March 23, 2006
Benedict Arnold, Quisling, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg—history never forgets the names of those who have turned traitor. And, at the head of the list, stands the name Judas. In every place he is mentioned in the gospels, the evangelists never fail to mention that he was the one who betrayed Jesus. No one can be neutral to a traitor.
If a cause is betrayed, there is great anger. If a person well-loved and doing good is betrayed, there is a sickening feeling of loathing for the one who hands another over. Certainly this seems to be the case among the early Christians. And today.So appalled must have been Matthew, Mark, and Luke that they could not bear to speak about Judas. They keep a marked silence except when it comes to tell of his sin. From these evangelists, we receive no information from the time of Judas’ call when he begins to walk with Jesus until he walks away and betrays him at the end of his life.
Christians have tried to make sense of how one individual, chosen by Jesus, loved as a trusted friend, could have then placed himself in the hands of the very enemies who were already plotting to destroy the most innocent Man the world has ever seen. Writing some time after the Christian community had meditated on the sin of Judas, the fourth evangelist fills in some of the details. But these only darken the portrait of the man who sold his Master for a few pieces of silver.
In the story of the Passion, Matthew shows a particular interest in the question of responsibility. Who is responsible for the death of Jesus? Mark, the first gospel writer, tells the story of Judas’s going to the priests to arrange the handing over of Jesus. Matthew adds more information (Mt 27:3-10).
He tells us that Judas goes back to the priests after the arrest. He flings the thirty pieces of silver across the temple floor. Each coin clashing against the cold marble shouting out his crime. He betrayed the Master for the price of a slave (Ex 21:32). The chief priests refuse to accept the money. It is contaminated. And, so in an attempt to free themselves of blood money, the money is used to buy the Field of Blood to bury the dead. In this story, Matthew is graphically framing the question in Old Testament language, who is guilty for the blood of an innocent man condemned to death. Matthew widens the responsibility for the death of Jesus beyond Judas and the chief priests. It is the sin of those who cry for his death (Mt 27:25).
Matthew is writing his gospel somewhere after 70 A.D. The temple has already been destroyed. People are questioning. What did we do to deserve this? No doubt some members of his community look to the death of Jesus for a quick answer to a very tangled question. The Church clearly teaches Jesus’ betrayal is the sin of each one of us. It is not the crime or treachery of one individual, or one group of people, let alone an entire race. Christ died for all sin. And every sin finds its ugly traits on the face of Judas.
The Apocryphal Arabic
Gospel of the Infancy (n. 35) paints the blackest picture of all. This sixth century gospel portrays Judas as possessed by Satan even in his childhood. In this way, he is seen as totally outside the influence of Jesus. But such a solution is too facile. Jesus did choose Judas. He knew he would betray him. These facts are clear from the inspired gospels. What we face in the figure of Judas is the
mysterium iniquitatis (2 Thess 2:7).
At the Last Supper, Jesus makes the sad announcement. “One of you is about to betray me.” Dread strikes fear in the apostles. In the midst of the festive meal, the note of betrayal. Well had the psalmist said, “Even my trusted friend on whom I relied, who shared my table, lifts his heel against me.” (Ps 41:9)
All of the apostles respond in horror, “Is it I, Lord?” In the Greek, the question is so framed that the negative response is anticipated. None of them can think of himself as turning against their friend and Master. And yet, they are unsure of themselves. Rightly so.
Every individual is capable of sin. Some are inclined to sins of weakness. And then there are the self-righteous who set themselves over others in judgment and condemnation. Their sin is deeper. It is pride. The sin of Lucifer. At the root of all sin is the self that exalts itself over and against God who knows what is good for us and who himself is love and mercy without limit. No individual with a human heart is so sure of himself that he is safe in pointing the finger at another. All need to ask, “Is it I, Lord?” A question always to be posed in the present.
The Christian has the courage to ask, “Is it I, Lord?” For the Christian can face the answer. “Yes, I have betrayed my Master.” The Christian knows that the heart of God is love. The Christian knows that, “… the greatest sin on man's part is matched, in the heart of the Redeemer, by the oblation of supreme love that conquers the evil of all the sins of man. On the basis of this certainty … [we do] not hesitate to repeat every year, at the Easter Vigil, ‘O happy fault!’ …the ‘
Exsultet.” (Pope John Paul II,
Dominum et vivificantem, 31).
Interesting enough, Judas does not ask the same question as the other apostles.
To be continued.