The Odor of Betrayal
The key moment for Judas gets almost no attention in the church. You won’t find it on most timelines of Holy Week, and it sometimes doesn’t even get its own italicized header in study Bibles (that’s how you really know it doesn’t matter). But immediately after Jesus was anointed at the house of Simon the Leper, Judas went to the chief priests to betray him. Why would this anointing be Judas’s turning point?
The tensions the Twelve experienced during Holy Week are nearly unimaginable. Jesus staged the triumphal entry to make a mockery of Pilate and his Roman legions. To any Jewish people watching, the signals were clear: Jesus was declaring himself to be the Messiah, here to challenge Rome’s power and authority.
But instead of confronting Rome, Jesus turned on His own people. He cleansed the temple and challenged the chief priests and scribes, publicly humiliating them. Even privately, the Twelve must have thought Jesus was acting strange. He cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit, even though figs weren’t in season. And when the Galilean peasants marveled at the glory of Herod’s temple, the envy of nations and gods all over the world, Jesus announced it would be destroyed—not one stone left on another (Mark 13:2). His description of the Day of the Lord—the day of the Messiah’s coming conquest, foretold for centuries by prophets—was not a vision of victory but of devastation.
For the Jewish people, the temple was the bridge between heaven and earth, the religious and ideological center of the universe. If God’s throne is in the heavenly throne room, the temple was God’s footstool, where the physical presence of God lived among God’s people. The temple was the Jewish people’s source of life, hope, and security. They could not have imagined a messiah ruling without a temple. So Jesus’s prediction of the temple’s destruction— just days after He led a victory march into Jerusalem and in the midst of dangerous tensions with the religious elite—did not sound like a brave new world. It sounded like Jesus was giving up, like He thought His messianic mission was doomed to fail.
And then Simon hosted a banquet for Jesus. We know little about Simon and less about the mysterious woman who anointed Jesus. According to Mark and Matthew, Simon was a leper. Presumably Jesus had recently healed him—a great reason to throw a party in His honor. The woman simply appeared at the fringes of the party. We never even learn her name.
The woman broke a jar of nard over Jesus. The Twelve claimed to be angry at the cost of the nard, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of a year’s wages. But the nard she used was a burial ointment, as strong perfumes were used in funeral rites to cover the smell of decomposition. This means that, for the next several days, Jesus walked around smelling like a funeral parlor. No wonder the Twelve were upset. The woman essentially poured gasoline on a smoldering fire. Worse, rather than rebuke her, Jesus praised her faithfulness, again embracing the possibility that He was going to die soon. For Judas, this proved to be too much. Mark tells us that immediately after this event, Judas decided to betray Jesus.
We can’t imagine how one of Jesus’ inner circle could betray Him, so we project onto Judas. We assume he must have been a snake from the beginning; he was nothing but evil from head to toe. By ignoring the story Mark is telling, we miss what drove Judas to do the unthinkable. What if we assume Judas saw himself as a faithful follower of Jesus? Can we imagine that he was wholly committed to Jesus’ messianic mission? What if Judas’s sin wasn’t that he was a mole or a wolf among sheep, but rather a religious idolater? As Mark hinted, Judas may have been faithful, but to the wrong messiah.
The Twelve gave up everything to follow Jesus. They left their families and their livelihoods, and they abandoned their place in the world because Jesus promised them a new world, a better world. They believed Him, they followed Him, and they came to realize He was the long-awaited Messiah.
For the Twelve, messiah meant conquest and glory, not shame and defeat. But during Holy Week, Judas watched Jesus crumbling. We who live on the other side of Golgotha recognize that, even then, He bore the weight of His impending crucifixion. But to Judas, it looked like Jesus was giving up, losing faith in God’s promises.
The scene at Simon’s table sealed Judas’s suspicions: Jesus allowed himself to be anointed for death and went around for the next few days smelling like it. It’s like that scene in Westerns where the town undertaker starts measuring the hero for a coffin the day before the big gunfight at high noon, except this hero was helping pick out his coffin. Jesus had embraced His death. Judas could not. If Judas believed Jesus was God’s promised Messiah, and if Judas believed Jesus was losing faith in himself, he had only one option. Judas grabbed the wheel of history for himself. He betrayed his master and his Messiah to the powers, confident that God would not fail, that at Jesus’ arrest the very skies would open and the armies of heaven would swoop in to destroy the enemies of the Messiah.
Except that’s not what happened. Jesus was not that kind of messiah then or now. Judas’s picture of Him had no room for suffering—only triumph. Judas could not conceive of a messiah who lost; his messiah could only be a victor. Judas committed himself to the wrong cause, and his legacy is eternal infamy.
I’m a Loser, Baby. So Why Don’t You Kill Me?
Judas’s story should give us all pause, especially when our picture of God is as triumphalist as his was. This God-who-wins isn’t called Baal or Marduk or Ganesh. We call this God “Jesus.” We claim He is the God to whom the Scriptures bear witness. This is despite Jesus’ declaration in John’s Gospel that God is most fully glorified when the Son is lifted up on the cross. Christians love to look toward the second coming to affirm our triumphalist narrative of God. As one popular megachurch pastor reflected on Jesus’ appearance at the battle of Armageddon in Revelation 19, he gushed, “Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship . . . . I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”
In this line of thinking, the cross is an embarrassment, an unfortunate hiccup in God’s otherwise hypermasculine character. A god who dies must only allow this, because in the end, he’ll get what’s his. Many cannot imagine worshiping a god who loses. This has been the case since the beginning. It’s why Paul had to declare to the church in Rome, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16). But we are removed from Paul, and Christianity has become the dominant lens through which Western culture views the world. Crosses have become decorations and jewelry and tattoos. We don’t find it strange to take pride in the cross—but that’s because the cross is no longer a tool of execution used by a hostile empire.
But occasionally the smell of death makes its way into our carefully air-conditioned churches.
Taken from Empathy for the Devil by JR. Forasteros. ©2017 by JR. Forasteros. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com