Light and Dark in John’s Gospel, and the Symbol called Judas

Light and Dark in John’s Gospel, and the Symbol called Judas

Glynn Cardy

Sun 07 Apr

The reading for today is the well-known story of a woman pouring expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus.  This story appears in all the four gospels in our Bible, though it is portrayed differently in each. 

You might recall that Luke’s version of the account, which identifies the woman as ‘a sinner’, was manipulated in history to undermine the authority of the apostle Mary Magdalene.   This was done by conflating ‘sinner’ with ‘prostitute’, and then both with Mary Magdalene.  Pope Gregory I in an influential sermon in 591 popularised this deliberate and scandalous libel.  The question that I find interesting is why Gregory and others did this?  What was it about Mary Magdalene that was so threatening to their faith?

John’s account of the story has no Mary Magdalene or ‘sinner’.  Instead it is Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who does the pouring in their home in the presence of the disciples.  And unlike the other gospels the focus is not really upon her.  You might recall in Mark (and Matthew pretty much repeats Mark verbatim) the high praise given to the unnamed woman for her actions.  Luke’s version focuses on Jesus allowing a sinful woman to touch him.

Mark and Matthew record unnamed disciples critical about the wasteful use of very expensive perfume.  It’s inferred later that Judas was one of these unnamed critics.  But it’s only in John’s Gospel that Judas has a central role as the one arguing with Jesus.

I would like to suggest to you that John’s Gospel creates a unique literary role for Judas, as it does for Jesus.  Jesus is the one who embodies the light; and Judas is the one who embodies the dark.[i] 

And rather than seeing this spirituality in Jungian terms of embracing both light and dark, over the centuries of Christian history there has been much wrong committed by denigrating those considered the dark offspring of Judas.  I am talking about anti-Semitism and racism. 

One of the ongoing tasks is learning to appreciate John’s literary creation called Judas and to learn how hold both light and dark in our spirituality.

To return to our text for a moment let’s appreciate that this disagreement about the perfume is an argument about the use of resources – a very common debate in faith communities.  Do we spend money on an organ, or a church roof?  Do we commit half our money to addressing poverty?  Should we show our appreciation to someone with a nice gift?  Saying the ‘poor are always with us’, and putting those words on the lips of Jesus, doesn’t really solve anything.  Resource allocation can’t be prescribed via a formula, rather each community and context has to wrestle with their consciences and make decisions. 

The one who like Judas challenges our thinking is not ‘evil’ or even ‘wrong’.  Sometimes they are expressing a niggle we have.  The critic, the lone voice, has a place in the community even when nobody agrees with him or her.  Or put in the language of John: light doesn’t need to destroy darkness.  Indeed the metaphor doesn’t allow it.

Judas first pops up in John’s Gospel in chapter 6 (v.70) and he is identified with a personification of evil, called the ‘devil’.

A couple of background notes.  Firstly, John’s Gospel was written late first and early second century and the writer is creating a narrative for his audience.  So he draws upon texts like the Gospel of Mark and then reworks it for his own theological purposes.  Secondly, the devil in Jewish thought is a personification of the sinful impulse or adversary.  It was only in Christianity that it was developed into a demi-god.  And it was developed, I would suggest, because Christian leaders failed to learn how to hold both the light and dark.

John introduces Judas as the one who was lost and then asserts that his lostness was predestined in ‘order that the scriptures might be fulfilled’.  So in John’s narrative Judas was far more a symbol than a historical person.  He was a designated ‘traitor’ from the beginning.

There is no reference to Judas before Mark’s gospel in the 8th decade CE.  Paul’s authentic letters (our earliest source about the Jesus movement) does not feature Judas at all.  Paul talks about Jesus being ‘handed over’ to die, which came to be translated as ‘betrayed’; but Judas is not named.  In I Corinthians 15, the earliest reference to the resurrection appearances, Paul says that Jesus ‘appeared first to Cephas (Peter) and then to the twelve’.  Judas must have still been with them.

Judas’ name is the name of the Jewish nation, Judah.  Throughout the 4th Gospel John uses the phrase ‘the Jews’ to stand for the leaders of the Temple and synagogue who oppose Jesus, and who by the time John was writing have excommunicated the followers of Jesus from the life of the synagogue.  The split was so severe that John no longer defines himself as a Jew, which he surely was ethnically, instead reserving the word for the enemies of Jesus.  I would suggest that Judas in this gospel symbolises Jesus’ enemies.

