Wednesday, November 06, 2019

His Own Place

“Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”

I have often wondered what the apostles meant by saying that Judas went to “his own place”.

I’m not the only one. For example, I’ve heard at least one Bible teacher say from the platform that the apostles (or perhaps Luke, the writer of Acts, in summing up their prayer in his own words) were sort of hedging their bets; discreetly avoiding passing judgment on Judas’ fate since they could not be 100% sure what had really happened to him. In this — or at least so it is alleged — they are modeling for us Christian virtue.

I find that explanation weak tea.

Weak Tea

Consider what the Lord himself had plainly said to them about Judas. In Mark’s gospel, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” In John’s gospel, his prayer includes these words: “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the scripture might be fulfilled.” The words “has been lost” and “son of destruction” were not chosen idly. Or again, in John, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” It would have been rather odd for the apostles not to take such strong statements at face value.

Further, in the upper room, Jesus had promised them, “I go to prepare a place (same Greek word) for you.” But he was speaking to only eleven disciples at that point. Judas was not included. He had already been dismissed, and he had departed willingly and enthusiastically. Remember, the chief priests and elders didn’t approach him to betray Jesus. He approached them.

So, no, I don’t think there is any doubt at all where Judas is today, and I don’t think the apostles were iffy on the subject or disinclined to talk about it. It is quite possible this is the contrast the apostles had in view: Judas’s “place” (hades, and later the lake of fire) vs. the place Jesus said he would prepare and is even now preparing. That may be exactly what they intended to communicate.

A Place of His Own

On the other hand, it’s quite possible the apostles in their prayer were not really referring to the place their former fellow disciple would spend eternity at all. They say, “he turned aside to go to his own place,” which makes me ask myself what sane person deliberately turns aside to choose hell over heaven? It may indeed happen, but far more often, I suspect, the final destination of the wicked is the end product of a series of expressions of self-will that do not take eternity into account at all, as opposed to a deliberate, conscious choice of fire and torment over the love of God and fellowship with him.

The Greek word topos (“place”) refers literally to any specific geographic location, but it is also used several times in the NT metaphorically to mean opportunity, as in “Give place [topos] to the wrath of God” or “Give no opportunity [topos] to the devil”, or even the statement in Hebrews that Esau found “no chance [topos] to repent, though he sought it with tears.”

Like Esau, Judas too found no chance to repent. He brought back the thirty pieces of silver for which he betrayed the Lord Jesus to the chief priests and elders of Israel, troubled that he had sinned by betraying innocent blood. What was their response? “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” There was no opportunity for him to put things back the way they had been, or in fact to make any meaningful show of contrition at all. Seeing that was the case, we read, “He went and hanged himself.” We do not know that he really wanted the opportunity to repent, but there was none to be found in any case. That ship had sailed.

Opportunity, Opportunity

Well, the lake of fire may indeed be said to be a literal location, at least in the sense that those who are cast into it are not free to be elsewhere. Perhaps, as I say, this is what the apostles were referring to. But perhaps ... just perhaps ... they were speaking not so much of their compatriot’s ultimate fate as the whole course of life he chose. He wanted “room” for personal autonomy among men who had a Master. He wanted opportunity to do things his own way. See, it was not just any old place Judas went to; it was his own place.

In the original, topos is modified by idios. In English, we get “idiot” from idios, following this same Greek idea: that of choosing privately and individualistically rather than as a member of a larger group.

That requires a small clarification: not all private, personal choices are by definition ‘idiotic’. For example, Jesus is said to have gone on more than one occasion to “a desolate place by himself [idios],” so there are times when acting individually is not sinful and may even be desirable. What it does mean is that idiocy is always a distinctively personal thing. There is such a thing as mob psychology, but there is no such thing as “group idiocy”. People behaving idiotically do not do it in a group. It is not idiocy if they do; it is something else. Clear?

