Sunday, April 5: Enduring Betrayal


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Our Covenant

Love is the spirit of this church
And service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.

Sermon: Enduring Betrayal – Rev. Greg Stewart



I’ll bet you’ve heard this before. There’s a joke among Unitarian Universalist ministers that states the following: The only time the name “Jesus Christ” is uttered in a UU church is when the minister trips and falls down the stairs!

I’m going to be bold. It’s Palm Sunday, and this saga says so much about betrayal that I’d like to share with you. I’m going to mention the name Jesus with no little fear or trepidation. Think of him as rabbi, which means teacher. The rabbi’s story of betrayal as literature is what we’re after here.

If the Palm Sunday story confirms anything, it confirms that Jesus was human. For betrayal is a part of the human condition and, I will argue, a necessary one at that.
Since traditional roles of the preacher are both to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, I’ll start with the latter before offering the former. This won’t necessarily be easy, but I would like you to face, in your mind’s eye, a betrayer in your own life. Fix that person, that system, that event, that organization, perhaps even that Supreme Being, in your head. If you find yourself asking, “How could you do this to me?” you have probably hit the jackpot.

How could she or he do this to me? It is the question that underlies the situations that lead a vast majority of folks to pick up the phone and call me for some pastoral care, some spiritual guidance. Betrayal is easily recognized as having a spiritual dimension because it cuts to the very core of the Self and often results in a soulful chaos that makes one wonder if anyone or anything can be trusted. Trust feeds the human spirit. Betrayal starves it.

So I often find myself sitting with someone who has a friend and business associate who ended up using them as a rung on the corporate ladder. How could she do this to me? Or the lover who commits to monogamy and then finds out that somebody else has been sleeping in their bed. How could he do this to me? Or the teenager whose parent has breached a significant confidence that only they were to share. How could she do this to me? Or parents whose child has disowned them and the values by which they live. How could he do this to us? Or the child welfare system—don’t get me started now—which claims to act in the best interests of a child by returning him to a neglectful and abusive home. How could we do this to our children? Or the spiritual seeker who has finally found a church that, at first, seemed to be a near-perfect reflection of the beloved community and later wasn’t there for her when the crisis loomed. How could they do this to me? Greg, how could you do this to me? I have been asked.  Or the person caught in the grips of a terminal illness, or the family killed by yet another drunk driver, or all the people who prayed for a miracle but were met with the mundane: How could the Universe do this to them? To us? To me?

Jesus did some things that could easily help us to endure betrayal and then move beyond it. The passage from the ancient text reveals some responses to betrayal that are supported by modern scholars and practitioners. The exemplary way in which he endured betrayal enabled him to eventually move beyond it. And just as you cannot have Spring without Winter or Easter without Good Friday, neither can you develop trust without betrayal.

First, the Rabbi trusted his intuition. He had no way of knowing that Judas had sold out for thirty pieces of silver. But the text says that from that from payday on, Judas looked for an opportunity to betray Jesus. And the Good Teacher intuited that something was amiss. It is a rare individual who can keep a straight face and then stab you in the back. You have got to trust your gut feelings, have faith in yourself, and keep denial at bay whenever betrayal seeks opportunity. And you often need not look too far afield. A betrayer must be able to get into your heart before he can get under your skin. The more intimate the relationship, the deeper the betrayal.

For our Rabbi it was a coworker and friend in a little movement with big ideas for change. They both dipped hands in the same dish at mealtime, the text emphasizes. In a relationship out of balance, life doesn’t feel right. Don’t wait until you find yourself asking, “How could you do this to me?” Instead, consider your hunches, listen to your heart, face reality, and ask yourself, “When will he this to me?”

I am not encouraging paranoia. I am suggesting that you be prepared. Heart knowledge is intuitive knowledge.

The words betrayal, traitor, and tradition all come from the same Latin word, tradere. The literal translation of tradere is “to hand over,” “to deliver,” “to place in the hands of.” First and foremost, don’t be a traitor to the Self, to the Light within. Second, the Rabbi confronts his betrayer. In the midst of cordial dinner conversation he announces, “The truth is, one of you is about to betray me,” and then he narrows it down to Judas. Jesus then looks Judas squarely in the eye and affirms, “You have said it yourself.”

When you are betrayed, you are faced with options. You can confront the person directly. You can avoid confrontation but change the way you relate to the person. Or you can walk away form the relationship and end all contact with that person. But you cannot ignore a breach of trust. The price, in terms of your self-confidence and self-esteem, is just too high. Confrontation brings with it no guarantees, but I guarantee that if you try simply to ignore or forget betrayal, the resulting unfinished business will almost always haunt you. Most often, confrontation helps endure betrayal. Be careful here: confronting someone doesn’t mean fighting with someone; it simply means addressing what went on, speaking up.

