Wednesday of Holy Week: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Matthew 26:14-25.
Today’s gospel is devoted to the problem of Judas Iscariot. He is a problem, isn’t he? As the betrayer of Christ, he’s a problem for the continued ministry of Jesus in the world; but on another level he’s a problem for us: what do we make of the fact that one of the Chosen Twelve was so unconvinced by God, so overcome by the devil, that he betrays the Son of God? What do we do with Judas – is he to be simply the scapegoat for everything that went wrong (did it go wrong?) or does his part in the Passion tells us more about us than we want to know? Thankfully the gospels and our tradition of saintly commentators give us some direction as we grapple with these questions.
A few days ago, I reflected on how Christ escapes life-threatening circumstances several times in His ministry (Jews ready to stone Him or throw Him off a cliff). In all cases, He just slips away. A nonreligious person might chalk this up to luck or fate. We Christians believe instead that God has a plan for our salvation and that everything Christ did on earth happened within that plan. God is not subject to forces outside of Himself; no force is greater than God. So, when we encounter Judas in the gospels, we can’t fall into the temptation of thinking “what if” Judas never betrayed Jesus, as if the betrayal was a loose thread that caught God by surprise. No, God was not surprised. Jesus knew — He tells them during the Last Supper, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” This is not the way betrayal usually works.
Betrayal looms large in centuries of literature and Hollywood alike, and it is usually a plot device that is revealed toward the end (or at least the middle) of a story that carries surprise and the potential for a great reversal of fortunes. We can justifiably imagine that betrayal has been a part of human history long before Jesus was born. The rise and fall of empires likely hinged more than once on betrayal. The psychology of betrayal is fascinating and devastating. On the part of the people who are betrayed, there is surprise, disappointment, a hole rent in their hearts, for it only qualifies as betrayal if they knew their betrayer, often intimately. Otherwise, it would simply be an assault or aggression by an enemy. Betrayal demands subterfuge and lying on the part of the betrayer. The result of this act is so horrible and unique that we have coined the name of the feeling of devastation as “feeling betrayed.” On the betrayer’s part, the psychology is deeply internal and secret. They truly live in an internal darkness because they must lie and be false for an amount of time before revealing their act of betrayal. In this solitary darkness, they clutch something that grows in them as a lodestone. They create a “truth” for themselves, although as Christians we see this as a falsehood because all truth comes from God and cannot be created from within ourselves. They are driven by some type of selfish desire, perhaps revenge, perhaps the desire for riches, power, or simply self-preservation and good standing. But it is a deep, deep selfishness, not shared openly with others but carried out in an inner darkness. As Christians, we recognize this state of being as living in sin, giving into the temptations of the devil.
St. John gives us evidence that Judas had already been trapped in sin by the devil. When Judas rebukes Mary for anointing Jesus with expensive oil, John comments: “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” (Jn 12:6). John also tells us that by the time of the Last Supper, “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” (Jn 13:2). Thus, when Jesus gives Judas the first morsel of the Eucharistic feast at the Last Supper, “After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him” (Jn 13:27). So, Judas Iscariot had already given himself over to the devil and was living in the darkness.
When Jesus announces that one of the Twelve will betray Him, the Apostles were “deeply distressed at this.” Since He was fully human, Jesus must have shared in this same feeling of deep distress. Yet His response is guided by His being fully divine. By sharing His knowledge, He is giving Judas a chance to live in the light, even to change his mind. (As an aside, this strikes me as an odd conundrum, almost like a sci-fi time travel story. If God knows what Judas will do, is He messing with the divine timeline by offering Judas a chance to not betray Him? I don’t know that this line of questioning is actually productive, but it just struck me as a classic timeline conundrum.) Even when Judas joins the others in saying “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” Jesus doesn’t storm about and accuse Him in front of the others. Instead, He answered, “You have said so.” He meets betrayal and lies with love, as God, never shutting the door even on the most awful of sinners.
Around the year 593 AD, Pope Saint Gregory the Great preaches movingly on this scene:
When the Lord said, “Truly I tell you, one of you is about to betray me,” he showed that his betrayer’s conscience was well known to him. He did not confound the traitor by harsh and open rebukes, but met him with mild and silent warnings, so that he who had never been sent astray by rejection might more easily be set right by repentance.
Why, unhappy Judas, do you not make use of such great patience? See how the Lord spares your wicked attempts! Christ betrays you to no one but yourself. Neither your name nor your person is revealed, but only the secrets of your heart are touched by the word of truth and mercy. The honor of the apostolic rank is not denied to you, and neither is a share in the sacraments.
Come back to your right mind! Set aside your madness and be wise! Mercy invites you—salvation knocks at your door—Life calls you back to life!
See how your stainless and guiltless fellow disciples shudder at the hint of your crime! They all tremble for themselves till the author of the treachery is revealed. They are not saddened by the accusations of conscience, but each is afraid that what he knows of himself may be less true than what the Truth himself foresees.
