04/17/2014 04:08 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Let's Be Kind to Judas: John 13:21-32

One of my favorite sermons that I have ever read is this title delivered by Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, President of Morehouse College, my alma mater from 1940-1967. Mays offered a different interpretation of the role of Judas as not a villain or "betrayer" but as the fulfillment of the plan of redemption for the world thus we must be kind to Judas.

"Jesus made me do it."

Other scholars assert that the role of Judas as "betrayer" especially from the Greek was misinterpreted for "hand over." The claim that "Jesus made me do it" is, in effect, what an ancient document called the Gospel of Judas attempts to do for the great betrayer.

As you know, there is no Gospel According to Judas in our Bible, and, in fact, Judas himself is presented there as a sinister figure, a traitor and betrayer of Jesus. In this Judas gospel, Judas still gives Jesus over to the authorities, but both Judas and Jesus are portrayed differently from how we know them from the New Testament. Jesus is described as considering himself as a spirit trapped in a physical body, and Judas is not a betrayer, but a dutiful lieutenant following Jesus' orders to betray him so that Jesus' mission could be accomplished.

But that mission, as N.T. Wright notes in his book, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, is not at all the mission as described in the canonical gospels. In the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus' mission is the salvation of the world, and his bodily resurrection represents a profound defeat of sin, death and the devil.

In the Gnostic gospel Judas acts on Jesus' orders, but the Jesus of this gospel is a selfish Jesus who saves only himself. That's why in the Judas gospel, Jesus says to Judas, "You will exceed all of [the other disciples] for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me," the flesh that "clothes me." Judas will kill the body, but the soul will thereby escape. This gospel, then, makes Judas the hero. Wright, N.T. Judas and the Gospel of Jesus. p. 51-52 Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2006.

Thus, from Judas' gospel version of the Passion, Judas would have grounds to say "Jesus made me do it."

Consider our reading from John's gospel. It records an incident at the Last Supper where Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. And while they are all wondering who it can be, Jesus privately hands to Judas a piece of bread, which he had said would signal the betrayer. John then tells us, "After [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him." Luke also attributes Judas' action to the Devil, saying, "Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve" (Luke 22:3). Matthew and Mark simply report Judas' action without laying it on Satan, but they clearly describe it as an act of betrayal. There is no mention in any of the New Testament gospels of Judas' acting on any kind of instruction from Jesus, and all four agree that Judas acted against Jesus.

But return a moment to John's statement that Satan entered into Judas. Throughout his gospel, John has been concerned to explain the life, ministry and death of Jesus theologically, and not just to report specific facts. Thus, when narrating Judas' betrayal of Jesus, he sees what is going on in cosmic terms. In other words, as far as John is concerned, in the soon-to-occur crucifixion and the events leading up to it, as well as in the ultimate outcome of salvation for all who believe, the real opponents are not Jesus and Judas, but Jesus and Satan. Or, to say it even more broadly, the struggle is between the most-holy God and the Prince of Darkness.

Thus, although John had previously branded Judas as a thief who stole money from the common purse he carried for Jesus and the other disciples (John 12:6), John does not attribute the betrayal to Judas' greed, but to Satan's invasion of his heart (John 13:2). What's more, although the other three gospel writers tell us that Judas received money from the chief priests for his perfidy, John doesn't even mention the cash, effectively discounting the possibility that Judas was motivated by avarice.

No, as John understands it, the devil made Judas do it.

But let's be honest. That's a hard conclusion to swallow. A few decades ago, comedian Flip Wilson, while in the guise of his comic character Geraldine, would tell of some outrageous thing she'd done and then excuse it by saying, "The devil made me do it." And we'd all laugh. [We'd laugh because we knew the claim was ridiculous and was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. And we are likely to feel that way about John's claim regarding Judas as well, even though John was completely serious.

So we can understand why whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas would take the position he did and try to change the story to "Jesus made me do it."

But let's give John his due. He was looking at the big picture, which was the salvation of the world. From that perspective, Judas was no more than a bit player. Jesus didn't come to rescue us from Judas, but from sin. And John saw Satan as the author of sin. This is what I believe Dr. Mays was interpreting in his wonderful sermon on Judas.

My interpretation of Judas is a bit different, I follow the traditional interpretation that Mark, Matthew, Luke, John in this order were written all describing the character and role of Judas. In each Gospel the character of Judas becomes darker and sinister culminating in John that Satan got into him almost taking away his culpability. I believe that the character of Judas didn't exist originally and to make sense of the death of Jesus by the time the Gospels were written to make sense of his death Judas was created. We know that the Greek mythologies and literature has very prominently a betrayer in explaining the death of great persons. Such as Julius Caesar his assassination became prominent not when his enemies stabbed him but when he thought his trusted friend Brutus was apart of the conspiracy "Eh tu Brute" (You too Brutus). What about the John f. Kennedy assassination fifty years now it is hard for the American people to believe that a random man could kill such a great and promising President so the American people to make sense in the grieving process must create many conspiracy theories. Perhaps this happens in the creation of the character Judas to free the Roman occupation for killing this innocent man who was with no fault or guilt? So instead of being kind to Judas let's examine if Judas actually existed?

John says that Satan was the motivator in Judas' betrayal of Jesus, but we're best to understand that to mean that despite all the time Judas had spent in Jesus' company, he had not committed his will to Jesus. Judas was not Jesus-possessed, the Gospel of Judas notwithstanding.

On this Maundy Thursday, we're invited to be obedient, to obey the commandments of Jesus. We are invited to be "Jesus-possessed." If there's any talk of a hero, it's clearly Jesus, not Judas, and if we're interested in hero worship, we'd best worship Jesus.

If we worship Jesus, we can be kind to our neighbors just as the outpour of his gracious love to us in bringing redemption, reconciliation and ultimately resurrection.