Betrayed By A Kiss

cimabue - The Capture of Christ (detail). Date unknown. Fresco. Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi, Italy

Betrayed By A Kiss
Brian Zahnd

“Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” –Jesus

Kiss and betrayal. Betrayed by a kiss. The kiss of Judas. The kiss of death. That ignominious kiss from two thousand years ago in the Garden of Gethsemane has planted itself firmly in the Western imagination. Is there a more famous kiss in history? How many paintings and poems, songs and sermons has that one kiss inspired? Louis Armstrong sang, “a kiss is just a kiss.” But is it? Here’s an axiom you can live by: Things are more complicated than you think. And this is true of Judas and his infamous kiss.

Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Yet we love simplifying things. Keep it simple, stupid. K.I.S.S. We especially like to simplify stories. Good guys and bad guys. White hats and black hats. Protagonist and antagonist. Conflict, climax, resolution. Followed by ten sequels. All with the same simple plot. But despite our penchant for simplification our stories remain complicated, because we are complicated. If we tell the story of Judas as just a bad guy who sold out Jesus to make a few bucks, that’s a simple story. Greedy thief. Thirty pieces of silver. Cut a deal with the priests. Kiss Jesus. Fade into the night. Simple. He did it for the money. It’s a simple story. Easy to comprehend. Plus, (and this is very important!) it has the advantage of being something we would never do. Betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver? We would never do that! So we have established a safe distance between ourselves and Judas Iscariot, the Son of Perdition.

But it’s not that simple. Yes, it’s true Judas was a thief — the treasurer who was also an embezzler. Nevertheless, I insist that Judas story is far more complicated than that of a petty thief who betrays his rabbi for thirty coins. Judas’ story gets complicated when Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. Why the kiss? Why this theatrical embellishment? Why this feigned affection that has so captured our imagination? If Judas is betraying Jesus for money, why not just point him out — that’s the guy! — take the money and run? Why this business with a kiss? If we can answer this question, I think we’ll find that we don’t have a simple story of a petty thief, but a complicated tragedy and a story that may leave us rather uncomfortable.

Judas Iscariot. What do we know about him? We know he was a disciple of Jesus. He was chosen by Christ to be one of the Twelve Apostles. Judas was to be among the twelve leaders who reformed and reframed the twelve tribes of Israel by announcing and enacting the kingdom of God as taught and lived by Jesus. We know Jesus was aware very early on that Judas would eventually betray him. We also have reason to suspect that prior to his becoming a disciple of Jesus, Judas had belonged to a violent insurgency known as the Sicarii. Is Judas Iscariot, Judas the Sicarii-ite? Some scholars think so. The Jewish Sicarii (“dagger-men”) were the most extreme faction of the Zealots — an insurgency advocating violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. The Sicarii carried out assassinations of Roman soldiers and officials and Jewish elites whom they deemed as collaborators. During the governorship of Felix, the Sicarii assassinated the Jewish high priest. Their preferred method was to select a target in a crowded public place, strike with their concealed daggers for which they were named, and then escape by blending into the crowd. It was a form of terrorism designed to intimidate and dishearten their foreign occupiers, something we are familiar with today. Did Judas belonged to the Sicarii before becoming a follower of Jesus? We can’t be sure, but we do know that one of Jesus’ disciples — Simon the Canaanite — had belonged to the Zealots. Perhaps it’s telling that in their listing of the twelve disciples Matthew and Mark pair Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot together. The Zealot and the Sicarius?

In the end it may not matter whether or not Judas belonged to the Sicarii. Judas and the rest of the disciples were undeniably locked into a paradigm of a violent Messiah. The Jewish understanding of Messiah’s vocation included rescuing Israel from foreign oppressors and eventually ruling over the Gentiles. It was assumed this would be accomplished in the same manner as the messianic prototypes of Joshua, David, and Judah Maccabaeus — through violence. So despite his message of loving enemies, turning the other cheek, and forgoing violent resistance to evil, the disciples were convinced that Jesus would eventually resort to violence. Eventually Jesus would alter his message, start killing Romans, and liberate Israel. Eventually Jesus would become practical — and there’s nothing more “practical” than violence. It gets the job done! So when Jesus was about to be arrested in Gethsemane, his disciples shouted, “Lord, shall we now strike with the sword?!” The ever-presumptuous Peter didn’t even wait for a reply, but led the attack, severing a slave’s ear, until Jesus shouted, “No more of this!” and put a stop to the violence. It’s clear that for the disciples, including Judas, violence remained a viable means through which the kingdom of God would finally arrive. Love your enemy…until you need to kill him. Live the Sermon on the Mount…until it becomes impractical. Take up your cross…but in the crucial moment resort to the sword. This was how the disciples were “practical” about the teaching of their rabbi.

With this as a backdrop, let’s ask a question: What was Judas trying to do and why did he betray Jesus with a kiss? Was Judas trying to force Jesus’ hand — trying to push him out of his Sermon on the Mount ethics of enemy-love? Was Judas was trying to force Jesus to resort to violence and start the war for Jewish independence? I think so. The reason Judas greeted Jesus with the customary kiss (which was also a covert sign), is that Judas didn’t so much want to betray Jesus as he wanted manipulate Jesus. Judas wanted to manipulate Jesus into launching a violent revolution. Judas wanted to remain a part of the inner-circle of disciples following a now violent Jesus. Judas acted like he was still a faithful disciple, because Judas wanted to be a faithful disciple — but only on his own terms. Judas didn’t want to betray Jesus, he wanted to control Jesus. Judas wanted Jesus to be Messiah in a certain way: Violent.

But Judas miscalculated. Tragically so! Jesus really meant what he taught and would not resort to violence…even when tempted to do so. So when things spun out of control and Jesus was actually arrested by the Temple guard and condemned to death by the Sanhedrin, Judas was remorseful. Deeply remorseful. Judas returned the money, confessed his guilt to the priests, and insisted that Jesus was an innocent man. When Judas saw he had set into motion something he could not stop, something that would result in the execution of Jesus, Judas despaired and committed suicide. These are not the actions of a petty thief. These are the actions of a failed revolutionary. Judas betrayed Jesus, not primarily for money (he returned the money!), but for the cause of violent revolution. Judas wanted a violent Messiah and he was willing to give Jesus a little push toward taking up the sword. Judas tempted Jesus to take up the sword, just as satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness. (Remember, satan had entered Judas!) Judas had a problem with money. But Judas had a bigger problem with violence.

So what does it mean to betray Jesus with a kiss? It means trying to manipulate Jesus to our way of thinking. It means trying to control Jesus for our own agenda. When we try to get Jesus to step outside of his own ethics of enemy-love in order to fight our battles, wage our wars, and kill our enemies, we have betrayed Jesus. Of course we do it while claiming to love Jesus as our Lord and Savior. In other words, we betray Jesus…with a kiss.


Here’s the sermon Betrayed By A Kiss.

(The artwork is The Capture of Christ by Cimabue)