John Doe, Judas, and a Secure Promise: Potter’s Field

Sermon on Judas’s Great Legacy

Text: Gospel of Matthew 27:3-8

Then Judas the traitor, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, repented and took the thirty silver pieces to the chief priests and elders of the people. “I have sinned by betraying an innocent man!” he said. But they replied, “How does that concern us? That is your affair.” Throwing down the silver pieces toward the Most Holy Place, he withdrew and went away and hanged himself. Picking up the silver pieces, the chief priests said, “It is unlawful to put this into the treasury, for it is blood money.” Therefore, after coming to an agreement about it, they used the money to buy Potter’s Field as a burying place for foreigners, and to this day that field is known as “The Field of Blood.” – Matthew 27:3-8, Anchor Bible translation by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann

I have always felt that Judas got a bum rap.

The tradition has not treated him well, even according to its own standards. Yes, he bore responsibility for betraying his Lord with a kiss in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. And, yes, he committed suicide. But little or no attention has been paid to the small detail of Judas’ repentance or the depth of the sorrow that led to his suicide.

Matthew’s Judas is repentant. Listen:

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, Judas repented…and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver toward The Holy Place, Judas departed; and he went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:1-5)

Judas’ suicide, like most if not all suicides, issues from an irrecoverable despair.
He had changed his mind and had tried to turn back, but the dice had already been thrown, as they would be thrown again by the soldiers, rolling the dice over who would get to keep Jesus’ clothing. Not even throwing down the silver pieces at the feet of the religious authorities could change the course of events his betrayal had set in motion.

Some believe the deal Judas cut with the ruling religious authorities was a craps shoot. He had gambled that leading Jesus’s opponents to the secret place where Jesus gathered with his apostles would force Jesus to be the kind of violent revolutionary king he had wrongly supposed he would become. By arranging a face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and the Temple police, he imagined he could force Jesus’s hand toward a violent insurrection, and it appears he was not alone in that expectation. For, after Judas had led the temple police to him, Peter had drawn his dagger and cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus rebuke the way of violence with an order to put away the sword. As a result, says Matthew, “all the disciples abandoned him and fled.” No one remained to stand with him as the witness to a different course than the way violence and terror. Jesus alone is innocent of the way of blood-taking.

By the time we see Judas throwing down the silver coins at the feet of the temple authorities his head was spinning. His expectation of a grand seizure of power – a kind of coup d’état that would overthrow the Roman colonizers and replace their temple collaborators – had crashed. What does one do when one’s great dream dies? What does one do when a grandiose scheme crumbles?

Either you revise the dream or you fall hopelessly into despair. We might wonder whether perhaps Judas’ biggest mistake was not the betrayal so much as it was not subsequently trusting a divine providence greater than his sin and more powerful than his ability to thwart it. Awash in guilt and sorrow, he threw down what Matthew calls “the blood money” toward the Most Holy Place – that is, the Holy of Holies, regarded as the most sacred of all places in the universe – and took his life.

The “blood money” never went back into the sacred treasury. It was dirty. So instead, the chief priests and the elders, not wanting to be sacrilegious, took the money that had secured Judas’s cooperation in the plot against Jesus – the “blood money” that purchased Jesus’s crucifixion – to buy “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.” What is called the “Field of Blood “is also called “the Potter’s Field.” Why?

Why the Potter’s Field?

Matthew does a strange thing. He quotes a text found in the Book of  Zechariah (Zech. 10:12-13) but attributes its source to Jeremiah. Although the Book of Zechariah speaks of the Field of Blood which is also called the Potter’s Field, the text there never explains why it is called a potter’s field.

What would a potter’s field be? A potter uses clay to make pottery. The site referred to in Matthew is known traditionally as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potters’ clay. It’s where the potter, the sculpting artist, gets the clay.  It’s an artist’s field. Jeremiah compares God to a potter and of us as the potter’s clay. So perhaps it is called Potter’s Field as a witness to the truth that the John and Mary Doe’s who eventually will land in the pauper’s cemetery belong to the Potter every bit as much as those society regards as worthy of burial in a more distinguished cemetery, a sacred place, if you will.

There is a great irony here in Matthew’s telling of the story: Judas returns the soiled holy money taken from the temple treasury, throws it back at the inner sanctum where only Oz was allowed to enter, the Holy of Holies from which the chief priests pulled the levers intended to keep Judas and Dorothy and every other mystified traveler in line with fear – and that soiled not-so-sacred money buys the Field of Blood for the less than holy, also known as “the Potter’s Field”.

