HUMANE PURSUITS MARKS HOLY WEEK WITH FIVE WEEKDAY POSTS ON THE PRAY CHANNEL.
Hushed conversation is weaving itself all around me, yet I am nothing but a loose thread in the tapestry, cut off while still in the picture. A battle is waging within me, to go or stay. Do I keep my promise to the religious leaders, or keep faith with the master? If I break either faith or promise I will break into pieces. My palm craves the silver I have been offered, yet I recoil at the repercussions of my foolish pledge. I waver like the flame on the table. What will they do to the teacher if I tell them where he is? Oh, I know—I know what they have tried to do at least twice before. I’ve seen the stones in their hands, in their glances, in their very hearts. My own heart is mostly stone, so I should know.
A movement interrupts my indecision; the master is handing me a bite of bread dipped in the bitter herbs. Confusedly, I receive the bread and eat. He does not now say to do this to remember him. He only looks at me and tells me to act quickly. He knows! In that split second I quiver, then recklessly plunge into my choice. Swallowing the bread, I rise to slip into my sandals, feeling something evil slip into my soul as I melt into the night. The darkness is not around me, but in me. My choice was brief, the consequences are about to reverberate into history. I walk in a do-or-die fashion to the house where the shepherds of my people are feasting on a slaughtered lamb. I rap upon the door quickly, decisively. Flickering light shines out along with a man’s peering eyes. I tell him what I know, offer to lead these men where they want to go, to find another lamb to slaughter. Sooner than I planned, a throng of men have gathered with various weapons and various reasons to find the master.
I hold out my hand, boldly saying I will not set foot toward the final destination without the bounty price. There is some grumbling—greed is always slow to let go its treasure, but hatred and envy will cow even greed to give up its store when power is within grasp. Silver rushes into my hand, satisfaction washes over me as I pocket the pieces. I turn on my heel, ready to walk the dusty, covert path to the half-hidden garden. I have given the men with me the sign they need—I will greet the master with a kiss. Then my work will be done and I can slip away from the madness.
Time is doing something I can’t comprehend. It warps and swivels in and out, quick then slow. How have we come so far so fast? My heart thuds and breath is hard to slide into my lungs, we are here—any minute now I will see the master. I must remember to greet him as planned. There! That rag-tag band of bumblers I have spent the last three years wandering with are up ahead. Ah, there is the master, steely-eyed, hard, always seeing through me. I walk toward him, thinking of all those times I was supposed to give money to the poor and had pocketed it instead. I suddenly knew clearly that all along the master knew that the money was ending up in my account. He always knew. Even now his knowing eyes fell upon me, and he told me—unflinchingly—to do what I had come to do. Through dry lips I greeted him, kissed his cheek, and kissed my sham-life goodbye.
There was an exchange of words between the guards with us and the teacher. Suddenly, all the Jews around me fell facedown. What had he said? I heard the guard repeat the question, clearly hearing the reply this time: “I have already said that I am he.” Even the darkness inside of me trembled at the power and authority in this claim, in that voice. The teacher was calling himself God Most High. The man was crazy! A scuffle—some words—the teacher touching a servant’s ear—and then he was being dragged away. I blinked in the darkness as the torchlight disappeared around the bend and bushes. The others were gone, pelting in every direction but toward their master. Darkness settled upon me like a cloak. With a start, I realised I was free to go where I pleased. I had my time to myself, a pocket full of silver, and I no longer needed to pretend about who I was.
Just who am I? I wondered, as I walked toward the city. And what will I do now? I shrugged—it didn’t matter. I was my own master with my own money. And my own conscience, I added. But who was I to worry about that? Had I even allowed my conscience one twinge since the time I began to look for a way to hand the teacher over to those religious men? Nope. If my conscience had ever even so much as twitched over anything, it was so long ago it was forgotten.
Exhaustion caught up with me, laying me down in a quiet spot until the sun had winked open its eye and the noise of confusion dragged me awake. How had I ended up so close to the home of the priest and the temple? The further away I could get from that place, the better. Curiosity welled up inside me, however, and I nervously walked closer to the knot of men arguing and jeering. There was the teacher, haggard and bruised, being taken somewhere else. But what caught my eye was that impetuous jughead, Peter. He looked horrible. He was grubby, his eyes were bloodshot, and the tell-tale tracks down his face said he had been weeping, not merely sniffling.
Almost before I knew what I was about, I slid next to Peter and demanded what was wrong with him. He turned toward me with a strange look of disdain, consternation, and pity co-mingled. Without any preliminaries he whispered something to me. I leaned in to catch his words, “I know,” he said in a broken voice. “I know now what it feels like to be a betrayer.” He turned away to follow his master, leaving me reeling and alone. I began to pace to and fro for quite some time. All I could hear were those words, echoing: I know now what it feels like to be a betrayer. That’s what I was, a betrayer. Betraying the teacher. Betraying Peter and all the rest, too. A betrayer. All you are is a bastard betrayer! I shook away the accusation, turning my attention to anything but my roiling thoughts. I surfaced into the last half of a comment being made, something about the blasphemer getting his own. Wasn’t it just like the people to betray their king? Last week they were shouting Hosanna, save us—today they were screaming to crucify their so-called saviour. The speaker slapped his companion on the back as if it were a good joke, then the pair sauntered away to hear the next round of gossip.
I stood rooted to the earth, one phrase ringing in my ears, Isn’t it just like the people to betray their king? Betray. Betray….Betray. The word haunted me, jarred on all my senses. Then, like a thunderbolt, another word swooped into my brain—crucify. How long had I been pacing? In that amount of time the teacher had been brought before some Roman who had the power to crucify him. I knew that news and rumours ran rampant, intertwining, making it hard to tell fact from fiction. Crucify. The word clawed at me, eating away all the grand lies I had fed myself. I had known all along about the stones those religious ragbags had held once-upon-a-time. What did I think they were going to do once they had the teacher in their grasp? But crucifixion…? Crucifixion was barbaric. I felt sick all the way to the pit of my stomach. I felt hot and cold and rash. Betrayer, my thoughts mocked as I stalked toward the temple.
Heads swung up from prayers, eyes opened wide when my wrathful gaze scoured anyone in my path. Where were those deplorable holy men? There! Before the eyes and ears of bewildered onlookers I spat out words I never dreamed of saying, “I have sinned.” I what? Those grey-beards were startled, too. “I have—” I faltered at the word, “…betrayed an innocent man.” Their eyes narrowed into little slits, like snake’s eyes. “That’s your problem—you deal with it,” one retorted. I clenched my fist around a heavy burden—slivers of silver. I screamed a curse and threw a handful of those wretched coins at the feet of the rattled men in front of me. Again, and a third time, I pulled those bits of metal from my pocket and slammed them into the ground. Deliberately, I turned my back on them and walked away. Betrayer. I heard the word ripple through the men interrupted from their prayers. I walked outside, shattered. I had chosen to break faith—and now I was broken by empty promises and deceitful men. The betrayer had been betrayed.
…Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself. —Matthew 27:5
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of five Holy Week posts on the Pray Channel, where we find new words to get at what faith is like. View the posts from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Jody Byrkett is the editor of the Pray channel. She lives in picturesque Colorado where she enjoys hiking by sunshine or by starlight, foggy mornings and steaming mugs of tea, reading classic literature and theological essays, studying words and their origins, and practising the art of hospitality. (She also has a habit of spelling things ‘Britishly’.)