Sunday, March 19, 2023

A Fair Chance to Fail

Sometimes I’m grateful there are limits to human knowledge.

Suppose you could see the future with reasonable certainty and could judge within a few minutes of conversing with friends, family members and acquaintances which of them will eventually be saved or how they really feel about you. Might you not be just a little inclined to change your behavior toward the ones you believe will never come to know the Lord, or toward the ones who bear hidden grudges or agendas, or simply don’t care about you as much as you care about them?

Oh, I don’t mean you might treat them differently in big, obvious ways. It wouldn’t be particularly Christian to snub, ignore or dismiss people; we wouldn’t do that. What I might be tempted to do would be a little subtler, and I’d probably rationalize it in the interests of time-stewardship: faced with an invitation to dinner with Person A or Person B, I’d probably opt to spend more time with the ones I judged closest to the kingdom or most in agreement with my own values.

To finite human beings, that would seem a reasonable way to proceed. After all, there are only so many hours in a day and only so many days in a lifetime. Why not use the moments you have to greatest effect?

He Needed No One

Interesting that the Lord Jesus, possessed of something quite a bit more trustworthy than my “reasonable certainty”, didn’t do that. John says of him that he “needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man”.

Incidentally, when John uses the word “himself”, it is an example of a quirk of language Bible writers employ frequently and their secular contemporaries employ rarely. The Greek word is autos, and it adds force and contrast to John’s statement. The Lord Jesus did not need any external information about people to understand their motivations and agendas. I suspect, though I can’t prove, that he may not even have needed the additional insights from his constant communion with the Father through the Holy Spirit in the same way you and I do. He was fully human but possessed of a level of keen spiritual intuition we cannot possibly fathom. It was just who he was; the “eyes like a flame of fire” that John would see early in the book of Revelation. He didn’t acquire those when he was caught up into glory. He had them all along.

Judas in the Synoptics

Yet, despite being possessed of a level of profound spiritual insight unsurpassed in human history, the Lord Jesus not only chose Judas to be a member of the Twelve, which was necessary both to accomplish the Father’s will and to fulfill Old Testament prophecy, but he also he treated Judas just like he treated the other disciples, those who would go on to serve him faithfully long after Judas was dead and buried in the Potter’s field that memorialized him.

That was not necessary at all. I find it astounding.

Matthew, the only gospel writer other than John who was physically present when Judas betrayed his Master, can’t bring himself to do that. He mentions Judas being chosen as one of the original Twelve in chapter 10, then doesn’t even use the man’s name again until the betrayal of chapter 26. Mark does the same thing: between his calling in chapter 3 and his betrayal in chapter 14, not a word about Judas, even though we know he was present almost the entire time. Luke, same story: Judas is called in chapter 6 and betrays the Lord in chapter 22 with not a single mention in between.

In the synoptic gospels, Judas is an absolute cipher. Not an unnecessary word is said about the man. If that is intentional, it is certainly understandable.

Judas in John

John’s gospel mentions Judas though, and always in connection with the Lord’s amazing insight into the human character. In the very same conversation in which Peter insists there is nowhere else he’d rather be, saying, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God”, Jesus answers him, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” John adds, “He spoke of Judas.” Apparently at least one of the twelve was not paying close attention to Peter’s confession.

Again, six days before the final Passover, John gives us another reference to Judas that we don’t find anywhere else. Jesus and his disciples are in Bethany, where Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes his feet with her hair. Judas asks, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” At least two of the synoptics mention the story without identifying either the woman or the speaker. John, showing a fair bit of insight himself after the fact, comments that Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; a thief who used to “help himself” to the contents of the moneybag, presumably the common funds that were used to cover the expenses of those who followed the Lord. Jesus responds to Judas with the famous statement, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” He said that directly to the man who would betray him, and he said it in full knowledge of that fact.

The Exception Who Wasn’t Exceptional

And yet at no point does the Lord Jesus marginalize Judas, exclude him from important insider information, or put him on the shelf — even knowing full well his character was corrupt, his service horribly compromised, his reward nonexistent and his judgment inevitable. Jesus gives Judas the same authority over unclean spirits and ability to heal every disease and affliction as he gives the other eleven. He gives Judas the same commission as the other eleven and treats him with the same trust. Even the unique privilege of having charge of the moneybag may be seen less as a temptation than as a daily opportunity to do the right thing, one from which Judas never benefited. Finally, in the garden, he calls Judas “friend” just prior to one of the least friendly acts it is possible to commit. I don’t think that was sarcasm; it was the way he had always treated Judas, even if Judas never responded in kind.

The Lord did all this knowing from the beginning there would be no fruit produced in Judas’s life, and knowing he would eventually make himself the sad, solitary exception to the Lord’s statement that “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the scripture might be fulfilled.”

He did it for three long years. If he did it with Judas, how much more should you and I never, ever give up on the fringe-dwellers, the inattentive, the difficult, the immature, the unlikely and sometimes unlikable disciples of Christ — the “least of these my brethren” — who sometimes show up in our local gatherings or are inexplicably drawn into our orbit in the workplace, the neighborhood or the mall.

Indiscriminate Generosity

Because every apparently-wasted rebuke, disregarded word of testimony, unpracticed teaching or unappreciated encouragement is a burning coal that may catch fire for the glory of God at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Every fair chance to fail given to a fellow believer is also a chance for them to surprise us. Every potential Judas Iscariot is also a potential Judas the son of James, and every act of love lavished on “one of the least of these” may turn out to be an opportunity for reward and commendation.

The Lord Jesus always knew which seed would bear fruit and which would not. I readily admit I have no clue most of the time. If that knowledge didn’t change the indiscriminate generosity with which he sowed, it shouldn’t change the way I do.

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