Potter’s Field in New York City

In the City of New York there is a cemetery called Potter’s Field. It’s the place where the indigent are buried. It’s the place where the homeless and the unidentified, the John Doe’s and the Jane Doe’s , are buried by the City of New York. One might call it Pauper’s Cemetery, an act of charity for those who, at the end, like the Son of Man, had nowhere to lay their heads.

Potter’s Field has been moved four times since it was founded early the 19th century.
Today Potter’s Field is managed by the City of New York Department of Corrections. The Department’s website describes its history.

The City of New York has undertaken the responsibility of laying to rest the bodies of those in the City who died indigent or un-befriended, since the early part of the 19th century, when they were interred at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In 1823, these remains were removed to Fifth Avenue and 40 – 42 Streets, Manhattan. When this site was selected for a reservoir, the remains were again removed to Fourth Avenue and 50th Street, this ground being later granted to the Women’s Hospital. In 1857, the remains of 100,000 paupers and strangers were transferred to Ward’s Island, 75 acres of which were allocated for this purpose.

Today Potter’s Field, the latest place for the internment of the un-befriended poor is on Hart’s Island where it has been since n 1869, next to a prison.

Thirty inmates from the N.Y.C. Reception and Classification Center for Men… are charged with burial and upkeep of the entire cemetery at present. They are carefully interviewed to ascertain that they can perform these services without becoming emotionally upset.

In 1948 the inmates of the prison next door to Potter’s Field on Hart Island, many of whom were without friends and families, appealed to the Warden and offered to build a monument to the un-befriended dead. In cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross, on the other is the word ‘Peace.'”

In my mind’s eye Judas is buried there – on the ground sanctified for the outcasts for whom Christ lived and died. He’s buried in some Potter’s Field where the Potter in mercy welcomes the broken pieces of the pottery He has made, gathers up the shards of broken schemes and grandiose schemes, and takes whatever is left to make something altogether beautiful.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  Can I not do with you . . . just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand . . . . [Jeremiah 18:1-6].

Christ’s words – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – are a plea to the Father, the Potter, for his beloved, betraying friend, Judas, and for every other Judas to come down the pike through all the centuries since. By God’s strange providence alone the 30 silver pieces of “blood money” that Judas threw back down toward the Most Holy Place became the unwitting source of the witness to God’s unconditional love and mercy, “Potter’s Field.”

Judas made two mistaken bets. The first ended in Jesus’s execution, the end of a grandiose dream. The second was concluding too early that despair and guilt have the final word – that there was no mercy strong enough to re-claim him.

The learning for us latter-day Judases? Perhaps it is that, although life is full of risk-taking and tragedy, its meaning and destiny are more than a craps-shoot. The destiny of every broken dream and every broken soul is not determined by our gambling or our failures. It’s determined by a secure promise that now and at the end we are in the hands of the Potter Who owns all the clay of Potter’s Field.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2017

Compassion expressed or withheld – Plato and Luke

The question of the relation between compassion and property and the emotional-psychological-spiritual results of expressing or withholding compassion came to the fore several Sundays ago after hearing a reading from The Book of the Acts of the Apostles.

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” [Acts 4:32].

The whole group, i.e. the early disciples of Jesus, were putting into practice the political philosophy Plato recommended centuries before to legislators in the Greek republic:

“The form of law which I propose would be as follows: In a state which is desirous of being saved from the greatest of all plagues—not faction, but rather distraction—there should exist among the citizens neither extreme poverty nor, again, excessive wealth, for both are productive of great evil . . . Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth.”

– Plato, Greek philosopher (427-347 B.C.E.)

The idea of a ceiling on the accumulation of wealth is a democratic socialist principle. So is a floor to prevent poverty.

Interestingly, Plato seemed to think distraction was a greater plague than factionalism. Distraction from what? The good, the true, and the beautiful perhaps, the trinity of cardinal virtue, perhaps.

Material security becomes an obsessive distraction. Hoarding becomes a way of life. “More” becomes life’s purpose. More ad infinitum until more is no more  when il morte levels the rich and the poor to their shared destiny of dust and ashes.

The distribution of wealth is a profound spiritual issue, both publicly and psychologically. How wealth is distributed in any society is a measure of its compassion. The New Testament texts have a jarring way of discussing this. They discuss compassion as originating in “the bowels”.

Though the more recent versions translate the First Epistle of John in a sanitized way – “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” – the original Greek text is better translated by the KJV: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” [I John 3:17].

