Let’s be honest…he was never a very likeable character. Yes, he was one of “the Twelve” – the intimate band of men whom Jesus summoned and surrounded Himself. Yes, he was charged with various administrative responsibilities (reputedly responsible for the money bag) in the newfound community of disciples. And, of course, he was shrewd and bright. But there was always something about Judas Iscariot that simply didn’t seem right.
Perhaps this feeling was elicited simply because we are warned about Judas. If you were not familiar with the Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament narrative of Christ’s Life, Passion and Resurrection, there is one thing you would realize early in the New Testament: Judas was a traitor.
And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
– Luke 6:13-16
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)
– John 6:66-70
In retrospect, the Old Testament prophecies are interpreted as pointing to a betrayer of the Messiah:
Even my close friend,
someone I trusted,
one who shared my bread,
has turned against me.
– Psalm 41:9
Judas’ role prior to his infamous act finds him cynical in two of the most significant events of Christ’s life – the anointing of Christ by Mary, and the Last Supper:
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
– John 12:3-8
“I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am.Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
– John 13:18-30
Judas would be given many titles by Christ and the disciples (especially after the disciples realized his treachery and wrote of it in subsequent Biblical writings): Traitor, devil, son of destruction, and thief. And of course, we know the horrific end of Judas’ story: Skulking off to the Temple in order to receive 30 pieces of silver to turn Christ into the authorities. Betraying Jesus with a “Hail Rabbi” and a bitterly ironic kiss on the cheek. And once realizing his horrible error, finding no sympathy or redemption from the conspiring authorities, Judas would hang himself in misery – the loneliest man who ever was.
And yet, as reviled as Judas was, he was not the only traitor in the story of Christ. A second traitor was never expected (except by Christ). The man who first pronounced Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, who faithfully walked on water with Jesus, who was present at the Transfiguration, who was christened “The Rock” upon which the Church would be built, and who was starting to understand the depths of what Christ was to endure. Simon Peter was a traitor.
Even though he was favored by Christ, entrusted with awesome responsibilities, and baldly warned that he would betray the Messiah three times, Peter rashly swore he would do no such thing. And yet he did. However, the greatest difference that existed between these two traitors – Judas and Peter – these two intimates of the greatest Individual to ever walk the face of the earth – was their faith in Redemption. To truly believe in Christ as Christ is to accept His blinding Truth, Goodness, and Beauty even when it reveals to us our own imperfections. In the overpowering light of Christ, Judas was struck down by his flaws and saw himself as irredeemable. Peter was overcome with guilt and despair, but carried on in full faith and knowledge of the redeeming love of Christ that he witnessed in every moment he spent with Him. His faith overcame his guilt. Peter was a dignified creation of God worthy, in spite of his worst moments, to be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. So too was Judas. If only Judas had truly known this…if only he had believed this.
There are more traitors in this story of Christ, but I simply want to focus on one: Me. A good friend characterizes the daily sin we all commit in spite of our best (and often worst) attempts at faithfulness:
“Every day I rise a Saint and retire a Sinner.”
Or perhaps, in response to a newspaper editor’s posed question, “What’s wrong with the world?”, G.K. Chesterton said it best:
I am what is wrong with the world. My sin. My shortcomings. My failures. And yet, if I believe in the words and promises of Christ, it seems that I am also what is right with the world. We all are. We are dignified creatures of God that are so loved and so cherished that God Himself would become man, teach us how to live and love, then pay the debt we could never pay for our sins through a grisly, inconceivable Passion and Death.
Sometimes I imagine that as Christ hung on that cross bleeding, gasping, wincing…in the midst of millions and millions of names He was saying, there is one name that is most audible to me:
And yet, of course, He says all of our names. But that whispering of my name says to me that I am redeemable. I am worthy of His sacrifice. I am a dignified creation of God in spite of my foul, messy existence. Yes. And so are you.
We are all traitors. Judas, Peter, you and me. What’s more is that God knows this and loves us anyway. His very act of sacrifice was to pay for that betrayal and reconcile us to Him. Judas, poor Judas, didn’t seem to understand this. Consumed by power, then by guilt, he forgot to listen to what Christ was teaching all along. You are dignified. You are worthy. You are loved. You are redeemable. Judas wasn’t listening. Peter was. Are we?