The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
April 2, 2023
Passion Gospel – Saint Matthew
“One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.” You know, you can read a passage from the Bible a hundred times and each time, something different will catch your attention. This week, as I read yet again this long drama of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, this hit me square between the eyes. “‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver.’”
I suppose we all have our price. The price for which we would betray a friend. But I can’t wrap my head around this passage. First of all, Judas goes to the chief priests, not the other way around. For whatever reason, he’s had it with Jesus. Or, at least, Judas has done the calculus and thinks that this is now the time to make some money out of this whole thing.. We don’t know why Judas decides to betray Jesus, he just does. For a price.
The second thing I still can’t comprehend is that the chief priests pay off Judas before Judas has betrayed Jesus. In our contractual world of security deposits and down payments, we wouldn’t imagine making this pay off before the deed was done.
And it’s really impossible to know the value of that silver in today’s dollars. You can Google it, but I don’t trust that. I asked a biblical scholar this very question, he gave me a long answer that amounted to a shoulder shrug. So that’s not what matters. What matters is that the value is in the narrative. Thirty pieces of silver is enough to convince Judas to betray Jesus. But later on, Judas gives the money back, so it’s not off enough to keep him on the hook. It’s not enough for the chief priests to re-deposit the money in the treasury, but it is enough to buy a field. See, money is not just about dollars and cents. It’s about value. And that’s a spiritual question.
That’s what this whole drama of Palm Sunday is asking us. What do we value? Think of all those characters we just heard. Peter values his anonymity, and denies that he knows Jesus. Caiaphas values his position. Pilate values the peace in the city. Judas values these thirty pieces of silver. The women disciples value Jesus, and will care for his body after his death. Joseph values Jesus, too, and provided for Jesus’ burial with his own money. This whole narrative – from betrayal, to last supper, to the trial, to the condemnation, to the crucifixion, to the tomb – asks us a hauntingly simple question – what do we value?
For some, the value is in the taking. For others, the value is in the giving. Peter wants safety, Caiaphas wants power, Pilate wants to govern with absolute authority, Judas wants money. They all want something for themselves. And at the end, they get nothing in return for their trouble.
But the women give their love. Joseph gives his money, his tomb. And they get all that back and more. This is the power of God working through them. God is the One who gives and never runs out. The bread from heaven for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness is always enough. The wine gives out at a wedding so Jesus makes plenty more. Jesus feeds the multitude and there are even leftovers. At Golgotha, Jesus spreads wide his arms upon the cross, and gives everything he has. But even that is not the end. There is still more love to give. God does not take, God gives.
And isn’t that the irony? The One God gives everything, and yet gains everything. The others, they try to get more, and they lose everything. The cross is the first and final lesson in God’s economy. When you give it all away, you receive mercy and love beyond measure. When you try to accumulate, you lose your values. Saint Paul put it best – “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
So what do we value? This is the framework I’ve been using to think through all those pressing issues of the day. This is how I see the violence that stalks our schools. This is how I see us talking about our mental health system, where really, there is no mental health system. This is how I see greed destroying financial livelihoods. This is how I see hatred and bigotry infecting our lives. We have made the tradeoff – we’ve taken the thirty pieces of silver, we value what we have even when we have taken it unrighteously, and are oh so reluctant to give it back. Palm Sunday is a warning. We will lose it all and more, if what we value is ourselves.
This is a call for repentance. For us to turn around, to stop doing what we’re doing, to give it all back. The thirty pieces of silver is not worth it, it is not worth our souls. And I’m not going to stand here and presume that I know how to fix all these problems – how to stop gun violence, how to create pathways for mental health care, how to foster a more generous society, how to curb rampant greed. But I do know the first step. It’s repentance. It’s having the spiritual courage to say that the thirty pieces of silver are not worth it. It’s having the spiritual courage to say that all of us, all of us are part of the problem. It will not be enough to point at the other side, whichever side that may be, and blame them. Because remember that when the crowd shouts for Jesus to be crucified, they are revealing their own hardness of heart, their own unwillingness to give mercy. Today, as we remember the end of Jesus’ ministry, we hear an echo of how he began his ministry. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
And finally, I do want to offer a word of hope. It is church after all. The women who followed Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, even Peter – in the darkness of that horrible day when Jesus died, they could not see a possible way forward. They could not see how a loving God would sort it all out. And yet, God did create a way. Because the One God gives and never runs out. I know it may feel as if we are in the darkness right now. I think, I hope, I pray, I believe that it is only the darkness of the tomb. And we believe that the tomb is not the end. Because what God values is love, and mercy, and grace, and life. Everyone has their price. And God’s price for you is his own blood.