Failing Judas

July 10, 2022

Series: July 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Failing Judas"


            For the second reading, I’m going to be reading from the Common English Bible translation.  Sometimes a different rendering helps open up the text in a new way.

Matthew 27:1-5

1 Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed.

2 So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.

4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

“Failing Judas”

            You know by now my favorite place growing up was camp, my favorite job—camp counselor.  In that place of unadulterated joy, bad food tasted good, good friends felt like gifts from God, and God was real.  My first summer as a counselor I worked with 11-12 year olds, such a great age—½ child ½ teenager and ½ 12% adult.  It’s joy, energy, and questions all rolled into one. Between that summer and the next I lost 3 12-year-olds to suicide, wealthy kids from the suburbs if that matters, one for whom I knew social life was not easy, and two I never would have guessed.         

            After last week’s rather weighty sermon, I joked with a few that this Sunday I would simply say, “Jesus loves you,” and send everyone home early.  That’s often the temptation for a preacher.  Lift them up.  Then when I returned to my desk and turned my attention to this Sunday, I recalled that I decided to talk this week about ending one’s life.  More weighty material, but I believe if we can stand to enter a space of such gravity, the lifting up will feel all the more liberating. If we step with integrity and faith, the Spirit can make even this topic somehow uplifting. 

             We need to talk about suicide because it is so prevalent and because on this matter of life and death the church has either been silent or worse unhelpful and love compels the church to do better.  There’s more than a preacher can reasonably cover in a single sermon but let us make an initial distinction to recognize some of the complexity of the matter.  One category might be what we would consider a stereotypical example of the troubled person, perhaps young perhaps not, taking their life when there might still be hope for a meaningful one.  The second is the person suffering from an irreversible and tortuous medical condition out of which there is no hope. Two categories, are undoubtedly, too few.

            I have to thank for both the courage to preach this sermon and many of the insights herein to The Rev. Sarah Wiles, a Presbyterian pastor in Blacksburg, Virginia. Sarah is a colleague and friend from the preaching group I have mentioned to you before.  She authored a paper about suicide and Judas that has not let go of me, Judas, this emblem of betrayal.  We’ll talk more about this failing Judas later, but let’s begin by staying in our context and start with the second of the two categories I described above.  Here is a person in possession of their faculties, facing terminal illness who wants to have some say over their death, not the if, but how and when.  They want some control and some dignity, things everyone wants.  One might ask, “What about Paul’s reminder that the body is a temple, and we are to glorify God with it?”  I fail to see how insisting on unredeemable suffering glorifies God.  In a way, it reveals a lack of trust in God, that this body, while precious, is all there is.  Sometimes temples close, or more appropriately are turned into something else. 

            I have been approached by some who want to know if their pastor would support their decision to take their own life using the medical means now available.  I believe Jesus meets people where they are in their pain and stays with them through it; my job to do the same, including through a responsible choice to end their life.  “Yes,” is the answer.  You can talk to me about that.

            Turning to the other category, suicide when perhaps there is some hope.  I want to be careful how I say that, lest those left behind by those who have left should be made to feel guilt that somehow hope was theirs alone to deliver.  It’s never that simple.  As I wrote a draft of this sermon, I look over at my desk and found it buried beneath piles of articles—about suicide clusters of young people in Palo Alto, about erecting the safety-netting under the Golden Gate Bridge, about stats and figures about suicide nationally, and about the complicated history of suicide and the church.  It is simply overwhelming.

            Suicide knows no cultural or economic bounds; it affects every group.  It does, as Wiles points out however, play favorites.  Suicide is correlated with unemployment rates, skews actually toward older adults, and also shows up in higher rates among college students, veterans, and LGBTQ+ folks.[1]  According to the Suicide Prevention Center and the CDC, it favors certain occupations.[2]  The highest rate is among white men over 65.[3]  There’s pain there too.

             Before I go any further, let me direct you to the number on the front of your bulletin, which is the number for the suicide prevention hotline.  If you or anyone you know needs help, there is somewhere you can go, and you can come to me or go to Bethany, and we can help connect you confidentially to additional levels of support.  We need to do what we can to prevent those folks from dying from suicide. I shared already about young people and there is a specific consideration there.  The human brain is not fully formed until well into a person’s 20s, a requisite understanding of consequences is not until then in place. Put simply, the young cannot understand fully what they are trying to do, which makes them vulnerable in a special way.  We have to listen to their pain, their experiences, and surround them with the necessary support to see them through.  For others of age, where the light of hope shines dimly against the fog of this life, we have similar responsibility, Christian responsibility. 

