Here is a massive Gospel oak dying on one side and flourishing on the other. The work was commissioned as an ‘eco monument’ by Chelmsford City Council and is sited in Chelmsford Cathedral. Its aim is to confront the viewer with the fruits of the Industrial West’s exploitation of the planet and its people, signified by the landfill site in the lower left corner, on the tree’s dying side. In contrast, on the flourishing side, is a scene of rural peace and plenty, occupied by St Cedd reading passages from the Gospel in the shade of the oak. His mission to this part of England in the seventh century is re-presented as part of the redemption of the land.
The surface question posed by the work is ‘can death be transformed to life?’; the deeper question is ‘can humanity be redeemed?’. These are focused on the fate of one individual: Judas. The dead body of Judas hangs from the lower dying branches, his discarded silver tumbling into the landfill, as if to say, ‘This is where love of money has got us’. But in the upper, living branches, populated by birds and butterflies, we find Judas resurrected, eagerly climbing higher and higher, fortified on his journey with a thermos and sandwiches.
For the artist, Mark Cazalet, Judas is ‘everyman’. Similarly, the analytic psychologist Carl Jung understood Judas’s story as signifying humanity’s shadow-side: ‘the expression of a psychological fact, that envy does not allow humanity to sleep, and that all of us carry, in a hidden recess of our heart, a deadly wish towards the hero’ (1922: 38–39). Indeed, Matthew’s account of the Last Supper indicates an awareness among the Twelve that any of them could have been the betrayer (26:22).
On this reading, if Judas is not redeemable then nobody is redeemable; if Judas is redeemed then there is hope. Matthew’s detailed description of Judas’s repentance opens the door to this redemption. It presents Judas as feeling remorse (metamelomai; v.3), acknowledging guilt and, in throwing down the pieces of silver, ritually re-enacting a noble prophetic action (Zechariah 11:13). This is an upward trajectory from death to life, interrupted but not necessarily ended by suicide.
27 When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; 2and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.
3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, 4saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 6But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” 7So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. 8Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, 10and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”