April 6, 2006
More than any other gospel writer, Mark insists on the failure of the disciples. They do not understand Jesus’ need to suffer. They cannot fathom the mystery of his divine sonship. Their incomprehension is even more tragic in light of the fact that, from the very beginning, Mark tells us even the demons recognize and acknowledge who Jesus is. So complete is the disciples’ failure that, from the moment Jesus leaves the Upper Room after the Last Supper, he has no visible support.
Mark paints a painful picture of the Agony in the Garden. This is the moment where misunderstanding blackens into desertion. Mark prefaces the story of Jesus’ arrest in the garden with a citation from the prophet Zechariah 13:7. “
And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for the scripture says I shall strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered’ (Mk 14:27). He ends the arrest in the garden with the words, “But this is to fulfill the Scriptures” (Mk 14:49). And then he places the notice of how the Scriptures are fulfilled: “they all deserted him and ran away” (Mk 14:50). In the end, even the women who follow Jesus from Galilee stand at a distance (Mk 16:8). They fail as well.
But the Good Shepherd never abandons his sheep. As 2 Tim 2:13 says, “If we are faithless, he is faithful still, for he cannot disown his own self.” In no other scene is the patience and love of Jesus more evident than in the betrayal by Judas. Jesus makes every effort to reach the heart of the man he had chosen to be with him. Instead of looking at Judas with questions we can never answer, it is better to gaze intently on Jesus. Jesus’ heart is revealed in his actions. In dealing with the most treacherous human sin, Jesus shows his manner of dealing with every sin whereby anyone of us turns against the Master.
Judas approaches Jesus beneath the Passover moon. He has already arranged the sign so that there would be no mistake which man was Jesus. The kiss. In rabbinic Judaism, people showed respect to a rabbi with a kiss. As Judas greets Jesus with this customary sign of respect, he accompanies his words with the normal greeting of the day. “Χαιρε ραββι — greetings, Rabbi.” (Mt 26:49) And then he kisses him. Nowhere else is there an example of a disciple kissing Jesus. Judas alone. His action stands out. So horrified is Luke about the kiss of betrayal that he refuses to mention the actual kiss (Lk 22:47).
In the garden, Judas calls Jesus “Rabbi.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus disapproves of the use of this title ‘Rabbi.’ The scribes and Pharisees use it. It is a sign of honor and distinction. Jesus’ disciples are not to use the title (Mt 23:7-8). Judas never listened to that lesson. At the Last Supper, after Jesus predicted his betrayal, each disciple asks in turn, “Is it I, Lord?” But not Judas. He boldly questions, “Is it I, Rabbi?” The title “Lord” is too heavy for his lips. He uses the forbidden title. Already betrayal is in his heart. He has stepped outside the company of the other disciples.
Yet Jesus’ response is one of longsuffering patience. To Judas’ question, he answers, “It is you who say it” (Mt 26:25). Every man is a mystery to himself. But not to Jesus. Since Judas leaves the Upper Room without the others suspecting what he was about, it is clear that Jesus had whispered this response to him. Even in this moment, Jesus guards the reputation and good name of Judas. He does not shout his sin to the others. Jesus leaves Judas space to change his mind. What an example he sets for us. Both calumny and detraction are serious sins for a follower of Jesus.
As Judas betrays the most lovable man with a counterfeit kiss, Jesus responds, “My friend, do what you are here for” (Mt 26:50). Jesus’ words are vague. Jesus does not recoil in disgust. He remains calm and in control. No one is taking his life from him. He is the Good Shepherd who freely lays down his life for us (Jn 10:11). The traitor’s kiss leaves not a flush of anger upon the cheeks of Jesus. The kiss in the garden caused Jesus more pain than the lance in his side on the cross. Yet Jesus stands oblivious of himself. He is absorbed in the way to win back the sinner even in his act of sinning.
Jesus calls Judas, “friend.” Jesus has shown Judas great trust. He has numbered him among the Twelve. He has confided to him the common purse. The word “friend” conveys a certain intimacy. Bitter indeed is the betrayal. “Is it not a sorrow unto death when your companion and friend is turned enemy” (Sir 37:2).
Moments before in the garden, Jesus had said to Peter, James and John, “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death” (Mt 26:38). No doubt the anguish that caused Jesus the greatest pain was the breakdown in friendship. The community he had formed with the disciples was disintegrating. And this is something that still pains the Lord.
The greatest harm done to Christ and his Church comes not from the enemies on the outside. But from those within. Those called to be closest to Christ cause the most suffering for the Lord. Some claim to love the Church, but act otherwise. Their words and actions harm the Body of Christ. The Lord is never fooled by a pretense of love.
True followers of the Lord do not voice their faithfulness and then deride and mock the teachings of the Church. The truly faithful do not seek to dismantle the community as Jesus has established it. Those on the outside are ever ready to crucify Christ anew. And some are ready to hand over Christ in his Church to their bloody hands. They are truly unfaithful.
But not Jesus. He calls Judas “friend.” He calls each of us, even in our betrayals, “friend.” He appeals to the heart. How sad when the heart dies long before the person.
Throughout history, Judas has been treated as a villain and traitor condemned to hell. According the third century Coptic
Book of the Resurrection of Christ by Bartholomew, after the harrowing of hell, only three souls remain. Judas is one of them. Dante placed Judas alone in hell, shunned as guilty beyond all others.
Spending time condemning Judas to the fires of hell loses the precious time to contemplate the face of him who prayed for all, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). We simply do not know the fate of Judas for sure. But we do know Jesus.
Betrayed in the garden, Jesus stands tall as the perfect example of friendship. He loves us not for what we do, but for who we are called to be. He blesses even when we curse. He does good even when we fail miserably. Christ’s heart remains open. It is the door to the infinite love of God. It is enduring sign of hope to every sinner.