Judas – even the name has a bad ring to it. A ‘Judas-kiss’ is the turning of an act of love into one of betrayal. There has been much speculation as to what drove Judas in the direction he took which led to Gethsemane. Was he, as some have thought, a zealot, one who saw in Jesus the great liberator, and who wanted to push him into action? Did he hope that an attempt by the Romans to arrest him would bring on the violence which would herald the revolution he wanted? Or, as others have thought, was he disillusioned with Jesus? Was the episode with the expensive ointment the straw which broke the camel’s back? There were poor people who needed help, and Jesus was letting Mary anoint him with it; what was that about then? How did that fit with the coming of the kingdom of God? Or was it something more venial – he wanted money?
It is a puzzle, to be sure. After all, Jesus had chosen Judas as one of the Twelve. The Twelve are mentioned often enough in the Gospels for us to be sure they mattered, but we cannot quite grasp why, when they seem not to understand their master, and, after the Resurrection, they do not seem central to the Great Commission. Was Jesus wrong to choose Judas?
We might see Judas as a mirror-image of Peter. Both betray Jesus that night at Gethsemane. Judas hangs himself in shame (though the account in Acts is more dramatic), but Peter picks himself up; Judas lacks the courage and humility to do so; he also lacks belief in the Grace of God. What is it we need to access the Grace of repentance? A humble and a contrite heart, we are told, He will not despise. However contrite Judas was, he could not, it seems, humble himself; Peter could, and did. There is an example of an unusual type of leader; Peter, having received forgiveness, was able to show the other Apostles what it meant to lead as Christ had led – it meant self-sacrifice and submission to God’s will; ‘thy will, Lord’. This, Judas could not do.
But Judas has a key role in the story of our Salvation. By betraying the Son of Man, he precipitates the Crucifixion – and thus the Resurrection. Had Judas not been who he was and behaved how he did, then how would the Lord have been taken? Some have seen in this an excuse for Judas; he was foreordained to do as he did. But St John makes it clear he had a choice – but like so many of us, he yielded to the temptations of the Devil.
Judas poses a challenge to would-be universalists, because Jesus seems pretty clear about his fate:
The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.
Judas made a choice. We can never know quite what it was Satan tempted him with – except it was something Judas wanted, something which appealed to his pride and ego. Whether he meant to betray Jesus to death, or simply stir up a revolution, he acted as though he knew better than Jesus. How often do we do likewise?
Judas is the dark side in all of us. He followed Christ, but without understanding and, it seems, without faith. He was not content to walk with Jesus and to listen to him; he wanted something more, and he judged, as we all do, by the standards of this world. So, even when we turn from him with revulsion – we should not forget how often we are like him.