Friend, do what you are here to do
The tragedy of Judas
The second of three reflections for Passiontide, based around the stories of Peter, Judas and Jesus. They are based on reflections for Good Friday, delivered at St George’s Preshute in 2017.
Jesus said to Judas: Friend, do what you are here to do. There has been a lot of controversy over the role of Judas in Jesus’ passion. The fact that Jesus addresses Judas here as friend has either been understood to be ironic or as a sign that Jesus still cares about him. Maybe even more so, it has been debated if it was Judas’ God-given destiny to betray Jesus, or an act of free will? And in either case, was there still the possibility for redemption, either before or after Judas’ death? Or is he the prototype of evil, someone for whom there is no hope?
From the earliest days, Judas has been used to stereotype Jews in general. Not only because etymologically Jew has been derived from Judah, which is very close to Judas, but also because from the earliest days groups within Christianity have blamed the Jews for killing Jesus.
Judas is in many ways an easy scapegoat. In John’s Gospel, we hear that Judas is a thief: he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it. Also in Matthew’s Gospel, Judas is portrayed as someone who is greedy: he went to the chief priests and asked what they would give him if he would betray Jesus to them.
Just as we may find it easy to relate to Peter, to identify ourselves with him, it is easy to blame Judas, to see all the things that are wrong with him, and to point our fingers for betraying our Saviour. And indeed, that is what generations of Christians have done. But finger-pointing is easy. We all know it, because we all do it. Again, it is in our human nature to make ourselves look better by blaming others. Especially those who are on the margins already, those who are suspect, those who are different from us. Those who are powerless, but powerful at the same time. Powerless in defending themselves, yet they have to be perceived as powerful enough to have caused such grief. And throughout history, the Jews have been a very good example of this.
So, let’s have a closer look at Judas, and see if we can find some sympathy for him. See where we can see ourselves in his actions and his being. Judas is the holder of the common purse. It seems quite a responsibility given to him, and not the most glamorous job. So, people must have trusted him. In John’s Gospel, as I said, it is made clear that Judas was a thief who used to steal from the common purse. However, some commentators have argued that this is an addition from the Gospel writer, precisely there to make Judas look bad.
When Mary anoints Jesus, Judas says ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ Yes, one may read this as an excuse to steal the money, but isn’t it equally, or maybe even more likely that Judas’ concerns were genuine? Judas, just like the other disciples, seems to have given up everything to follow Jesus, and there is no evidence of him having a wealthier lifestyle than the others. And indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel, we read a slightly different account, and it is not only Judas who complains about the waste of money, but the disciples in general.
If Judas had been such an obvious betrayer and evil person, why did Jesus, and why did the other disciples still share the last supper with him? Why did no one, apart from Jesus, know who would be the one to betray Jesus? One could say that Judas was very good in deceiving others. But, isn’t that exactly what we do when we scapegoat someone: seeing all the good someone does as part of a deception and all the bad things as carefully planned and deliberate?
Then there is also the question if Judas’ betrayal was part of God’s plan. As Christians, we believe that Jesus had to die on the Cross for our redemption, so Judas’ role may have been crucial. Calvin and those who came after him saw this as predestination: some are predestined by God for eternal damnation, nothing to do about this.
Personally, I find it very hard to believe in a God who would create people who are predestined to be evil, to do the wrong thing, and to end up without any consolation in the life after death. Again, just as in Peter’s case, I think when Jesus knew who was going to betray him, he knew, because he knows what it is to be human. We all have betrayed others at times, to a greater or lesser extent.
In contrast to Peter, Judas could not bear his guilt. After he has realised what he had done, he brought back the money he got, and hanged himself. People have speculated what happened after this. Did Jesus meet Judas when he descended into hell after the Crucifixion and redeemed him there, or do we believe with Dante that Judas still is in the worst place one can imagine.
This is all speculation of course, but what to me the main difference between Peter and Judas is, is that Peter waited, and Judas took action, took his own life. I think both of them had realised what they had done. Peter wept bitterly, and Judas said ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood’. Peter realised that there was nothing that could be done to make it better, but Judas tried. He tried to give the money back, and when that didn’t make it any better, he did what seemed to be the only thing that could be done in this moment of total despair: take his own life.
Can we imagine ourselves in Judas’ position? Have we found ourselves in moments of utter despair, when we want to say something, do something, but there is nothing to be said or done? What stops us from completely turning our back and giving up? What gives us the strength that Judas didn’t have at that very moment? Where do we see glimpses of that hope that Judas had lost that day? And how do we find the patience and perseverance to live through the pain we have inflicted on others and ourselves?