I have planted a number of biblical plants and trees in the church garden. There is a broom tree in honour of Elijah, a row of Olive trees, and a Judas tree in memory of Jesus’ betrayer. The last is a delicate small tree which in the spring produces tiny pink flowers before it comes fully into leaf. It gets its popular name, of course, because of the story, found only in St Matthew’s Gospel, that Judas hung himself from a tree when he realised the magnitude of his betrayal of an innocent man.
But none of the other Gospels mention this tragic end. They all agree what Judas did, but no others mention what happened to him, and all are a bit hazy about his motivation. In St John’s Gospel , the latest to be written in all probability, we are not told any more about what drove Judas to do what he did, but we are told that his role was more significant and are given more of a glimpse into his heart. Judas does not just betray Christ in the garden with a kiss, he leads and directs the soldiers sent to arrest him, and he is revealed to have a jealous heart.
The reading today is set in the house of Jesus’ friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and it is made clear by what is written just before that Jesus is now a semi fugitive. The authorities are seeking his arrest, so it is understandable that he seeks a place of love and safety. Mary bathing his feet in rich perfumed ointment before supper was an extravagant gesture of devotion. Nard, the perfume used was a luxurious and exotic product, which had to be imported from India, and its use in such quantities to bathe the feet of a Galilean holy man would undoubtedly have confounded other spectators apart from Judas had they been present. Judas’ reaction is shown to be crooked. He says he is concerned about the waste- the nard could have been sold profitably and the proceeds given to the destitute. But St John tells us he is more upset because he is concerned that there will be less money in the common pot for him to pilfer.
The contrast between Mary’s generosity and Judas’ calculating bitterness is an example of a kind of spiritual chiaroscuro. A brilliant technique that St John employs again and again, to show the gulf between the revelation of the astounding love of God and the minds and hearts of those who find it too much to take in. Two other examples would be Pilate’s question to Christ, ‘ What is Truth?’ and Jesus’ response to the crowd intent on stoning the women accused of adultery, by silently writing in the sand. I don’t believe that it is an accident that St John’s Gospel ‘s begins with an overture of divine illumination, of God becoming visible, and then records Jesus’ first words as being the question ‘ What do you seek?’ and the invitation, ‘Come and you will see.’