Judas and the Mermaids: the Seduction of Sin

If you’ve ever wondered how Proverbs 7 would sound as a folk song about a sexy mermaid (and really, who hasn’t?), this one is for you.

This week I was listening to the Decemberists’s song “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes.” The first half of the song is a minor key dirge about a man drawn to his doom by a mythical rusalka, a Russian siren. Starting at the 3:45 mark in the lyric video below is a parallel story about a younger, more naïve victim and his gradual descent into the water.


Here’s the summary: ignoring his mother’s warnings about the danger of the wild rushes, a young man dips his feet into the water…and hears a woman’s sweet voice urging him to come deeper.

When the woman reassures him, “I long for your touch, but I won’t ask too much,” he steps in to his knees.

At “Come a little closer,” he wades in to his chest.

Then when she reminds him, “For deeper the water, the sweeter the sin,” he goes in to his neck.

And then, swept from his feet, he’s suddenly pulled under.

But it wasn’t really suddenly at all, was it?

And the listeners learn: all sin is seduction, and it leads to death.

The downward spiral of pornography or adultery or any other sexual sin is a literal metaphor for temptation in general, an acting out of the process of justifying and doing what we know to be wrong because we want to.

And that brings me to Judas.

You see, other than his big moment of betrayal, the only other sin attached to Judas is greed. We’re told that he stole money from the contributions to Jesus’s ministry and the poor and kept it for himself (John 12:6).

That means the greatest traitor of history, the man basically serving as a toothpick in Satan’s mouth in the deepest circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno, wasn’t a secret serial killer or rapist or violent dictator. He’s more the sort who would cheat on his taxes because “the government’s just going to waste the money anyway” and maybe keep a “finder’s fee” from a wallet before returning it. He comes across as a basically nice guy—remember, none of his fellow disciples suspected what he was up to—who had a few bad habits.

So this Holy Week, while every others are probably reading, y’know, seasonally-appropriate stuff like the crucifixion accounts, I’ve been digging through the Gospels to find Jesus’s teaching on money, trying to think about how they must have sounded to Judas. From pulpits, I’ve often been told that it was the subject Jesus addressed more than any other.

Which is interesting. We can’t say he didn’t know any better, that’s for sure.

Judas’ most famous ill-gotten gain…but not his first.

Think about it. You’re Judas, and you struggle with a secret sin—it’s just low-level, you’re totally in control of it, and it’s not hurting anyone—and the subject that your leader keeps coming back to time and time again is the danger of loving money.

When Jesus said, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret,” maybe Judas liked that analogy. After all, he was one of the needy, surely just as deserving of a fair wage as anyone else, especially as the group’s treasurer. So he kept his little secret until it became second nature.

And Judas, being foolish, walked in to his knees.

Later, when Jesus told the parable of the shrewd manager who forgave debts that others owed to his master to ensure his own well-being, Judas laughed at the twist ending. He saw himself in the clever protagonist, but not in the moral of the story: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Because, after all, he was serving two masters, and it was working out just fine.

And Judas, being foolish, walked in to his chest.

At Bethany, a woman poured out a perfume so expensive that it cost a year’s wage and worshiped Jesus with her tears and service and full devotion. And Judas was furious, because if she had sold the ointment instead, it would have gone to the poor…with a cut into his pocket, of course. Others’ acts of beautiful sacrifice had become black and red in a ledger. And after Jesus rebuked him, with the scent of the woman’s perfume still clinging to him, he left the others to find the chief priests. “What will you give me,” he asked, “if I deliver him over to you?”

And Judas, being foolish, walked in to his neck.

Then the Garden, the kiss, the rigged trial. The verdict: Jesus would be condemned to death. And Judas found himself thirty pieces of silver richer…and horrified at what he’d done. Maybe, as he threw the blood money back into the temple, he remembered another saying of Jesus: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” But it was, in his mind, too late. He had betrayed innocent blood, and when he confessed his sin to the chief priests, the ones who made guilt offerings for the people, all they said was, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” So he did.

And Judas went in to his death.

This is dark and tragic and if you’re still reading you may wonder why I feel the need to take you here, even on Good Friday.

Here’s why: Because I have justified my actions in similar ways, and maybe you have too. Because maybe both of us are knee- or chest-high in deep waters we shouldn’t have gone near in the first place. Because I want you to remember—please, please remember—that it’s not just the big, dramatic temptations that lead to death.

Jesus didn’t just die for the thief on the cross. He also died for the two proud, holy Pharisees who buried him. He died for vengeful thoughts and bad attitudes, for gossip and half-truths and broken promises. He died for the habits we’re not willing to confess, not just yet, because we have it under control, and anyway, it’s not hurting others.

Good Friday is a day to remember that you are not good. I am not good. It’s the time where we need to feel the weight of that, because unless we admit the depths of our selfishness and rebellion, the rest of the story doesn’t make sense. Jesus dies in a generic sense for the world, but not for us.

We have to start with “All sin is seduction, and it leads to death”—even our sin—before we can get to the glorious truth of “God’s grace is salvation and it leads to life”—even for our sin.


(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas, either directly or indirectly. Here are the archives for anyone who’s interested: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.)


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