Judas Buys the Farm

Matthew 27:3-10, Acts 1:15-26, May 17, 2015

I need to start with a few words of explanation this morning. First, as I’ve mentioned a few times recently, I looked at my record of sermons and the Bible passages those sermons have been based on, and was stunned at how little of the Bible I’ve preached! A member of the congregation pointed out that I need to improve me ESA, my Earned Scripture Average, so I challenged myself to preach texts I never have before. Today’s gospel lesson from Matthew is one that I have never based a sermon on, and raises my ESA of Matthew’s gospel 10 55.5%!

…and today’s title is a lot of wordplay that came out of one of our discussions at Brown Bag Bible Exploration last month. I love the euphemism for death “buy the farm.” The first time I heard it I was in college, and a classmate was sharing at the lunch table the work he was doing, translating Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” into Chinese. The most famous line in the play is “to be or not to be, that is the question,” but Chinese does not have a way to say, “not to be.” A professor sitting at the table suggested, “To be, or to buy the farm, that is the question.”

That story still makes me laugh 30 years later, but in Oshkosh, home of the Experimental Aircraft Association, I think it’s interesting to share the origin of this term. Years ago, when an Army Air Corps pilot would crash his plane in a farmer’s field, it was said he “bought the farm.” Now, most likely the pilot died in the crash, but the Army would come in and pay off the farmer’s mortgage—so the pilot bought the farm for the farmer. I think that’s really interesting.

In today’s lessons about Judas, it could be said that Judas bought the farm in both senses. He died, and the money he was paid for identifying Jesus to the Romans who arrested him, was used to purchase what is known as “The Potter’s Field.”

And here’s a little more explanation. Many communities have Potter’s Fields, that is, graveyards where people who had no family, or no means to pay for a burial could be buried. The term comes from this morning’s gospel passage. But maybe you’re familiar with this term for another reason—in the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” remember George Bailey’s antagonist, old man Potter? Well in George’s vision of what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born, there is a housing development called, you’re way ahead of me, “Potter’s Field,” that was built and financed by old man Potter, and it was a slum! It is no accident that the makers of the film called the symbol of evil Potter.

OK, so on to Judas Iscariot. There were two Judases among Jesus’ disciples: his brother Judas and Judas Iscariot. There are several different lists of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and the names vary slightly. Of the 12, there are only five who stand out. There’s Simon Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus said he would build his church. It was Peter who swore he would never leave Jesus, who denied him three times before the rooster crowed the night he was arrested.

There’s Thomas, I’m a little sensitive about this one, for obvious reasons. In John’s gospel Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” And Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Later on, after the resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples, but Thomas wasn’t there. A week later, Jesus appeared again and he showed Thomas his scars and Thomas believed. Maybe you think of Thomas as the Doubter, I imagine him as one who wanted to understand, and experience the Risen Christ.

There are James and John, they were brothers and part of the Executive Committee of the disciples. James and John and Peter were on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured and Moses and Elijah appeared to them. James and John asked if they could sit next to Jesus in heaven as a reward for their faithfulness. And Jesus said it wasn’t up to him.

The other disciples, Andrew; Philip; Batholomew; Matthew the tax collector; James, son of Alphaeus; Thaddeus; and Simon the Zealot and the other Judas; sort of blend in with the others, but Judas Iscariot stands apart.

Judas betrayed Jesus. He identified Jesus to the Romans when Jesus and his disciples were away from the crowds of the temple. The leaders of the Jews were looking for a way to eliminate the problem that Jesus was to them. They needed an insider to help them. They needed an insider to help them help Rome. Judas did the dirty work for them.

And people have asked the theological question ever since, can Judas be forgiven for betraying Jesus? If Judas were on trial, let’s say, would there be things that could be said in his defense, things that might make a jury a little more sympathetic toward him? Things that might make a jury sentence him to life in prison, rather than death? I think so.

First of all, in Mark’s gospel, Judas goes to the chief priests in order to betray Jesus immediately after Jesus has been at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany. At dinner that night an unidentified woman poured costly perfume over Jesus’ head. Some complained that the perfume had been wasted, that it could have been sold for nearly a year’s wages and the money given to the poor, but Jesus said, “she has anointed my body before its burial.” Only then, when Jesus talked openly about his coming death, did Judas go to the chief priests. And the chief priests offered to pay him. One could conclude that Judas was a loyal, trusted disciple who turned only when he saw that Jesus had decided to die. And he did not ask for money; the chief priests offered it to him, as an expression of appreciation.

In Matthew’s gospel when Jesus was sharing the seder meal with his disciples, Jesus told his disciples that he knew one of them would betray him. And it was one who was very close to him, physically and probably emotionally. Perhaps the crucifixion and resurrection would never have happened without Judas playing the part of betrayer.