Iscariot, the Opera

Matthew 26:14–16

[14] Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests [15] and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. [16] And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him. (ESV)

One of my handful of massive, unfinished, lifetime music composition projects is a mess of an opera titled “Iscariot.” I started it during (my first round of) college as a music composition major. I know. You might be thinking that Judas is a weird thing to finally blog about after not writing here since before COVID-19 began the American leg of its world tour. You might also think Judas is an odd topic for an opera. I beg to differ on both counts. Betrayal and the inevitable condemnation that follow it are not strange or undue things to write blogs or operas about. Not on this planet. They are bread and butter human experiences, whatever else is happening in the world. Human history is a history of treachery and comeuppance. This is why Judas is central to the Gospel and the story of what Jesus Christ went through for us. Christ endured His God-assigned cosmic experience of betrayal for us so that we could endure our little, local experiences of betrayal with Him. There is no better friend to have than Jesus when you’ve been stabbed in the back by someone you trusted. I’ve seen the brilliantly ugly phenomenon of betrayal up close since I was in High School. I continue to see it regularly. You do too, no doubt.

Some people are hijacked by ambition like Judas, the most ambitious of the apostles. They sell out their friends and family, who turn out not to be friends or family to them but merely means to an end. An average excess of ambition, by comparison, does not make a Judas, but makes people like James and John. “Mommy, talk to Jesus and tell him to make us His favorites.” (See Matthew 20:20-24. These were grown men!) All-consuming ambition, however, the Judas kind, forges nothing so visibly obscene in a person, but rather a camouflaged lack of character. People who want everything are people who will lie about anything. In my early military career the term we used for them was “gunners.” You will know the extremely ambitious, the gunners, by their lies. They are not just competitive, they are cut-throat. We’ve all heard the one about how Judas was likely the most gifted of the 12 apostles. No one suspected him to betray Jesus to the death. Does he mirror Satan who some say was the greatest of the angels before his fall? Anyway, this kind of hidden ambition was something I was first exposed to in my childhood through some of the people my father worked with and told me about. The seeds of my unfinished opera were planted by these talks with my dad. He told me the following about toxic ambition. I’m using my words here to recall his.

  1. People who want to be winners more than they want to be good tend to cheat and betray those closest to them the most. Many evil deeds in history, big or small in scale, can be traced back to this brand of ambition. This is the explanation for the presence of the 10th commandment. You’ve got to covet before you murder, worship idols, cheat on your wife, or steal. (See Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5.)
  2. Toxically ambitious people tend to think, like Judas once did, that they are above repercussions. Whatever they do to hurt you will never come back to hurt them. That’s the logic. The rules don’t apply to them. They can take what they want. It’s their birthright. They are special and better than us. They will never believe otherwise. They will seek to convince you that their desires are more important than you or your life.
  3. These people do end up winning much of time. If you pay a high enough price and make others pay a high enough price, then, in God’s sovereignty, you will probably get what you want. Once you get it however, it won’t be what you thought. This reversal occurs 100% of the time. The Bible is filled with stories about this.
  4. However, my father taught, never begrudge a gunner his win. It is all he has. (My father used different words, but I think his point here was that if someone sells his soul to gain the world, let him have the world. It’s really the world that has him and soon enough “there will be hell to pay.”)
  5. Every Judas, in fact, meets a Judas fate in one way or another. These are the business stories Dad would tell. The key for the rest of us, he observed, was to never gloat or glory in their fall. For the blindly ambitious their fate in life or in business is a tragedy. They deserve our pity, not our anger. This is what attracted me to the idea for an opera about the ultimate anti-hero: Judas Iscariot. Something attracted him to Jesus. It couldn’t have been just power or dreams of worldly success. Or was it? Are people today still drawn to Jesus for reasons other than Jesus?
  6. Whatever my dad’s actual ethnicity was, he did grow up in New Mexico and Navajo things and thoughts were part of his story. Here are three Navajo sayings that fit the bill here:
    1. Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry.
    2. A rocky vineyard does not need a prayer, but a pick ax.
    3. You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.
  7. This last one points to Judas. You can’t wake a pretender. People rendered false by their ambition insist on their authenticity and sincerity. It is a story they never stop telling. At this point you are not dealing with a person, but a performance. Judas was this. His throwing the 30 pieces of silver back at the Pharisees was a part of his being a performance. Some comment that Judas was sincere in his sorrow near the end of his life. The Bible doesn’t say this. Instead it says “he changed his mind” and that he confessed, “I have betrayed innocent blood.” (Matthew 27:3-5) This does not look like repentance to me, but regret. Bitter regret. (2 Corinthians 7:10 confirms this for me. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”)

In the end we not only feel pity for the toxically ambitious, but a peculiar form of gratitude. “There but for the grace of God go I.” The more you know the truth about Judas, the more you know and recoil at your own capacity to be one. The more you see gunners shooting themselves down, which they inevitably do, the more you let go of the gun yourself. The path of self-glorification, with all its self-justification and self-exoneration, is the path of self-destruction. This is why Judas Iscariot teaches us, like no one else, the value of our souls. The entire world is worthless in comparison. Jesus Christ fought to save and return your lost soul to you. Your job in life is to keep what He won for you; it is a job you won’t do without His help.

Can you imagine what a dramatic and glorious opera (or musical) “Iscariot” could be? Yeah, me too. It could be edifying as well. I guess I’m writing about it here because 2020 has made me want to start finishing some things in life from projects around the house to projects in my head. How about you?

2 Replies to “Iscariot, the Opera”

  1. THIS is just what I needed today! Thank you Pastor John. As always, you nailed it and I so appreciate your (and your Dad’s) wise words.

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