Posted in Book review, Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

All the Saints who did not despair. John 11:1-45 All Saints Day

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

It was Eric Erikson the famous German-born American developmental psychologist who created a wonderful map to illustrate the stages in our journey of our psycho-social development.
The last of the eight stages he mapped begins at age 65 and lasts till our death, and given that most of the congregation is in that stage now I thought I wouldn’t bore you with the other seven stages because it too late for you!

The last stage of our lives, according to Erikson’s schema involves reconciling the tension between Integrity and Despair.
In this final stage, says Erikson, we for the first time in our lives look back over the path and there comes to us, as we look, either a deep sense of integrity, meaning,  and wholeness, or there will be a opposing sense of profound despair.

Waste, mistake, unresolved relationships, guilt, shame and blame these are the ingredients for us to despair.

Despair is what the gospel on this All Saints Day is all about.
The death of Lazarus is a study in despair.
The delay of the teacher, the anxiety of Martha and Mary, the disbelief of the disciples.  All go into making the death of Jesus’ dear friend seem both avoidable and thereby unnecessary.
This is summed up in exactly the same words that Martha and later Mary both speak to Jesus when he eventually arrives at the Bethany house of the now four day dead Lazarus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
If only. If only.

This is the language of despair.

Soren Kierkegaard the Danish Christian Existentialist philospher wrote about the death of Lazarus and about human despair in his work, “The Sickness unto Death” written in 1949 under a pseudonym Anti-Clamacus.

For Kierkegaard the ultimate despair is the despair of the Christian who believes in sin and in particular, original sin.
To come to believe that there is nothing one can do about one’s human condition of falleness is the worst kind of despair.

Mary and Martha and the whole of Bethany despair that Jesus doesn’t arrive and then when he does it is on the fourth day. The day when any act of God could no longer happen. God was believed to act up to the third day. The fourth day was the day of reality and thus despair.

When Jesus raises Lazarus from the fetid tomb he dispels the roots of human despair.
There is no statute of limitations on when God can bring life back to the dead.
There are thus no grounds for complete and utter despair.
Faith for Kierkegaard is the opposite of despair.

“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” becomes with faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

The raising of Lazarus begins with this declaration of faith and trust in the saving power of God.
For those of us who look back on life and are tempted to despair, may I remind us all that today we are still alive. Still trusting.

Look back at the sealed stinking tombs of your life as I look back at mine and know that even now the God of life can call forth life even from those smelly places.

It is the good news.

It is the Gospel of All the Saints.

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Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Lifting our Mater from our Materialism

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Some months ago I was in conversation with a woman who works at the Trust Division of a large bank. I commented that her task was more complex than mine as a minister as she had to deal with both the dimensions of grief and money. Without skipping a beat she replied, “Oh no, when I have had conversations with surviving families in the almost twenty years I have been doing this work, not once have I encountered any signs of grief!

Her comment was for me a confirmation of Jesus’ teaching all those years ago, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Also recently, I learnt of a widow who was cheated out of her entire estate by a smooth talking financial advisor who was her personal banker and who through winning her confidence by taking her in his car to her doctor and by running errands for her, eventually had her sign a power of attorney which he then used to empty her investment accounts! At one level it is fortunate that she died just months before the small balance left in her one account was exhausted, for this dignified trusting woman faced penury. Yes, of course she was silly, even stupid, to sign the power of attorney in the first place but my attention keeps going to the man who committed this crime. A man whose profile you could find on Facebook if I gave you his name and who still walks around the city where this happened, with his wife and family. The resentment and impotent anger I feel even as I write this reminds me that Jesus is correct.

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

The founding father of Methodism, John Wesley, understood this when he wrote in his journal, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.

Of course money in itself is ethically neutral.

There is a power of good being done at this very minute that you are reading this by the skilful application of money to situations of need and suffering all over the planet. However, at the same time that you are reading this a whole heap of evil is accumulating around issues of money in every suburb of the global village.

I need to be very careful in understanding that Jesus is not warning about money, he is warning about greed.

The greed for money can destroy us as we live to” make a killing” instead of working to “make a living”, or a “giving.”

But greed can take many forms: the greed for attention, the greed for control,  the greed for security.