But you abuse the Lord’s patience in this panic of the saints. You think your bold front hides you. You add impudence to guilt, and are not frightened by such a clear test. And when the others refrain from the food in which the Lord has set his judgment, you do not hold your hand back from the dish, because your mind is not turned aside from the crime.
–St. Gregory the Great, Sermon 58, 3
I particularly like how Gregory says that each of the other Apostles “is afraid that what he knows of himself may be less true than what the Truth himself foresees.” What a nice insight. But also is the condemnation of Judas: “you abuse the Lord’s patience in this panic of the saints.” It is common to condemn Judas for the great crime of selling his master to the chief priests, but some contemplation on this scene helps us to see that Judas should be condemned for lacking fear of God, for abusing the Lord’s patience, for believing in himself (his “bold front”) more than in Christ, and for pride and self-assurance where humility should dwell.
Seen in its fullness, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is simply the culmination of many sins revealing his lack of love for Christ. In its fullness, the story of Judas is really one of small sins chipping away at a soul’s dignity and perverting one’s humanity to such an extent that nothing matters anymore as much as the self-centered thoughts of this person. This is not so extraordinary, is it? Small sins eat away at us until big sins no longer seem big anymore. This is one of the great lessons of Judas and I have to think one of the reasons God wanted Judas to be a part of the plan of salvation. Betrayal by one of the Twelve shows us that we can never let down our guard in this life — the devil and his temptations will never stop; they will perhaps even intensify for those who grow closer to God in order to undermine our faith in Him. Look at the sex abuse scandal in the Church. One of the great travesties of this scandal is the fact that it was the most trusted people of our faith tradition who betrayed us: our priesthood. Was this not warned against in the gospel today? Our response cannot stop at shock and anger, it must progress to sadness and the wisdom that God gave us through Judas. We cannot let it undermine our faith in God or in His mystical Body, the Church. We can see the divine logic in including Judas as part of our salvation story, as a reminder of who we are in this world and what we must resist.
I’d like to close this reflection with another story from St. Gregory the Great, this time a story from his life. He started out as a Benedictine monk, living in poverty, chastity, and obedience at a monastery he founded on his family’s Caelian Hill land in Rome, St. Andrew’s. Pope Benedict I disrupted this repose, however, by appointing him one of Rome’s seven deacons and then sent him off to the grandeur of the Emperor’s palace in Constantinople, much against Gregory’s will. He was recalled to Rome 8 years later. The entry on catholicism.org tells the rest of this little story:
Greatly rejoicing, he returned to his monastery, to be acclaimed its abbot. He found Rome again beset with calamities. The hand of God still lay heavy upon it. Floods and tempests battered it, and earthquakes rocked it. But worst of all, to Gregory, the spirit of the world had crept, in his absence, into his monastery. He took sad note, not of any scandalous irregularities, but of a general relaxing of the holy detachment from the goods of the world which had been a pledge, in the early days, of the continued holiness of Saint Andrew’s.
Finally, to his relief, it all came to a head. One of the monks confessed to his assembled brothers, as he lay dying, that he had concealed in his bed three gold coins. This violation of holy poverty so shocked and so grieved Gregory that he decided to punish the erring monk in such a way that the rest of the monastery would not soon forget “the heinousness of a sin that recalled that of Judas.” And so he ordered that when Brother Justus was dead, his body should lie, not in the little cemetery of Saint Andrew’s, but “should be put in a dunghill together with the three crowns,” and all the monks were to cry with one voice as it was being let down to the earth, “Thy money be with thee unto perdition!”
It sounds harsh, and maybe it is. I don’t think it’s just the attachment of the monk to money that recalled Judas’s sin but the betrayal of the vow to God to remain in holy poverty. We also see the connection of small sins to Judas-level sins. Gregory sadly observes “a general relaxing of the holy detachment from the goods of the world.” The goods of the world are the devil’s temptation, and Gregory knows this. For people who set themselves aside for a lifelong devotion to Christ (like the Twelve Apostles did), these temptations are a very real betrayal of their profession. Gregory was not blowing things out of proportion to the extent we might first think.
But, ever the man of Christ, St. Gregory took a cue from our Savior’s never-ending mercy. The story finishes thus:
Saint Gregory tells us in his Dialogues that the monk died contrite and penitent and he, out of compassion for his soul, offered up thirty consecutive Masses. On the thirtieth day, Brother Justus appeared to one of his brothers and told him that he was delivered from Purgatory. The joy of the chastened monastery knew no bounds. And God was so pleased with the discipline and charity of his servant Gregory that we find the story preserved down to our own time in the well-known “Gregorian Masses,” said on thirty consecutive days for the repose of the souls of the loved ones for whom we continue, to this day, to request them.