The Depths of Failure & Forgiveness

Matthew 26:17-22; 27:3-10

November 9, 2014

The Judge is a movie currently showing at theaters all around the United States. While I am not endorsing the film, I find the premise to be very real. The movie stars Robert Duvall as a long time, beloved judge in a small town in Indiana and Robert Downey Jr. as Duvall’s adult son who has moved away from small town life to become a prominent attorney in Chicago. In the film, the father and son, who have distanced themselves from one another over the years, are forced back into each other’s lives when the judge’s wife and thus the son’s mother dies unexpectedly.

As the story unfolds, what the viewer learns is that the judge and the son turned attorney have both been disappointed by the other. The judge/ father has always been disappointed by a number of critical decisions that his son made during his adolescence. He has never gotten over them and how they affected their family. The attorney/son has always been disappointed that his father was harder on him than anyone else. His high standards and expectations always seemed to cloud his ability to be a gracious father or simply to love his son. Rather than getting over these feelings or letting time and distance heal their wounds, both have continued to allow these long held hurts to fester and to deepen their disappointment with each other. In short, they never found a way to forgive one another as father and as son.

What it seems to me that this current movie illustrates so well, is the simple fact that those that we often struggle the most to forgive are those that we at the same time love the best.

So often, when we think and talk about forgiveness, we couch the subject in the idea of forgiving our biggest enemies or those figures that have committed the most atrocious or hideous acts. While this is part of the overall scope of the work of forgiveness, it undercuts the fact that equally difficult, and at times even more difficult, can be the work of forgiving those who we have always loved and that we thought would never fail us but who in a moment, act or experience fell far short of our expectations or harmed us in some completely unexpected way.

Judas Iscariot fits this profile far more than we realize. Today, we are quite familiar with the story of Judas. He is the bad apple among the twelve and that reality affects the way that we think about him from the outset. Yet, what is important for us to realize is that this isn’t really the way that the other eleven likely felt about Judas for the bulk of their three year ministry with Jesus. No, for the bulk of their ministry, Judas was a fellow brother, he was a member of the group, like the rest of them, he was a person who had risked a great deal in order to follow Jesus and they trusted him and respected him because of these traits.

Lest you think I am overstating things, let me remind us of two subtle hints at this truth from the gospels themselves. First, in John’s gospel, we are reminded that Judas was the treasurer of the group. That is to say that He was charged with caring for the financial resources that had been given to ensure the well-being of Jesus and the disciples and to fund their ongoing ministry. That Judas had this responsibility says a lot about the feelings of the other disciples. After all, we don’t put someone that we don’t respect or trust in charge of our finances.

Second, think about the text that we read a few moments ago from Matthew 26 when Jesus was at the table with the twelve on the evening of their last supper together. That was the moment when Jesus shared the shocking news that one of them was going to betray him. Notice how the disciples respond. Rather than immediately pointing figures in unison at Judas or all shouting out his name as the obvious betrayer, what Matthew says is that each individual disciples asked the question, “is it me?” In other words, none of them saw another as the obvious figure that Jesus was referencing.

We see Judas as an enemy, a bad apple and as a glaring example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But, the disciples saw him as a friend. His act was a shock to their collective system. His act was the betrayal of friend not the expected act of an enemy and it likely left all of them reeling as they tried to wrap their arms around what he had done.

I have a dear colleague in ministry who is the middle of three children. He and his younger sister were good students, always seemed to make fairly good decisions and were by and large always doing more things that made their parents proud than not. But, their older brother could never quite get it together. He made poor decisions, was involved in things he should have never been a part of, was constantly disrespectful to their parents and made life difficult for all of them on a regular basis. My friend even says that he remembers occasions when money would go missing from his desktop or wallet. He knew without a doubt that his oldest brother was stealing from him to fund his bad habits and poor decisions. To say the least, all of this infuriated all of them and what made things even worse is that this was their son; this was their very own brother — this was not an enemy.

All of us have experience with this sort of situation to one degree or another. All of us know how the disciples must have felt and how disappointed they must have been in Judas. Yet, what is most remarkable and often missed is that while Judas could not come to grips with what he did and ultimately committed suicide, the disciples seemed poised to forgive him just as I believe Jesus was. Judas is clearly the one in the gospels who condemns himself to death — not anyone else.

I say this for several reasons. First, the disciples, like Jesus, clearly offered forgiveness to Peter whose behavior was equally shameful. After all, they coalesced around Peter as the ultimate leader of the early church. Second, the disciples don’t really say anything about Judas or his behavior after the events of his betrayal. Sure, John’s gospel traces Judas’ decision to the beginning of his call, but even that is not necessarily an indication that there was an unwillingness to offer him grace or mercy.

How were the disciples able to rise to such a level in light of what Judas did?

For two reasons I think. First and foremost, if there is one thing Jesus had preached to them for three years it was forgiveness. If they struggled to understand everything else that he had said, they seem to have understood that he was a person of grace and of mercy. No, Jesus didn’t exempt people from the obvious ramification of their actions. And, he didn’t forgive people without the expectation that forgiveness would lead to a changed life. But, Jesus was focused on forgiveness even in the most difficult of situations.

Second, the disciples realized they were equally susceptible to doing what Judas did. Here is the interesting thing. We don’t know what the other disciples did at the point of Jesus death. We don’t know what decisions they made that were also to some degree shameful. In fact, all we know is that they were nowhere to be found when Jesus breathed his last. Only John was with a few of the women. All of the rest abandoned Jesus to some degree. In other words, because of what they had all just lived through, I believe that in Judas they each saw some measure of themselves.

Here is the thing, our inability to forgive, is often strongly connected to our belief that we would have personally never made such a decision. We convince ourselves that in the face of temptation, we would have risen above the fray and acted appropriately. Maybe we are right. But maybe, just maybe, we are giving ourselves more credit than we deserve.

Generally speaking, our other sense is that our withholding of forgiveness is a way of helping those that have wronged us to deal with the consequences of their actions. But, again, as with the Judas story, the real likelihood is that our withheld grace is far eclipsed by their own sense of shame and personal disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong, I struggle to forgive those that I love the most just as much as you do. But, is withheld grace really worth it? Are we sure that we would have fared better in similar situations? And even beyond that, are we convinced that our withheld grace is necessary in light of their own personal self-criticism? When we fail to forgive, who do we really hurt, and what help do we fail to offer?

There is a beautiful story about Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb that I offer in conclusion today. According to the story, it took Edison and his team of workers twenty four straight hours to manufacture one light bulb. When it was finished, Edison gave it to a boy assistant to take up the stairs. Despite his best efforts to be careful, however, the young boy dropped the light bulb and it shattered into a thousand pieces. Again, twenty four more hours were needed for a replacement light bulb to be manufactured. When it was ready and against better wisdom, Edison took the second light bulb and gave it to the same little boy to carry. (James Newton, Uncommon Friends, Mariner Books, 1989)

Today, who is the Judas in your life? Who is the person that you thought would never need your forgiveness but who now instead stands outside of your grace? Today, as Jesus would do for any one of us without question, are you willing to instill a sense of trust in them again? Amen.