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Potter's Field

Matthew 27: 1-10

3 When Y’hudah, who had betrayed him, saw that Yeshua had been condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the head cohanim and elders, 4 saying, “I sinned in betraying an innocent man to death.” “What is that to us?” they answered. “That’s your problem.” 5 Hurling the pieces of silver into the sanctuary, he left; then he went off and hanged himself. 6 The head cohanim took the silver coins and said, “It is prohibited to put this into the Temple treasury, because it is blood money.” 7 So they decided to use it to buy the potter’s field as a cemetery for foreigners.

Wow. Just….wow.

Blood money.  The priests seem to have been unaware of the irony that it was their own actions which tainted the money in the first place. It also seems that it never occurred to them that their own agent would repudiate them by returning the money. Talk about cognitive dissonance!

‘Dirty’ money; ‘blood’ money; ‘tainted’ money; ‘toxic’ money; money ‘laundering’—

From a blog post about George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara; to debates about charities accepting money from nefarious or ‘politically incorrect’ sources; to the psychological ramifications of how we view money in a cultural context, it’s all about our conviction that money somehow absorbs our intentions and develops a kind of derivative life of its own.

I remembered a story about a cop who lost his job because, after a man he was arresting spit on his uniform, he took the pocket change from the man and told him it was to pay for his dry cleaning. I heard this story in an ethics class when I was in the police academy, where the point was hammered home that no matter what, no police officer can ever render judgment on his or her own account.

I also remembered a powerful story that comes from a series of novels called the Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher. Butcher invented a class of demons known as Denarians, whose spirits are tied to the thirty denarii that were paid to Judas. These demons are fallen angels who gain possession of a person’s soul when that person takes up one of the original denarius coins used to pay Judas to betray Jesus.

So that brings us back to Judas and his tainted money. He had to get rid of that money, because it was whispering awful things to him. What does he do with it? He tries to give it back but the priests refuse and tell him it has nothing to do with them, it’s his problem. So he throws it into the sanctuary. How symbolic is that? He tries to give his guilt away, tries to use God to launder his dirty money. The priests won’t have it; instead they use the money to buy a field to bury strangers in. A potter’s field, full of clay and no good for growing anything.

I couldn’t help but wonder how it would have turned out if Judas had betrayed Jesus for free, and never taken the money. I think that the “blood money” magnified his guilt and twisted his understanding; contaminated his conscience and polluted his principles.
Another interesting thing: Blood money is defined as money paid to compensate the family of a murder victim, as well as money paid to a hired killer. Jewish law forbids the payment of blood money to families of victims because Judaism holds that a person’s life belongs to God, and so can’t be paid for with human money.

So in that sense, if the priests paid Judas the money to compensate Jesus’s disciples and family for his death, and not because they were hiring him to betray Jesus, that puts a different twist on things. It was still blood money, even if it was before the fact. The priests would have known they were breaking the law when they gave the money to Judas. So, when he tried to give it back, it would have been an appalling indictment against them, and when he threw it down in the sanctuary, it would have been a kind of twisted justice. Then when Judas went away and hanged himself, that would have been the seal on their guilt. Poor priests. There was no way out for them.

And what about the symbolism of using this tainted money to buy the potter’s field: a field that was good for nothing but burying foreigners and strangers; disposing of the bodies of those who didn’t belong; discarding the remains of the unnamed, unwanted and unloved?

Talk about memorializing despair, loneliness, and grief— but what else could they do?


Things we can’t take back.

Things we can’t give back.

Filth that won’t wash off.

Memories that haunt us.

Ghosts that smell like money.

Money that smells like ghosts.

Where do we fling our deceitful dollars?

What do we buy with our contaminated cash?

Where do we bury our unnamable shame? 

I know where the Potter digs for Clay.


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