When I went off in search of the roots of the word I found this:

Old.English. grædig “voracious,” also “covetous,” from Proto.Germanic. *grædagaz (cf. Old.Saxon. gradag, Old.Norse. graðr “greed, hunger”), from base *græduz (cf. Gothic. gredus “hunger,” O.E. grædum “eagerly”), cognate with Sanskrit. grdh “to be greedy.” In Greek., the word was philargyros, lit. “money-loving.” A German word for it is habsüchtig, from haben “to have” + sucht “sickness, disease,” with sense tending toward “passion for.”

So greed seems to be a rather universal concept, from Norse and Saxon to Indian Sanskrit, the word seeks to describe the universal problem. A “sickness to have something”.

It is the root of our addictions.

In this connection I am reminded that Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous was in correspondence and greatly helped by Carl Jung the Swiss Psychiatrist. In a very significant letter, that Bill W. treasured all his life, Jung writes about a patient whom he and Bill W had cared for:

Dear Mr. W.

(Note: Emphasis mine)

Your letter has been very welcome indeed.

I had no news from Rowland H. anymore and often wondered what has been his fate. Our conversation which he has adequately reported to you had an aspect of which he did not know. The reason that I could not tell him everything was that those days I had to be exceedingly careful of what I said. I had found out that I was misunderstood in every possible way. Thus I was very careful when I talked to Rowland H. But what I really thought about was the result of many experiences with men of his kind.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.*

How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.

These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Rowland H., but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your very decent and honest letter that you have acquired a point of view above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism.

You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Thanking you again for your kind letter

I remain

Yours sincerely

C. G. Jung*

“As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Psalms 42:1)

As an object of addiction, money can fuel greed in the same way that alcohol fuels alcoholism.

Spiritus contra Spiritum.

From another angle, have you noticed the Latin word for Mother [MATER] in the word MATERialism?

Could it be, that in this Male-energy dominated Patriarchal world (PATER = Father [Latin]) that has created its male dominated Patriarchal religion; there is a resultant craving for Mothering (MATERing), and just as the alcoholic confuses spirits for Spirit, we as materialists have confused the material for Mother?

If that is true, then thank God for the movement we are seeing in our day, away from the Sky God PATER to the Earth Goddess MATER!

Notice how for years we have unconsciously used the female reference, when we have spoken of RAPING
the Earth. Raping our Mother?

Jesus knew that materialism was a false god. What a mountaineer friend of mine describes as a path that leads to a false summit.

Materialism does not diminish the Patriarchal craving for power and possessing.

Our salvation lies not in the material but in the maternal. The nurturing, inclusive, enfolding of God is all that will still our raging consumptive addictions. We need to recognise that calling God our Mother is not a feminist whim, it is the key to our survival.

If we won’t allow the Spirit of our nurturing, inclusive, enfolding Mother to enrapture us, then the ruptured oil wells will continue to bleed death from the rapist’s wounds and the air will be choked from us all by his rapist foul breath.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

At the end of that alchemical work, Faust, by Goethe, the Mystical choir sings:

All that is transitory

shows us the way

is only a symbol;

What seems unachievable

here is seen done;

What’s indescribable

here becomes fact

Woman eternally,

shows us the way.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Posted in Book review, Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Watching till the ego yields.

Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Indians call it Darshan. It is a sanskrit word that means to gaze, to behold.

For an Indian devotee to attend the Darshan of a teacher, or guru, is a great blessing. When a guru gives darshan there is no expectation from the devotee, other than an opportunity to see the teacher, to gaze upon the teacher. No words are expected but followers of a teacher in the East will often describe how powerful the darshan was spiritually. The gaze, sometimes including eye contact oft times will become the vehicle of some form of transmission from the teacher to the disciple. It is an exchange which will empower and bless their lives.

Our Western tradition finds this practice foreign. We are a culture of doers. The idea of wordless worship is about as comprehensible to us a Vuvuzela at Wimbledon! We want words, lots of them. We want to be told what to do. We want concepts, opinions, theories, all of which we will engage with, accept or reject, promote or oppose. The idea of wordless, devoted gazing is not something that comes naturally to us.

It was also foreign to Martha, as she fussed around the house preparing a meal for Jesus and the family who were gathered in Bethany. Isn’t it interesting that when we are busy working, the ego will begin to inflate itself around the significance of the work and then make the work, that is often as mundane as meal preparation, the most important thing in the world, simply because we, or more accurately, our egos are now invested in the action.

