulness of the cross lay in the utter humiliation, degradation, shame, and dehumanization that it inflicted. The only modern analogue is the noose, which is the point that James Cone makes in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. We can’t lose sight of this. As the great Episcopal priest, Fleming Rutledge writes: “If Jesus’ demise is construed merely as a death—even as a painful, tortured death—the crucial point will be lost. Crucifixion was specifically designed to be the ultimate insult to personal dignity, the last word in humiliating and dehumanizing treatment. Degradation was the whole point.”

Jesus didn’t just die; he died on a cross. He didn’t just die for our sins; He died for our shame. This is the point that the author of Hebrew makes in those well-known verses from Hebrews 12: Jesus “who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, thinking nothing of its shame.”

It is telling that after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, the first fruit of sin in the world was fear and shame. Genesis 3 says, “the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” and Adam replied, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” They hid from God because they were ashamed.

But now, because of the cross, Jesus crucifies all of the sin, all of the brokenness, all of the unworthiness, all of the humiliation, all of the shame of the world. It is finished. It restores us to what we were created to be: little gods. All of us. Little gods in relationship with other little gods, and with the One True Big God. No shame. No fear. Just love.

Perhaps Judas came to realize this. Perhaps, in the midst of his shame and his despair, he encountered Jesus, and he came to see that even he was worthy of grace. As Paul says in Romans 8: “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth,” (and I’ll add neither shame nor despair,) “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is true for Judas, and it is certainly true for us. Amen.