Today, we remember Palm Sunday, Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, that brief moment before he was betrayed. Every Gospel writer points out that our Lord’s betrayer was one of His closest friends. At the beginning of our Lord’s public life, when He calls the Apostles, Judas is already pegged as the one “who became traitor.” (Lk 6:16; cf. Mt 10:4; Mk 3:19). In the account of his going to the chief priests, he is “one of the twelve.” (Mt 26:14; Mk 14:10; cf. Lk 22:3). In John’s Gospel it is the Lord Himself Who makes this observation: “‘Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil.’ He spoke of Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray him.” (Jn 6:70-71)
In a sense, the repeated phrase “one of the twelve” states a simple historical fact. Jesus was not just put to death by His enemies but betrayed by one of His own. In a deeper sense, however, the line serves as a warning to all who follow Christ – and, indeed, to those closest to Him. Judas was with our Lord for the same three years as the others. With them, he heard the sermons, witnessed the miracles, and was sent forth by Christ. And yet he betrayed our Lord. We should never think ourselves beyond the wickedness of Judas. Proximity to Jesus does not always mean intimacy with Him.
So it is a healthy thing to look at Judas’s negative example. Not with a view to condemning him all over again or to feel our own superiority. Rather, we do so with a certain empathy, aware that we labor under the same human weaknesses and are likewise capable of grave sin – of betrayal. What then do we find in the betrayer that we might also find in ourselves?
First is Judas’s failure to persevere in his conversion. Our Lord chose him just as surely as He chose Peter and John. He did not do so begrudgingly or out of necessity. When our Lord addresses Judas as “friend” in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:50), He does intend it as irony or sarcasm. At some point, Judas’ conversion seems to have faltered. Perhaps it was simple sloth. Perhaps it was a teaching he couldn’t accept. John hints that the Bread of Life discourse was Judas’s undoing – hence the Lord’s reference to him as “a devil” at the end of it.
Or maybe Judas felt betrayed by the Lord. He may have had expectations of the Messiah that Jesus did not fulfill – expectations of glory and power hard to square with the repeated references to the Son of Man suffering, being rejected, and killed. For three years, he followed this rabbi and the anticipated glory had not arrived. He grew impatient with the Lord’s talk about suffering. In this regard Romano Guardini observes: “That he did not leave, but remained as one of the Twelve was the beginning of his treachery. Why he stayed, we do not know. Perhaps he still hoped to muddle through inwardly, or he wanted at least to see how things would develop – unless he already dreamed of profiting by the situation.” (The Lord)
Which brings us to the next point: Judas’s greed. Judas objected to Mary’s anointing of Jesus with costly ointment not out of concern for the poor but “because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.” (Jn 12:6) Greed is grasping. It’s really not so much about possessions but control – about having such means at our disposal that we do not need to rely on others, or even God. It is “practical” in the worst sense of that word. And Judas was an eminently practical man. In fact, one theory is that he foresaw our Lord’s coming defeat and was hoping to set himself up politically and financially by the betrayal. A very practical consideration.
Further, there seems to be a superficiality or shallowness about Judas, a tendency to see things in only natural, worldly terms (not surprising in the practical man). At the Last Supper, our Lord says to His Apostles, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” They ask Him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” Except Judas. He asks instead, “Is it I, Rabbi?” (Mt 26:21-25) The others saw Jesus as Lord. Judas saw Him as only a rabbi, a teacher.
Of course, a teacher is important. But one does not worship a teacher. A teacher’s words can be powerful, perhaps even life-changing. But they are ultimately human, limited by the world’s wisdom and time itself. Jesus’ words endure: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mt 24:35) Judas does not seem to have realized the depth of our Lord’s words or have entrusted himself to their authority. They were for him perhaps interesting and challenging, but not authoritative. How often we hear that about His teachings today?
Finally, and sadly, Judas fails to repent. No doubt, he feels remorse over what he has done. And this is no small thing. In the tangle of his heart he still bore at least some love for Jesus. But notice: he returns not to Jesus but to the chief priests – to his coconspirators. To them, he acknowledges his sin. Judas possesses not repentance but regret. By repentance we look to the good God, to the Redeemer, to the one Who is Mercy. In His light, we reject sin. By regret we look to ourselves, turn further inward, and close ourselves off from the reconciliation and healing that come from God alone.
In Holy Week, we would like to be more like John, who stood faithfully at the foot of the Cross, or like Mary Magdalene, who kept a sorrowful vigil at Calvary. But that would be to give ourselves too much credit. This is the hour to think not of our strengths but of our weaknesses. It is no time to look askance at Judas but to realize that we labor under the same wounded human nature as he.
Like Judas, we fail to persevere in our conversion. We settle for piety instead of holiness. We turn aside if things get difficult and fail to deepen our devotion. We may even feel betrayed by the Lord – if He has not answered a prayer the way we want or catered to our own imaginings of Him.
Like Judas, we grasp for things – for money, possessions, power. In a word, for control, trying to keep our dependence on God at bay. Like him, we tend to superficiality, making our faith only a matter of human wisdom, interesting insights, psychological comfort rather than an encounter with the Word made flesh. We adopt a worldly view of religion rather than put on the mind Christ.
Hence, we do not entrust ourselves to His words as we should: Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. . . .He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. . . .Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. . . .as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.
And most of all we fail to deepen our repentance. We feel regret for our own sake, because our sins made us look bad. For all these failings and sins the Lord has granted us now the opportunity for real repentance. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6:2)