The words “of compassion” are added by the King James translator for purposes of giving the English reader the original sense of the Greek text. “Shutting up one’s bowels” toward someone in need is the equivalent of walling one’s self off from the common lot of humankind.

The Hebrew location of the emotions was the bowels, also translated “inner parts”  – stomach and intestines. The instinctive response to human need is a pit in the bottom of the stomach, a visceral response. One has to be carefully taught not to feel it.

The word “bowels” appears also in the Book of Acts description of the tragic death of Judas, whose bowels (compassion) had not gone out to Jesus until it was too late. Luke, the author of The Book of Acts, paints a gruesome picture intended, perhaps, to draw the psychic consequences of withholding compassion. Judas goes out and buys a field with the 30 pieces of silver he received for guiding the authorities to Jesus at the Mount of Olives. The description of Judas’ death leaves a choice of interpretation of a Greek word [prenes] that can be translated “falling headlong” or “swelling up” and splagchnon, the word for bowels, inward parts, entrails. A literal translation and choices are:

“Now indeed [Judas] acquired a field with the wages of unrighteousness. And having become prostrate/prone/flat on his face/ swelling up, he burst-open in the middle and all his bowels/inward-parts/entrails spilled-out.”

The bowels, not the heart, were regarded as the seat of human emotion. Seeing another person starving or injured leaves a pit in the stomach. Unresolved guilt or violation of one’s own moral standards or integrity often produces ulcers and intestinal problems.

Whether one translates prenes as becoming prostrate (the position of a penitent) or swollen, Luke’s picture of Judas’ death is a kind of internal combustion, a psychic explosion with societal implications.  The field that Judas bought became known as Akel’dama, the Field of Blood, so labeled from the Psalm (69:25) which Luke loosely renders, “Let his estate become desolate, and let no one be dwelling in it.”

Plato and Luke were both political philosophers. Plato, the elitist philosopher of the philosopher kings, and Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, seem to agree that we are meant for compassion and that extremes of wealthy and poverty were injurious to personal and societal health.

We are built for community. We are so constructed that buying a field is no substitute for the release of compassion. Compassion will release itself one way or the other. When withheld, it swells up to burst open a person or a society from the inside out. In that spirit, a society that legislates a ceiling on accumulated wealth and a floor of economic well-being is a field worth dwelling in.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 29, 2015.

I, Judas

They will say I did it. And I did. We all did. But it doesn’t matter. The kiss, the “shalom”, I gave him in the olive grove was as real as real can be. I kissed him, and everything that was in me was in that kiss. My love, my affection, my admiration, my fear…and my belief that it would wake him up to what was really happening and what he had to do.

The world is a cruel place. It plays by hard rules. He wouldn’t play by the rules, which is why we loved him but also why we pushed him at the end. We pushed him over the cliff.

He’d escaped the cliff once before when his neighbors tried to throw him over it. He walked right through that crowd and went on with his life, and that’s why we gathered around him like newborn kittens with their mother. He became the source of nourishment, the mother whose eyes always saw the good in us, and he taught us to forget about the cliffs. Live to the full. Forget the cliffs! But there comes a time in everyone’s life when you can’t avoid the cliff.

We were standing at the edge of it right there in the Mount of Olives – a fatal cliff of soldiers, clubs, and daggers, a Roman battalion who’d come there, where we always met at night among the olive trees so they couldn’t hear us or see us. I led them there to the private place.

They will say I ratted on him. But I did what I knew I had to do, or thought I had to do, and then scurried away before it was over. I couldn’t watch. I hated those bastards as much as I loved him, hanging there where the skulls were left. As I ran, I looked back over my shoulder at the horror of it, hearing the sounds of the hammers and the grinding of the pulleys hoisting him up on those pieces of imperial lumber, and him screaming with pain suspended mid-air… half way between horizontal and vertical…and I fleeing for my life into fatal despair.

I understand why they’ll say what they they’ll say. They have to say it. Denial is one of God’s great gifts. They had to deny their own responsibility for what happened. We were all in this together, except for the Beloved Disciple, Lazarus, the only one of us who knew already that death is not the final Word, no matter how it comes, the disciple who will disappear into silence in the later texts about what happened. But Lazarus was there watching, listening, seeing what the rest of us could not see until after it was over.

Unlike the others, I didn’t give myself time to get it. I fled the scene, running for my life, never wanting to look back on it, howling in silence, rushing out into the field to hang myself from a tree. Symbolic, some will say: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all that … but to me it was just a tree with limbs to throw the rope over, a place to end my pain.