Having been a parent for the past twenty six years has given me many illustrations of just how dashed my ego can feel when, having gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a special supper for the family, (remember I am a Cancerian) the family members rush past the table at random intervals, grabbing and gulping, on their way to multiple more important appointments. All that remains is the candle on the table guttering in their slipstream as they dash out the door! At moments like these I understand Martha’s irritation. My ego insists on being stroked and acknowledged. “Withold your adulation at your peril!

Just like Martha I then want to enlist Jesus (the morality and ethics icon) in my egoic revenge and reformation program for these Phillistines. “Tell them the truth”, I whine. “Get them to appreciate me! Tell them they are wrong to take me for granted! Tell them anything but please notice the significance of all the things I do for you, my family and community.”

There is a folksy, fairytale myth that seems to grow ever more schmaltsy and syrupy (what a strange spread that would be!) with the “Family Values” brand of franchised Christianity one sees around. It is steeped, not in robust real world spirituality that acknowledges schedules, stress, single-parenting, screaming bills and the general chaos of life in the third Millennium. Rather, this Helen Steiner Rice’ish (Read “Hallmark” if you don’t get her in your context) image is steeped in an illusion of how family should be. It is as sentimental and unreal as the makeup on Barbie’s plastic cheeks. The most baffling aspect of this pursuit of sentimental Family Values is that hundreds of thousands of men and women are beating themselves up at this very moment because they can’t achieve the false projected perfection that this movement demands, but cannot really model. This is not only the error of Martha (“After all I have done for you”) it is also the rampant ego’s greatest trap for our true selves. Robert Johnson and Jerry Ruhl remind me in “Contentment:the way to true happiness” that Sigmund Freud called sentimentality, “repressed brutality” they point out ” When sentimentality gushes forth, you don’t have to wait very long for brutality to follow” When will the church learn that following Jesus is more than playing at that sentimental game “Happy Families”?

Martha and my ego, get short shrift from Jesus for all our whining attempts to coerce him to our side.

“Mary has discovered the only one thing that is necessary,” Sit down, sit still, watch, and wait”

Robert Johnson tells of how he asked a first generation student of C.J. Jung’s how best to work at his own growth and integration. The reply was, “Read mythology, read Jung, and watch. Watching is most helpful

This is Darshan. This is watching without expectation and prejudice. Look if you have eyes, listen if you have ears.

We call it contemplation, or if we are even bolder, meditation. The name doesn’t matter, the secret lies in the simple awareness.

I never tire of reading that wonderful vignette that comes at the beginning of Hebrew exodus into freedom. All is chaos. The Red Sea is an impenetrable barrier in front of the escaping pilgrims. Behind them the pursuing Egyptian chariots are drawing ever closer with dust and destruction in their wake. Trapped and fearful Moses hears a baffling and challenging word, “Stand still and watch the salvation of your God” Exodus 14:13

Watch and pray.

There is nothing to be done. Nothing for the ego to grasp. No programme to be followed. No hoops to jump through

As I watch Mary watching Jesus, it would seem watching is most helpful.

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There’s no soul in safety, only shadows

John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

I was encouraged to always play it safe. Raised by post-war parents, a job was held onto for life, money was saved for a rainy day, and prodigal pursuits like gambling and extravagant shows were taboo. Of course my Calvinistic mother, from a very strict vein of the three dominant Dutch Reformed Churches that monopolised white religion and government, was even better at this than my slightly more profligate Methodist father. They used to love telling how their first marital argument was about Dad frying eggs in butter when lard had been good enough for the twenty one years of my mother’s life till then! Today, my cardiologist will not allow me do either.

This cautious Calvinism was simply a subset of puritan Protestantism and was how most of us lived through the fifties sixties and seventies. You must remember that South Africa was cocooned in Apartheid Nationalism, with no television, strictly controlled media, and prudish censorship laws that enhanced our fear of otherness and made us all (all hues and shades) quite governable and compliant.

In the world in which I grew up Judas would be speaking for all of us when he criticised Mary’s reckless extravagance. So coming to the passage as I do today, requires of me some reorienting of my formational values if I am going to understand why Jesus praises Mary and not Judas in the events John is recording for us.

