The Passion Narrative includes a pericope on the pain of betrayal.
Matthew 26: 20-25
… ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me’. And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another’, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’
… ‘Judas, one of the twelve arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs… He came up to Jesus… and kissed him… Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.’
Judas’ kiss marked both men – Jesus lost a close friend and Judas lost all hope. Jesus would suffer terrible physical pain, and Judas would suffer terrible psychological pain.
Later both men would be resurrected by the Church: Jesus as triumphant saviour and ‘Lord of all’, and Judas as despised betrayer and immoral monster. As the early Christians developed their theology, a theology of winners and losers, one of these men would be labelled ‘God incarnate’ and the other ‘the Devil incarnate.’
Judas was a disciple, one of Jesus’ close friends, and trusted.
Why did he do what he did? In Mark’s Gospel there is a woman who extravagantly pours expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet. To Jesus it was a display of loyalty and love. To Judas it was wasteful, excessive expenditure. Judas then went to the chief priests and prepared to betray him.
In John’s Gospel Judas is the keeper of the common purse [13:29]. Was it his concern about finances, particularly the lack of them, which coloured his reaction to the ointment incident? John [12:6], writing 90 years after Jesus death and influenced by the current of anti-Judaism, says Judas was motivated by greed; he was a common thief, wanting the money for his own ends.
Similarly, the assumption is that Judas betrayed Jesus for the money - the 30 silver coins from the chief priests – enough to buy a slave, or plot of land to die upon.
And yet this ‘he did it for the money’ reason doesn’t ring true. While its simplicity might be appealing, do people whose goal in life is money leave their homes and professions and follow a revolutionary preacher like Jesus around the countryside for maybe three years?
The author of John also isn’t satisfied with just the money answer. John and Luke bring in the Satan factor: ‘He was inspired by Satan’.[i]
Nowadays many of us are wary of Satan talk. We know it to be political polemic dressed in spiritual drag. It doesn’t tell us anything of substance. All we are learning is that others didn’t like Judas and didn’t understand why he did what he did.
Maybe his name gives a clue: Judas Iscariot. Iscariot is thought to derive from Ish Kerioth, i.e. "a man from Kerioth." Kerioth being a town located in the south, not far from Hebron. Judas was therefore the only Judean disciple among the twelve. He wasn’t from the rural and rebellious Galilee, but from the more urbane south, perceived as closer to the halls of power. He was the equivalent of a first century Palestinian JAFA. If you want to blame someone then blame a JAFA … then you won’t have to think about your own culpability!
Extra-biblical sources, dated around 110 – 140 CE, call Judas an ‘enormous example of impiety’ and comment on his physical body as bloated and grotesque, with pus and worms.[ii] Judas was portrayed in the early Church as an immoral and physical monster.
To our ears the creation of a scapegoat by the early Church on which to transfer their fears, self-loathing, and guilt about Jesus’ death not only sounds grossly unjust but calls into question the moral compass of that Church. And the continuation of such scapegoating of Judas today distorts that compass still.
However the scapegoating of Judas was not restricted to just one individual. It was extended to a whole race. Maybe it was because the name Judas resonates in Hebrew with the name “Jew” that the Church has used, and in some places continues to use, Judas as a means to tarnish every Jew with the accusation of betrayal, and the immorality said to be behind it.
It was of course very convenient to label Judas as the betrayer when Peter did likewise. And not just Peter - all the disciples ran away. They all betrayed him - all his followers, well-wishers, palm-wavers, and ‘Hosanna’ choristers. Only a few women stayed true to the end. So, in a sense Judas carried the blame for them all[iii]. He was the bad guy so that we would think the rest were good guys. We would look at Judas so we wouldn’t look at them... and we wouldn’t look at the seeds of betrayal latent in each us of.
Judas’ suicide is tragic. Matthew records that Judas, on seeing that Jesus was condemned, had second thoughts, tried to undo what he had done, and in despair hung himself. Despair drew his world in, narrower and narrower, until no light was left.
Judas couldn’t see through his pain the flickering message that the others would slowly absorb - the message that they had always been forgiven, and would always be forgiven.
The challenge of Holy Week is how to relieve suffering. The story of Judas reminds us of the mistakes of blaming others and blaming ourselves, then acting out that blame in destructive behaviours. Blame is the enemy of empathy and forgiveness. Blame erodes the soul’s self-healing and other-healing potential.
There are many who have walked to the edge of that crater called suicide and looked down. For some down seems the only place they can look and it is very dark. The light, love and hope they have experienced in the past are gone. All seems lost.
There are many too who carry the scars that the suicide of friends, lovers, and parents brings. It is such a devastating emotional rupture. According to the World Health Organization one million people die by suicide each year.
Talking, walking, diet, sunshine, safety plans, sleep, professional medical assistance… we know all these things help ease the hurt and pull one back from the crater. The biggest help of course is friendship – for it is that human contact and community that is so essential to us all.
And it is that community, the community of his friends, which Judas now felt so alienated from, and unable to be reconciled to.
As Joy Cowley concludes,
“We all do it. Year after year, we project
Our own fears and betrayals on Judas,
And in doing that, we fail to hear
The compassionate voice of Jesus
Saying of Judas and of us,
“Father forgive them.
They know not what they do.”[iv]
[i] Luke 22:3
[ii] Fragments of Papias 3 as in Crossan, J.D. Who Killed Jesus? 1991, p.75
[iii] E. Linnemann espoused a similar theory.
[iv] Cowley, J. Come and See, 2008, p.118