I think now of the olive trees and of hiding among them and wonder why we hid. I think of him as the olive branch that the dove brought to Noah as the violence of the flood receded. And I wonder if that was maybe what he was all about, if the olive branch instead of clubs and daggers and scapegoating was why he let me kiss him there and turn him over before he rebuked Peter for drawing his dagger.

They won’t tell you that we all had daggers. Not just Peter. We were revolutionaries. Ready for the fight. Itching for the fight. Yeshua was the new Joshua who would throw the bums out, restore the fortunes of our people, give us back our land, our destiny, our power to rule ourselves as we had in David’s time and Solomon’s. There was that day in the Temple, Solomon’s Temple, when he went crazy with the whip against the money-changers, snapping the whip wildly, out of control, angry at the abuse of his religion and our’s, tossing the money everywhere, yelling about the money-handlers’ abuse of the poor who could barely afford to buy a pigeon for their sacrifices. For him, it wasn’t just about self-determination. It was about the Romans, about the end of foreign occupation and the collaboration of the religious establishment. But it was deeper than throwing out the foreign occupiers. It was about something so deep that the mind and heart can barely comprehend it: the fearful conspiracy of self-interests that betrays and kills all that is good and pure and decent and loving.

Only Lazarus understood what he was about in standing up to the rule of death enshrined in the Temple and imperial threats. He saw in Yeshua the scapegoat who could unmask the conspiracy, the new Joshua who would shift us from eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, dividing the world into the good and the evil, to eating of the fruit of the tree of life.

I broke my neck on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, certain that I, one of the “good” ones, had become as evil as the soldiers who crucified him, and that there was no redemption, no way to the tree of life, no way to atone, no way to erase the kiss that killed him and was killing me. Death was my just desert and worse. If only I had known that the kiss would be the kiss of death.

It gives me little comfort that they tell me he begged the Father from the cross for forgiveness, like a defense attorney pleading with a judge that those who were crucifying him didn’t know what they were doing. It is what it is. Or so I thought at first. But the weight of his words led me to the sound of them, coming as they did from the high heat of that awful scene, soft and genuine or loudly shrieking, invoking a mercy on us all that made no sense, no sense at all.

Peter will say, as will the church three centuries after my death on the tree and burial in potters field, that “he descended into hell” at his death and preached to those imprisoned there. If anyone was ever there in that place of self-hate, remorse, guilt, despair and hopeless self-loathing, it was I.

He met me there with a holy kiss. “Shalom,” said he. I kissed him back. And left my sorrow in the emptied cell.

– Gordon C. Stewart, January 10, 2014.

The Strangest of Gifts

Socrates is reported to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Judas' conscience - G.E Nikolaj (1891)

Any honest self-examination knows that to be human is to experience betrayal. We betray and we are betrayed.

Would it help to think of God as being closer to our betrayals than we ever dare to be?

Would it help, perhaps, to see your betrayal of others and your self-betrayals, as scenes in a drama with many different scenes and acts, a drama bigger than betrayal?  A drama of One who knows our nature. Our fears. Our dashed hopes. Our un-trustworthiness. The side of us so ugly that we dare not look it in the eye – the side that, for thes moment, cannot imagine the larger dramatic piece and the hopeful theme we have forsaken: the persistence of love, of forgiveness, of life out of death, the resurrection of love itself…here and now…not just then and there.

There are two traditions about Judas, disciple of Jesus whose betrayal has been handed down across the ages, the scapegoat Betrayer we don’t want to be.

According to the first story In Matthew, “when Judas, [Jesus’]  betrayer, saw that [Jesus] was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver…and throwing down the pieces of silver…he departed; and he went and hanged himself.”  The first story puts Judas at the end of his own noose. But there’s an altogether different tradition according to which Judas exploded from within while walking across a field. In this story, the Betrayer is a walking dead man, walking with such self-hatred – a self-loathing so profound – that he could not live with himself, and as he was walking, “all his bowels gushed out” (Acts of the Apostles 1:18).

A few of us have attempted suicide. Most of us have not  All of us, if we’re honest, know something of what it’s like to walk through life with unsettled stomachs and intestines. The prescriptions we take for upset stomachs or roiling bowels cannot touch the issue of betrayal when we have betrayed or have been betrayed.