I am of course grateful for the deep shifts that my training and reading in the disciplines of ministry have brought about. These changes of view help me be ready to explore the passage. Allow me to name two:

  • It was at a preaching school as a probationer minister almost twenty five years ago, that our leader Rev Vivian Harris, played a cassette tape of a lecture by a Lutheran minister, whose name has been lost in my memory. The speaker was exegeting the Parable of the Sower and was commenting on how this was NOT a parable about the soils as we had come to understand and preach it, rather it was a parable about the extravagance of the sower who didn’t seem to care where he was casting his costly and carefully prepared seed. My mind was expanded.
  • The second discovery comes from a book whose title I do remember. It was, Journeying Within Transcendence: A Jungian Perspective on the Gospel of John. by Diarmuid McGann. It was in this book that I discovered how important it is to read the passages of the Gospels carefully and prayerfully. The discipline of Lectio Divina is unequalled here as helping me to do that. McGann brought home to me the fact that the Gospel writers and John in particular seldom say anything without it having significance.

So to the passage.

John makes a point of locating the event “six days” before the Passover. Why? There seems to be a hint at the beginning of creation. God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. If the Passover/Last Supper is the culmination of the New Creation of Jesus, then what is happening in Bethany could be the proto event of this new creative “week”.

In the Genesis creation story the first creative act is the dichotomous duality of light from dark. Is this the same in the little home of the two sisters whose names MARtha and MARy originate etymologically in bitterness? [Martha’s name means “Who Becomes Bitter; Provoking” Mary: name means in Hebrew: “Bitter, as in a bitterly wanted child“] At the Passover meal the eating of bitter herbs is a reminder of the bondage of Egypt, yet the bitter sisters are the ones who bless not out of bitterness but out of abundance. Martha serving the meal, and Mary bringing the evening to a climax by the extravagant anointing of her Lord. At an immediate level of course this could be because of the gratitude at the raising of Lazarus, but one feels there is a more transcendent reality hovering, as the Spirit always hovers over the chaos of human suffering. Those whose names signify bitterness, are not the ones who display bitterness. No, the bitter named women are the feast givers and fragrance spillers. It is the man, the treasurer from Kerioth, the only Judean [read superior Judean], who displays bitterness in his criticism of Mary’s extravagance. , “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Now dear John, cannot seem to help himself from editorializing. His unfortunate comments about “the Jews” later in the gospel became the excuse for Anti-Semitism from the middle ages onwards! Here his editorial wants to guess at Judas’ motives. (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.). “Hey c’mon John, you know better than to guess at another’s motives! It is the cause of so much conflict in the world. We don’t know why Judas said what he did. But Jesus rebuked him for it, that is clear!

“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The Passover is beginning. The duality is emerging. Light is separating from darkness. Six days from now at the Passover meal Judas will leave and it will be night. (As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:30) The darkness will be complete. For now, though, there are only shadows on this act of pure love.

I want to circle back to “Why the extravagance?” l do that because there is another family member whose name is significant. Lazarus means, “God is my help

Is it not true that only when we have been helped by God, that we begin to understand how to live extravagantly in honouring Christ wherever we may find him? The bitter sisters discovered that nothing was too much to offer in praise of God, after Jesus had restored their lives to them (literally because Lazarus death would have left them as women, destitute in that society). When Jesus has become the reason for our very existence, we have a different sense of values and what worth really means.

A dear friend and recovering alcoholic describes his journey into following Christ, not as some intellectual, or social pursuit. “Oh no”, he says “I had to find something that would give me a reason not to commit suicide at the end of every day” That is to know you have been helped by God.

The bitter named sisters and the God helped brother are transformed into generous and faithful followers of the one who gave them a reason to keep on living every day. The Passover lamb who kept the Angel of Death away from their little home is the Jesus whom they praise with food and ointment without counting the cost. What is a year’s wages when you have been given life in all its fullness? There is no bitterness here. The bitterness has all shifted to Judas.

Judas the cautious, Judas the pragmatic, Judas the frugal; was always playing it safe and secure. Convincing the committee with pragmatism and good fiduciary governance.

Too bad he was staring at the balance sheet so intently, he never noticed the shadows that were beginning to swallow him.

Oh, I forgot to mention what the name of Judas means.

It comes from the Hebrew root, “God be praised