Mandatum Novum

Why did they tolerate Judas? Why, after all that had gone before, was he still there?

Judas. Iscariot. That cryptic name, that identity veiled in uncertainty.

“Iscariot”, a Roman soldier might say, “is that because you are from Kerioth in Judea? Or perhaps you a member of the ‘sicarii, you are rebel assassin, prepared to die to see Rome driven out of your homeland? Is that it, Judas, Iscariot? Or is your name a variation of that Hebrew word that means “liar”. Are you a liar, Judas? Or the Aramaic word that means “to deliver”? What are you delivering, Judas? Who are you, Iscariot? What are you up to Judas?”

The disciples themselves were asking other questions: “Is he really one of us; this one who insults Jesus’ friends? This one with his sharp tongue, his bitter remarks. This one who – as we all know – has been stealing money regularly from the common purse.”

“Why does Jesus keep him around? Why doesn’t he confront him? Why did Jesus make him the treasurer in the first place, and why does he keep him as treasurer even when we all know what is going on? Don’t we have Levi – Matthew – the expert tax collector? Can’t he count money? Don’t we have Peter, Andrew, James and John, all of whom have proven they can run a business? Can’t they count money? What is Jesus thinking? Why do we need Judas, anyway?”

The Gospels politely gloss over the final unraveling of the disciples’ relationship with Judas. No one wants to go there. We skip briskly past the moment when Judas excuses himself from the group and departs, never to be found among them again. Looking back, it is an odd ending. No goodbyes, no “thank you for all your hard work”, no parting gifts or accolades. On a night when Jesus talks about love, we don’t want Judas as the fly in our ointment, we don’t want to think about the embarrassment of a failed relationship. Like any community, it is easier to move on, to just not talk about it.

And yet….. Can we fully understand this last night together, can we fully grasp the teaching of Jesus, if we airbrush Judas out of the picture? I think not.

We call it “Maundy Thursday”. Mandatum novum do vobis; or in English: “A new commandment I give to you”. Hence, Maundy from the Latin word “command”, or “mandate”.

And what is the nature of this new commandment of Christ? What makes it new? Any instruction to love each other with a common sort of love would be nothing more than a reiteration of a concept traced easily enough to the Old Testament scriptures, and would hardly be seen as something new.

What is different here is the nature of the love that Jesus holds out as the standard for his followers.

Jesus makes the point with his actions: he washes his disciples’ feet; he lowers himself to what would have been considered an unacceptable level of service to his friends. In that place and culture, rabbis – respected religious leaders – did not demean themselves with the work of slaves. Even more, Jesus is about to give up his very life for them. The “ultimate sacrifice” as we say now.

And who is among those whose feet are washed? Who has received this act of love? Judas. The Iscariot. He is still very much a part of the group at that moment even though Jesus knows full well that the die is cast and, before another day is out, Judas will have gone his own way.

I wonder what Jesus is thinking, there with his head bowed before Judas, his hands gently rubbing the dust from his feet, carefully wiping them with a towel. And Judas? What went through his mind, as he looked down at the crown of Jesus’ head, his still clean and parted hair?

Moments later Judas turns his back on Jesus and his friends and slips out of the room into the night. He will never see the full light of day again. But, no matter the decisions he will take for himself in the next few hours, he leaves with clean feet. He leaves having been included. His exclusion is his own choice.

The new commandment is not just to love one another; it is to love one another “as I have loved you”: in the manner of Jesus’ own love. It is a love that is willing to serve even those who injure us, those whom we may know are planning our demise. A love that makes no distinction between those who are lovable and those who are not, those who are for us and those who are not, those who are with us and those who are not.

Jesus’ instruction about love, his example of love, loses its power if Judas is hermetically excluded from the scene. The love that Jesus asks of his followers is not merely the love of a sanitized, ordered and harmonious life. It is the love that perseveres through betrayal, through dysfunction, and through the failure of broken and breaking relationships. The love that says, “I will love you. Though you injure me, I will love you. Though you turn your back on me, I will love you. Though you deliver me up to injustice and pain, still I will love you.”

Do we have this kind of love for the one who has injured us? Can we wash the feet of the one who will do us a grave injustice? Can we humble ourselves before the one who betrays us? Is there still room at our table for the one who will turn their back on us?

If the answer is “no” then we have not yet loved as Jesus loved.

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