Notes from an address preached by the Rev. Ronald M. Ward, B.D. Originally published in the April 1951 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine for Romford Congregational Church.
"Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray Him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein." - John XII, 4-6
Judas protested at the lovely action of Mary, who anointed the feet of Jesus with costly ointment and wiped them with her hair. He protested in the name of charity, in the name of the needy, and the destitute and he protested in the presence of One who had said "Blessed are the poor," and, to the lawyer who heard the story of the Good Samaritan, "Go, and do thou likewise."
Now generosity is a Christian virtue, but the generosity of Judas, so Christian in appearance, is nevertheless only a mask for his own greed. Perhaps he himself is not aware of this. Possibly his voice has a ring of sincere conviction in it when he condemns useless extravagance. But, nevertheless, the Evangelist is at pains to tell us, the sentiment does not move from a Christian centre.
There are other stories in the New Testament which show how Christian virtue can be a mask, behind which Christ recognises an enemy. No doubt Peter felt within himself that he was moved by pure friendship when he rebuked Jesus for speaking of His approaching passion and death. "Be it far from Thee Lord; this shall not be unto Thee." Love, the supreme Christian value, seems to prompt him, and one can almost imagine the disciple slipping an affectionate hand through his Master's arm as he speaks. "But He turned and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan; thou art an offence unto Me." Evidently Peter's "love" was very painful to our Lord at this moment. Christian in appearance it concealed a refusal to accept the Cross. So it was a mask on the face of an enemy.
On the night of Christ's betrayal and arrest, however, Peter finds the courage to draw a sword and wound a servant of the High Priest. Not always did he feel so brave. But with his Master by his side he does not fear to risk his life.
Courage is a Christian quality. Most of us fail sadly for lack of it from time to time. Nevertheless our Lord again rebukes Peter. Perhaps He sees behind the mask of courage the face of hatred and fear. It is by love that Christ must conquer or not at all.
You will remember the story of the Prodigal son, and how the elder brother complains that he has been unfairly treated. Is it just, he says, that one who has served faithfully for so long should be treated with less favour than a reckless, pleasure-loving lad, who has "wasted his living with harlots?" If this is a plea for justice and fair play, a protest against privilege and favouritism, it has a Christian ring about it. But the father in the story knows his son. He recognises, behind the mask of justice, the face of envy. He gently chides him: "It was meet that we should make merry and be glad; for this thy brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found."
Were the disciples pleased with themselves, I wonder, when John reported to the Master, "We saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and he followeth not with us: and we forbad him because he followeth not us." They were trying to express their loyalty to Christ by this action, and loyalty is a Christian virtue. But on this occasion our Lord does not accept it. "Forbid him not ... he that is not against us is on our part." May it be that behind the mask of loyalty is the face of jealousy? Did the disciples secretly resent the success of this unorthodox stranger who "followeth not with us"? Perhaps a measure of our denominational zeal hides the same sin.
A good deal of apparently Christian behaviour fails to be Christian became it does not find its source in Christ. It was not devotion to Christ which moved Judas to advocate the Christian grace of charity; nor was it Christ who inspired Peter's courage in the garden of Agony. We must not identify Christianity too easily with an appearance of Christian virtue. Christianity points beyond virtue, beyond all morality even.
The Gospel bids us look behind behaviour to the source of inspiration before we decide what belongs to Christ and what does not. Is Mary, wastefully anointing the feet of the Lord, a better symbol for Christianity than are the benefits of a Welfare State? Perhaps. Certainly the mask of Christian virtue may conceal hostility to the true purpose of Christ. One can be virtuous without being good. One can be religious without having faith. It may be that the best refuge from faith is a religion, and the best refuge from Christ a Christian ideal.
Religion itself can conceal atheism, like a blind drawn in an empty house.