Confrontation serves many purposes, all of which can be distilled into the need to understand. It provides a means for managing the negative feelings churning inside you. By calling the betrayer on their behavior, you acknowledge that you share some responsibility for the breach of trust. Betrayal is relational. No, you didn’t do anything wrong; it wasn’t “your fault”; and you shouldn’t blame yourself. But you did miss some cues along the way. On some level, you were a participant in your own trust crisis.

Was the Rabbi simply a bad judge of character? He had a world of people to choose from, so why did he pick Judas as one of The Twelve? There had to have been signs early on that Judas was not a team player. But Jesus chose him anyway. Nobody’s perfect.

By calling the betrayer on their behavior, you will hear her reasons for her unscrupulous actions. Even if those answers are not what you want to hear, even if he remains silent, you will understand something important that you can use in future relationships. And you can make an informed decision about whether to mend or end the relationship. Our Rabbi, in confronting his betrayer, ascertained that not only would Judas kiss and tell, but that all of his colleagues, called The Twelve, would betray him. They all had the same response: “Surely it is not I?” That all of them were so overly confident indicated to Jesus that all of them were unprepared for the oncoming harassment, a fact that would have been left buried had the Rabbi chose to avoid confrontation and stick to polite dinner conversation. And note, too, that Judas, with coins jingling in his pocket, finds it hard to believe that he could actually go through with his plan. Betrayers often feign any wrongdoing on their part, or sometimes don’t even realize that what they are doing is hurtful. Either way, confrontation forces the issue, insists on truth, and makes the betrayer either put up or shut up. Waiting is always difficult.

Third, Jesus yearned for revenge. Remember his rage: “But woe to the one by whom I am betrayed. It would be better for that one never to have been born at all!”

Hmmm, Rabbi. Whatever happened to “turn the other cheek? But Rabbi! Did you actually wish someone dead?

Have you ever been so overwhelmed with rage, so overcome with feelings of isolation, alienation, rejection, loneliness, so overwrought by your lack of control over the situation that you started plotting the theoretical demise of your betrayer? Come on, now, be honest about it. I’ll admit I have. Did you know that such vengeful fantasies are actually therapeutic, so long as they remain in the realm of the fantastic? It provides a way to endure betrayal. When trust is broken, it is human nature to want to retaliate in some way. But revenge has its downside, no doubt about it. In fact, as long as you hold onto vengeful feelings of any kind, your betrayer will have power over you. Revenge can be hazardous to your emotional health. By refusing to forget the past, you obliterate any potential for a promising future. But revenge can also be a remedy for broken trust. That’s right: I am advocating revenge but, before you run out and buy that AK-47, you may want to hear me out first. For if misconstrued, revenge often harms the revenger far more than the target.

Revenge can be constructive when it motivates you to prove your worth and prompts you to proclaim, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,” or perhaps, “Take this job and shove it! I’m not working here no more!” to quote a movie character and a country music crooner, respectively. With your ego on the line it becomes imperative to take action, to do something, to regain even a little control.

Holding a grudge, one particular form of revenge, can be useful if it is time limited. By taking “a time out” away from your betrayer, you protect yourself from hurt while you work through the pain and begin to find strength to move on. You may use the time to re-evaluate your relationship and form a decision either to work on or end it. With any luck, the heat of anger may subside and make room for amends, for speaking with the person about your grievance and repairing the damage. The Rabbi lets off a little steam with his death wish fantasy about Judas. Part of the text we didn’t read observes Jesus cutting off The Twelve who were about to deny him and going off alone to pray, using the grudge time to discern his next moves. Finally, Judas kisses him on the cheek, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why is betrayal necessary? It may be evident but I’ll put my own theological spin on it anyway. The fear of betrayal is trumped only by the fear of death. And when you think about it, betrayal is a kind of death, perhaps a symbolic death, after which things are never again quite the same. Yet religions both East and West have understood the power of death to transform. They teach that death and the emotional stages of mourning occur whether the death is physical or symbolic.

Betrayal leads to a symbolic death during which innocence and naiveté die. But trust and innocence are not the same. Prior to betrayal the innocent experiences no risk. Trust cannot be fully realized without betrayal. Only after betrayal, when one knows the risks and trusts anyway, is true trust established. We learn not to trust our betrayers, but in the life process, which prompts us to discover the Inner Self and that Mystery that renews, heals, and transforms one’s experience. We learn to trust not in our betrayers, but in the truth of the Self.

The Inner Self guides us and protects us. The Self inspires us to make meaning out of life and directs us to align with a deeper purpose in all our relationships, including our relationships with our betrayers. It was to that deeper purpose in all relationships that the Rabbi called humanity. He came to save no one. Instead, he pleaded, the Holy is within you, is here already, is you. Don’t betray yourself. Instead, trust yourself. Two thousand and twenty years later, we still don’t get it. We still don’t have enough faith in ourselves to heal the world, let alone our own wounds. Is it little wonder then, that the Rabbi’s last words on earth were said to be, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do?”

My prayer for Palm Sunday is to find once again within me the trust that obliterates all betrayals and to experience once again the forgiveness that knows no boundaries. If this is your wish too, then so be it.

To the glory of Life!