With friends like these… (part 1)

These days, like millions of people around the world, I have been enjoying watching The Chosen, writer/director Dallas Jenkins’ (son of Jerry Jenkins of Left Behind fame) dramatization of the Gospels. The creative difficulty with any such project is that the Gospels are just that: gospels, good news, meant to show us what God was up to in Jesus, not to give us Jesus’ life story. Anyone, therefore, who wants to follow the storytelling conventions of a compelling memoir or biography has to do a lot of reading between the lines with the gospels as they were written.

A lot.

To give us the kind of story people want to watch, Jenkins and his team are forced to create backstories, motivations, and personalities for characters like Matthew and Mary Magdalene. The writers weave connections between characters where there are none in the text: Simon the Zealot, for example, is made to be the kid brother of the lame man Jesus healed at the Pool of Bethesda.

When I watch, therefore, the critical and analytic part of me says, “Where did they get that from?” or “Why did they leave this out?” But I still enjoy the story as told. Every so often, I’m brought up short: even if I’ve heard the story a thousand times before, seeing it dramatized brings out new interpretations and insights.

What I particularly appreciate is the speculative exploration of the human side of the story. I might not always agree with the writers’ choices. But there is a human side that it is not the purpose of the Gospels to portray. What would it have been like, for example, for the Twelve to be constant companions with each other, despite having a hated tax-gatherer among them? Did Mary travel with the group, and if so, what was it like for Jesus to have his mother with him? Would Mary Magdalene, once healed by Jesus, ever feel a pull back to her former life? How would Jesus have responded, as a man, to the news that his cousin John the Baptist had been thrown into prison?

It made me wonder how Jesus might have responded personally to the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.

He knew, of course, that Judas would do this. But that’s not to say he wasn’t affected by it when it happened, any more than Jesus was unaffected by the death of his friend Lazarus despite knowing he would see him again in a matter of moments.

Psalm 55 gives us a window into what it’s like to be betrayed by a friend. And given Jesus’ fondness for the Psalms, I can’t help but wonder if those words came to mind when Judas sold him out.

. . .

Psalm 55 is a difficult one for translators. Some of the Hebrew is obscure, and the psalm itself is a bit surprising at points. At first, the psalmist complains about being harassed terribly by enemies (vss. 1-3). The harassment is so severe that he seems to suffer physical symptoms of fear and anxiety: “My heart pounds in my chest because death’s terrors have reached me. Fear and trembling have come upon me; I’m shaking all over” (vss. 4-5, CEB). The psalmist is seized by the wish to flee, to fly away, to go back to the wilderness where the people of God could see God’s presence with them, all day, all through the night (vss. 6-8).

The psalmist then describes a city that is characterized by “violence and conflict,” “evil and misery,” and “oppression and fraud” (vss. 9-11) — not exactly the kind of language you’d find in a travel brochure. Corruption and wickedness permeate the place, from the “town square” at the heart of the city (vs. 11) to its outer walls (vs. 10). The psalmist’s enemies, presumably, are from this city.

But then, unexpectedly, there’s a sudden shift in the complaint:

It’s not an enemy that is insulting me—
    I could handle that.
It’s not someone who hates me
    who is exalted over me—
    I could hide from them.
No. It’s you, my equal,
    my close companion, my good friend!
It was so pleasant when
    together we entered God’s house with the crowd
. (vss. 12-14)

Wait…it’s not an enemy that’s the problem? Compared to the earlier “I’m shaking with terror,” this almost sounds as if the psalmist were saying, “but it’s no big deal.” Either (a) the psalm is incoherent, as some scholars maintain, (b) the psalmist was rather colorfully exaggerating before, (c) the psalmist’s emotions are amazingly mercurial, or (d) the betrayal of a friend is really, really bad.

For now, I’m going with (d). Final answer.

Betrayed by someone you trusted. Betrayed by someone with whom you worshiped, side by side. With friends like these, who needs enemies? It can be easier to be hurt by someone you already know dislikes you than to be stabbed in the back by someone you love, someone who supposedly loved you.

We don’t know what this friend did; the psalmist doesn’t quite say. But we know something about how the betrayal was done, as we’ll see in the next post.