            The Christian piece is important to make explicit.  You may be aware, however vaguely of a stigma the church held against suicide and its victims.  We renounce that outright today, though it’s worth talking a little about where it came from.  In Roman antiquity, suicide was presented as a noble course of action at times, again of adults in command of their faculties.  I don’t advocate a return to that practice because as Christians we hold out a more radical commitment to redemption.  Still, in the Bible there are several examples of suicide, and never is the practice explicitly condemned.[4]  Over time things changed, though.  According to Livia Gershon, the church, heavily influenced by Augustine of Hippo, developed a theology of condemnation around suicide, a deadly sin.[5]

            On one level, we can understand the genesis of this doctrine.  Life is a sacred gift.  We are commanded not to take it from others, why would ourselves be different? The problem is this way of thinking only punishes the already hurting and broken, those who have sought or succumbed to suicide as well as those who suffer the loss or suffering of someone they love. The church’s condemnation grew to perverse proportions and forms under the misguided notion you could (or should?!) scare and deter people from doing something they feel they have no choice but to do because life feels, among other things, scary and perverse.  It was a sin, not suicide, but the church’s callous’ touch in trying to address it. For that, we may repent.

            There is a delicate line, though neither do we want to glorify that for which we have empathy, nor shall we downplay its consequences.  I do value the gift of this life.  I also maintain that our lives do not belong solely to ourselves. I acknowledge some people are granted more choices by our society, more autonomy than others, making that equation unfair.  Yet, I still believe we should remember that what we do to ourselves affects others and part of being part of a body of faith is about learning that.  Of course, the pain can be so great perhaps it’s far too much to ask someone to make out the pain they might leave those left behind. There is so much to consider and there is not enough tenderness in the world to speak into these words.

            The last thing I will say before delving into this failing Judas is that while suicide is talked about in our culture predominantly in individual terms, it is truly a communal matter.  As Wiles puts it, “If there is a sin in suicide, it is social.”  She writes, “Insofar as suicide represents profound separation from awareness of the love of God, it is a manifestation of the broken, fallen nature of our world.”  She says, “it’s never truly a free, independent choice,” citing “inherited brain chemistry, intoxicating substances, and generational trauma” among so many other factors we can recognize such as social conditions, pressures material and otherwise, and the access to mental health care.  We hear mental health care as a solution to much of our society’s violence, but we need more than talk; we need mental health care, and moreover we need to attend to the conditions that give rise to some of what causes mental distress if not mental illness.  While recognizing the inherent brain chemistry at work, we should also acknowledge that despair or anxiety are quite understandable responses to some of what we are allowing in our world.  Responsive care and prevention through building healthier societies should go hand in hand.  Again, never, Wiles says is this “purely a personal phenomenon…there are significant structural causes that contribute to our suicide rate…”  Suicide is never justtheir problem.  It’s our problem.

            Now let’s turn to Judas, which is where Wiles is perhaps most profound in helping us feel.  Matthew is the only gospel that tells a story about the suicide of Judas.  In the only other place Judas’ death shows up, Acts, which is the second half of Luke’s gospel, Judas simply falls dead, the agent of his death invisible.  The image is a pregnant one, his insides literally spilling out of him.  Either way, he deserved it, right, this emblem of betrayal? I grow more careful with cruel desert the older I grow.  Wiles gathers some important tokens to remember about this coin collector.  Yes, he turned Jesus over.  No, he didn’t condemn him to die.  Those were the priests and the elders, ultimately carried out by Pilate who had the power.  Judas says he regretted what he did, and he returned the money, if remorse means anything to you.  When he confesses, “I betrayed an innocent man,” his own religious leaders reply in today’s rendering, “What’s that to us?  That’s your problem” (Matt. 27:4-5).  That’s when Judas gives up his price, goes out, and hangs himself. That’s their response – “That’s yourproblem.”  Your problem.

            This story is about a failing Judas.  It might also be about failing Judas.  Wiles concludes her paper:

I keep thinking about Judas.  I’ve been thinking about him for years.  He haunts me.

Hospitals for patients experiencing suicidality are carefully designed.  They are, of course, the locked doors.  The airlocks through which friends and family must pass.  There are the rooms with doors that must remain open.  There are beds and chairs and sinks that are molded plastic—or is it fiberglass?—all round edges, no gaps, nothing that can come apart.  There is no shower rod.  The curtain is velcroid to the ceiling.  The faucet is flush with the tile.  And the toilet paper is on a spring-loaded rod that will come apart with the slightest tension.  So that you cannot hang yourself on the toilet paper dispenser. 

What grace.  What care.

What is that to us? said the spiritual advisors.  That is your problem, they said.  No one accompanied him.  No one took account of his pain, or his cries.  They did not think through the toilet paper rod, or that tree.  It could have been a different story.  It was not a foregone conclusion. 

I hang my hope on that.

            Where is the uplifting part, Rob?  The uplifting part is that it doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion.  The uplifting part, my friends, is that no matter what has come before sometimes we can lift people up.  Sometimes we can be lifted up, maybe before the falling happens. At least we can try.



[1]Sarah Wiles, “Breaking the Silence: Mental Health and the Church” series, Matthew 27:1-5.  Stats come from