“Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Yourself, Lord Jesus. Amen.”
During Holy Week, it’s often easy to focus on Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. Here is a man who seems to be predestined to betray Jesus and set the crucifixion in motion. He was one of the twelve and I can’t help but wonder if Jesus knew from the beginning, from the moment he met Judas, that Judas would betray him? I can’t imagine trying to live that knowledge. Judas’ betrayal has been a topic of theological discussion for centuries – did Judas have a choice? Could Judas have said no? Was there a way out for him or was he always predestined to betray Christ? Was he simply an actor in a play – given a crucial instrumental yet undesirable role essential to the plot? There are no clear cut answers to these questions but it doesn’t hurt to take and moment to consider what might have happened had Judas not betrayed Jesus. Would another one of the twelve fulfill that role? Without the crucifixion, there can be no resurrection and without betrayal, there can be no redemption.
In John’s gospel, Judas doesn’t betray Jesus with a kiss. Instead he arrives at the garden with armed soldiers in tow, seemingly aware of what he is doing. John doesn’t tell us what happens after that — Judas’ role is complete. He was the catalyst, his role is done, there’s no need to have him in the story any more.
I’d like to take us back to an earlier point in John’s gospel that wasn’t in tonight’s selection where he discusses the betrayal of Judas in Chapter 13(21-30):
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
John presents us with a Judas taken over by Satan: “After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered him.” Is it God who is the architect here, assigning roles to the various players? John’s gospel makes no mention of Judas being paid for betraying Jesus and no mention of suicide; only Matthew’s gospel account deals with what happens to Judas after he betrays Jesus. We’re left to speculate what happens to Judas but we often just run with what we read in Matthew. We understand Judas as a man who is consumed by guilt and regret after he betrays Jesus, who attempts to return the money he was paid for his deed, and who goes and hangs himself in a field.
We know so little about Judas yet we all know who he is. At times we vilify him, calling any traitor a Judas. If we think Judas was nothing more than a pawn in the passion narrative, we pity him, but we can easily forget that Judas’ betrayal is not the only one in the passion narrative. After Judas leads the soldiers to the garden where Jesus is, Simon Peter fulfills Jesus’ other prophecy about betrayal, denying Jesus three times. Moments after cutting off a slave’s ear in an attempt to protect and defend Jesus, Peter is overcome with fear and denies having anything to do with Him. Two of the hand-picked twelve have now denied Jesus.
And so I find myself asking are Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter really so different from each other? Judas who becomes branded a traitor for all time and Simon Peter who gets chosen to feed Jesus’ sheep and becomes the rock of the church. It seems these two could not be further from each other but I believe they’re not as different as we think. Both of them are overcome by fear, both of their betrayals are foretold — what changes? What makes one an infamous traitor and the other a saint and founder of the church is what happens after the betrayal.
Each of us, at some point in our lives, has betrayed or denied something or someone. It may been something small and minor or it may have been something larger, something we greatly regret. What do we do after that betrayal? Do we, like Judas, sink into despair and let ourselves be overcome by it or do we instead allow ourselves to be overcome by love and forgiveness, allowing grace to work in our lives and becoming better people, learning from our mistakes. The choice is ours — the opportunity for forgiveness and grace is always there.
Both Judas and Peter betrayed the man the loved, the man they gave up everything to follow the man they believed to be the Messiah, the son of God, yet their stories go in opposite directions. After Peter’s betrayal in John’s gospel, we see nothing more of him until Mary Magdalene runs to him on Easter morning to tell him that Jesus has disappeared from the tomb. No mention is made of Peter being present at the crucifixion. What can we make of this? Did Peter spend the weekend in despair wondering if his denial affected the outcome, wondering if he’d just ruined his chances? Peter might have been consumed by despair but nonetheless he waits and is able to see the empty tomb on Easter morning.
Judas, according to Matthew’s gospel, regrets his actions so much that he tries to return the money he was paid. He fears he has damned himself and believes that he is beyond any redemption. He has just betrayed his teacher, his Lord and will be forever blamed as one of the figures responsible for Jesus’ death. Even though he was among the twelve whom Jesus told he would and rise again, Judas gives into the despair and hopelessness. He sees no way out and he takes matters into his own hands. He can’t see beyond his actions, he can’t see the presence of God and he gives up – he kills himself, ending any chance of seeing Jesus’ resurrection. But what would have happened if he didn’t? What if Judas had waited? What if he had managed to see the resurrected Christ? I believe that Jesus would have embraced him and forgiven him. If I believe in God’s grace and unconditional love, I have to believe that Jesus would forgive him and be reconciled with him, just like he was with Peter. Perhaps Judas would have become the rock upon which the church was built. Anything is possible.
As we meditate on the death of Christ, let us take a moment to consider our own denials and betrayals. Where is it in our lives that we turn away from God, refuse to be associated with him? More importantly though, how do we respond? Are we Judas Iscariot or Simon Peter? Do we let ourselves become consumed by guilt and despair, giving up on hope and thinking ourselves beyond grace and redemption? Or do we manage to be like Peter, holding on through the unknown, believing in God’s faithfulness and grace? I think we all have our Judas moments, but the important thing is not to let ourselves be consumed by them.
Almighty God, we ask you to look down graciously upon us, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed and to suffer death upon the cross and whose death we commemorate today. Be with us today as we stand at the foot of the cross and behold our Saviour upon it. Amen.