However, in this case Judas’ choice really was idiotic — in fact, we should seriously consider making his betrayal of the Lord the dictionary definition of idiocy. But this was for reasons other than the mere fact that he chose it himself. Sometimes people make perfectly good choices on their own. Judas did not. In choosing his own will over Christ’s, he rejected not just another of many human options but — if I may put it this way — the fundamental governing principles under which our universe operates.

In short, he could not have been more wrong.

The Incident in Bethany

Further, Judas wanted opportunity to express his rejection of the spiritual values represented by the Christ and his chosen ones. I don’t believe it is coincidental that his determination to betray Jesus immediately follows Jesus’ anointing in Bethany, about which Matthew says the disciples were indignant, asking, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.”

John, however, offers a little more detail:
“But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.”
The most indignant of the disciples was Judas, because he was a thief. He had his own interests and ambitions squarely in view. Jesus had the temerity to thwart them. His indignation appears to lead directly to betrayal. In rebuffing Judas’ correction, Jesus sets his own value system in opposition to that of Judas. For Judas, that would not do at all.

To sum it all up then, in speaking of Judas’s “own place”, it is possible the disciples were thinking of the entire trajectory of his betrayal and his misguided, desperate grasping of autonomy over obedience, and self-interest over self-denial.

I Got My Own Way ...

In either event, two things at least can be said about Judas’ “own place”:
  1. He chose it. If it was hell Judas deliberately chose, then he was epically foolish. I doubt very much that was the case. Rather, he took a series of incremental steps downward and away from the will of God, all of which seemed eminently sensible to him at the time given his ambitions and the previous steps he had already taken. Never underestimate the persuasive power of a longstanding personal investment in a particular course of action.

    Of course these steps led him inexorably toward hell. Of course there were flashing neon signposts all the way down warning him off, which he blithely ignored. Of course we must acknowledge that he was always “the son of destruction, that the scripture might be fulfilled.” The Calvinists can have that one, though I don’t think it means quite what they think it means.

    Still, that was almost surely never his intent. When Jesus said, “One of you is a devil,” Judas was right there listening with all the others. John gives us no reason to believe Judas took the Lord’s comment personally. Why would he? “A devil? Are you kidding? Surely he must have someone else in mind.”

    All the same, and however he got there, these were Judas’s choices from beginning to end.
  2. It suited him. Judas preferred his own view of the world to that of Christ and his disciples. That much is obvious. He was quite happy to be on the cutting edge of a new movement until it cramped his personal style, after which he preferred the status quo, thank you very much. He preferred freeloading to hard work. He preferred judging others to holding his peace. He preferred the approval of the majority to the approval of God. When sent to do his dirty work, he happily went his way. There is no indication that disposition ever changed.

    Even his crisis of conscience at the end of his life is difficult to read as a complete reversal. Does he seek out the Eleven and throw himself repentantly at their feet? No. Does he devote his life to repaying what he had stolen to those he had stolen from? No. Does he concede that Christ’s value system was right and his own wrong? No. Rather, he’s bothered by some mere moral vestige he had forgotten to leave at the top of the staircase down into the Abyss: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” That could legitimately bother just about anybody without signalling true repentance. I take it to mean no more than that Judas was grieved to find he had not measured up to his own personal standard of integrity. After all, like most of us, he was the protagonist of his own story, and this wasn’t exactly a great ending for the hero. Some of the looks he got from the other disciples in the Garden must have been chilling.

    But the final piece of evidence against Judas is this: that when his “repentance” was rejected by the chief priests and elders, he performed the ultimate act of self-will, the most brazen declaration of autonomy possible: he went out and hanged himself.

    He did it his way, because it suited him.
His Own Place

To say that someone “turned aside to go to his own place” is no softball gently lofted over the plate in hope that the speaker might avoid sounding harsh or critical. Nobody sane should want to go to his own place. Like Judas, even the most brazen and confident among us has no real idea what setting our own agenda entails until we find ourselves up to our eyeballs in it and realize we have been dead wrong from the get-go.

And by the time we find out, it may be far too late.

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