In the synoptic gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] the stories about Judas seem to be the reworking of traitor stories from the Hebrew Bible.  So the 30 pieces of silver is a reference from Zechariah about the shepherd king being bought off (Zechariah 11:12).  The story of Judas hanging himself is a reference to Ahithophel who betrayed King David (II Samuel 17:23).  In reference to the Last Supper, it was Ahithophel whose treachery was considered more abhorrent because he had dined with David.

The second time Judas’ name pops up in John’s Gospel is our text today.  Now is added to the chapter 6 label ‘devil’ the label ‘thief’.  And the third time Judas’ name pops up is at the Last Supper (John 13:27) when it says that ‘Satan entered into him’.  Three verses later Judas departs into the darkness.  Judas is being portrayed as a symbol of those who prefer darkness to light.  The final appearance of Judas in John’s Gospel is when Judas accompanied by ‘some officers from the chief priests and Pharisees’ and also Roman soldiers come to arrest Jesus (John 18). 

Notice if you are reading John 18 there is no kiss.  Rather than seeing ‘the betrayal’ as taking the soldiers to Jesus, Dom Crossan suggests the real betrayal in the synoptic gospels is the kiss.  A kiss was a symbol of loyalty, friendship and mutual assistance.  Judas’ kiss was the opposite.  In John’s Gospel the betrayal is probably the Last Supper scene.  John 18 in the garden is where Judas symbolises the darkness coming to extinguish the light.

John Sanford[ii], a Jungian analyst, sees Judas in Jungian terms as the shadow side of Jesus.  Human wholeness in Carl Jung’s thinking is not possible unless one’s shadow is embraced.  Shadows cannot be repressed or cut off.  Sanford argues that the drama of the cross is an internal drama as much as an external one.  He suggests that all of the characters in the passion narrative have counterparts in the human psyche.  Judas is the one who finally says no to all of the possibilities that Jesus represents, while Jesus is able to embrace the entire human experience, including darkness and death, just as fully as he embraces light and life.  Sanford portrays the cross as representing the fact that in Jesus light and life triumph over darkness and death.  In John’s story of the cross there is no external darkness at noon on Good Friday (as in the other gospels), because that external darkness has been incorporated into the light of Jesus.  Judas thus disappears from the drama because he has been “absorbed” by Jesus.  Light doesn’t destroy darkness; it shines within it and the darkness cannot extinguish it.  Triumph over darkness means the darkness is incorporated into the light.

In Jungian terms one does not know who one is until one is confronted with who one can be.  Jesus will not reject his own shadow, own darkness.  Rather he will shine within it.  But there will always be those who cannot make the journey into light.  Through this imagery of dark and light, John presents Jesus as inviting others to step beyond all security, to embrace darkness and transcend it.  That is the road to life, to mystical oneness, to wholeness.  It is always scary.

In John’s Gospel Judas is a symbol.  Judas symbolizes the world that cannot transcend the human quest for security, which cannot embrace what Paul calls the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8:2).  Judas is lost.  Those citizens of Judah whom he represents, who believe they have captured the holy in the forms of their religious life and practice, are lost.  Those who seek to stay out of the threatening light that has entered the world in Jesus are lost.  The symbol called Judas is their name.  That is how the Fourth Gospel deals with Judas.

Our problem as Christians is that the relationship between light and dark is not well understood.  The character that John created – that is the symbol rather than the historical person – the one who was labelled ‘devil’, ‘thief’, ‘of Satan’ – was dealt with by the Church likewise by labelling and then expelling or destroying.  In Christian art Judas was painted like Shakespeare’s Shylock with dark skin pigmentation, unlike Jesus or the other apostles.  Light and dark were seen as opposites in conflict, with one needing to destroy the other.  This ‘destroy the enemy’ attitude permeates our society still in so many ways – how we deal with prisoners, how we deal with the Christchurch mass murderer, how we deal with hateful speech, etcetera, etcetera.  How much better we would all be if we could understand the metaphor of light and dark as light embracing darkness and transcending it.

As Joy Cowley concludes,

“We all do it. Year after year, we project

our own fears and betrayals on Judas,

(on those we see as enemy,

that part of ourselves we see as enemy,)

and in doing that, we fail to hear

the compassionate voice of Jesus

saying of Judas and of us,

“Father forgive them.

They know not what they do.”

[i] I have drawn upon John Spong’s work in “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”, chapter 22.

[ii] J. Sanford Mystical Christianity: A psychological commentary on the Gospel of John