March 30, 2006
Scholars today hold that before the gospels were written, the story of the Passion of Jesus had already been told and retold and put into writing. In fact, the first gospel of Mark is something of a Passion Narrative with an extended introduction. The original account of the Passion began with the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
In our present gospel text, in Matthew and Mark, when Jesus is in Gethsemane, he speaks to his apostles about his betrayal. Our sins are no surprise to the Lord. He says, “It is all over. The hour has come. Now the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let us go! My betrayer is not far away.” (Mk 14:41-42; cf Mt 26:45-46). While Jesus is still speaking, Judas appears. He is not one of the apostles with Jesus. He is the one who is betraying him.
There is a sense of artistic suddenness in this scene. Judas appears for the first time in the Passion story. Since some listeners may not have heard Judas’ name before, he is immediately identified as “one of the Twelve” (Mt 26:47; Mk 14:43; Lk 22:47). The expression “one of the Twelve” appears nine times in the gospels. All but one instance (Jn 20:24) are applied to Judas. Implicit in this use is the distress that the early Christians felt that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own.
The appearance of Judas is sudden. But John makes us understand his decision to betray Jesus is not so sudden. At the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, the crowds were so moved that they wanted to crown Christ king. They could not make Jesus king. He was already a king from birth. And his crown was of a different sort than temporal rulers wear. Jesus rejected their offer and withdrew to the hills alone. In this context, the fourth evangelist makes the first mention of betrayal.
The day following the miracle of the loaves, the crowds follow Jesus to Capernaum. There in the synagogue, Jesus explains the meaning of the miracle. It is a foreshadowing of the gift of the Eucharist. Jesus, who feeds the thousands with bread, is himself the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35). Some find this is too much to believe. “After this, many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more” (Jn 6:66).
This was not the Messiah they are looking for. They want a ruler who will restore their political independence. Jesus’ talk about eternal life and heaven and the bread that lasts forever is not what they want. They leave and Jesus lets them. There is no watering down the truth to accommodate the crowds. Among those who no longer are attached to Jesus is Judas.
As some leave him, Jesus questions the Twelve if they too are going to leave. Peter immediately protests his loyalty and that of the others as well. But Jesus knows what is already taking place in Judas’ heart. He says, “Did I not choose the Twelve of you? Yet one of you is a devil.” And the gospel writer immediately adds, “He meant Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, since this was the man, one of the Twelve, who was to betray him” (Jn 6:70-71).
At the time of Jesus, there was an intense national feeling. Many believed passionately in the destiny of Israel. Israel, as a nation, was to rule the entire world. Some were even fanatical in their desire to hasten this destiny. They were committed to murder and assassination to further their cause. They hated the Romans. They despised any Jew who did not share their patriotism. There is no small chance that Judas shared these views. For he begins to walk away from Jesus precisely at the moment when Jesus explicitly rejects a Messianic mission understood in political terms.
When John tells of the outpouring of love on Jesus in the anointing at Bethany (Jn 12), he adds a detail to the story that is peculiar to his gospel. It is Judas who protests the loudest about the extravagant waste of money. The perfumed ointment could have been sold for three hundred denarii. This is indeed a handsome sum of money. Philip said that two hundred denarii would be enough to feed the five thousand in the miracle of the loaves. Now there are three hundred denarii. A year’s wages have been poured recklessly on Jesus.
When Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus, she knew how near his death was (Jn 12:3). While Judas complained, he knew how close betrayal was. Judas objects to her action. He does not understand the meaning of love. Love does not count the cost. Love does not calculate. Love gives and gives totally.
Judas feigns the desire to use the money for the poor. But the fourth evangelist adds, “He said this, not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief; he was in charge of the common fund and used to help himself to the contents” (Jn 12:6). Beneath his criticism of another disciple of Jesus, Judas hides his own agenda. He is unwilling to accept Jesus for who he was.
Mary gave to Jesus. Judas sought to take for his own purpose. There is no neutral attitude toward the Lord. We are either with him or against him. Yet Jesus is never neutral even to Judas. Love even betrayed remains love.
To be continued