But – stay with me a moment longer -here’s the thing I’ve come to see. The word for “gift” in New Testament Greek is didomi. The word most often translated “betrayal” is paradidomi – to give over –  para (over or across) and didomi (gift). Tradition is handing over the gift from one generation to the next.

Interesting…strange, even…that these words are so closely related. In Christian tradition, Jesus is the great Gift. Judas, the Betrayer, unwittingly passes on the gift, gives the gift over, hands the gift over… to the authorities…and to us…with a kiss.

With Judas’ kiss the story of Jesus the betrayed becomes OUR story: the story of the Betrayer and the Betrayed, the tradition handed over to us across the millenia.

Betrayal Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, 2012

J. seemed a friend–he chose to join the group.

We trusted him.  We let him keep the purse

we held in common.  We would meet for supper

often–yes, our hands would touch, we’d curse

the same opponents, be amazed and shake

our heads at miracles.  We later learned

he stole, and made a secret deal to take

the silver from the Priests–from grace he turned

to greed.

Soon after,  he was overcome

with shame:  he threw the money at their feet.

J. left us then, he had himself to blame

and took his life:  Disciple of Defeat.

The greatest miracle of all he’d miss

because he betrayed Jesus with a kiss.

Betrayal is not the most importance scene in life. Stick around for the next scenes and acts that transform the laments of examined lives into anthems to the One who is closer to our betrayals than we ever dare to be. The examine life is worth living.

The Wall Street Tattler

Gordon C. Stewart               March 15, 2012

How could he do this? Is Greg Smith a tattler? Or, perhaps, Judas?

How could one of Wall Street’s own go to the New York Times (“Why I am leaving Goldman Sachs”) to publicly denounce the company’s culture?  “He just took a howitzer and blew the entire firm away,” said Larry Doyle of Greenwich Investment Management.“ (“Wall Street Exec Quits with Public Broadside).

According to the LA Times article, Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein suggests that Mr. Smith – Golman’s executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.- is a “disgruntled employee.” William Cohan, author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, says that “there are lots of disgruntled people who leave Wall Street, and they don’t do this” (i.e. open their mouths.) “What I’m hearing (on Wall Street),” said Cohan, “is sour grapes. You just pigged out at the trough for 12 years and you don’t have enough sense to keep your mouth shut.” (underlining mine)

Keeping one’s mouth shut is the name of the game on Wall Street.

Conscience may have its place so long as you keep it to yourself. You can have a conscience on Wall Street, just don’t exercise it. You’re part of an elite gang. Whether on the Street corners of impoverished neighborhoods like Watts in LA and Bedford-Styvesant in NYC, or in the center of crony capitalism that is Wall Street, gang members don’t rat on other gang members. If you don’t like it, swallow hard and keep your mouth shut.

Goldman’s rebuttal to Mr. Smith’s statement -“It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping off their clients,” referring to their own clients as Muppets – hardly has the ring of strong denial. “We disagree with the views expressed, which we don’t think reflect the way we run our business.”

Hmmm. “…don’t think…”? Why not “don’t”?

It’s a rare thing for a spokesperson for a corporation with the best legal counsel in the world to say anything than a flat-out denial. “We don’t think” sets up the issue as a matter of perception, not fact. It’s Goldman’s perceptions of itself versus Mr. Smith’s disgruntled perception.

Mr. Smith’s refusal to live by the Wall Street gang code of conduct will lead to a barrage of attacks on his character calculated to divert the public’s attention from an institution that eats people’s investments and life savings to the Judas who is without integrity.

Goldman understands that for most of us the world is personal, not institutional. We don’t like tattlers and turn-coats, disgruntled employees who never learned the lesson of kindergarten that you never tattle on your friends. You don’t go running home to tell momma. Part of the code of the playground is not to tell.

What’s even more unusual in this case is that Greg Smith dealt in derivatives. Remember them? Derivatives – a complicated form of financial market gambling so convoluted that even the people who manage them can’t explain how they work – were at the center of the Wall Street meltdown in 2008. They were legal then. They are legal now. Goldman Sachs and the rest of the Wall Street gang of crony capitalism are still calling the shots with the highest paid Washington lobbyists money can buy.

Greg Smith is a Wall Street Judas who betrayed his gang not with a kiss but with a howitzer.

How could he do this? Why didn’t the guy who ate at the pig trough for 12 years just kiss and say good-bye? Why did he make his money and then break the code?  Unless…unless…unlike so many of those who were taught not to tattle, Greg Smith couldn’t live with himself and decided not to run home to tell momma but to run to the New York Times. He’ll never again be allowed on the playground.