We all know Judas is the traitor. He solidified his place in history as the ultimate example of betrayal. He stood beside Jesus all that time, walked with him, learned at his feet, even was so trusted as to manage the funds for the whole group of disciples. A trusted friend, he turns and hands Jesus over to the priests and the Pharisees for thirty pieces of silver. He does regret it later, and attempts to give the money back, dramatically throwing the coins on the floor. But it’s too little too late. He is the icon of betrayal, the man who handed God over to be killed.
Many attempts have been made to understand the rationalizing that must have been going through his mind. Perhaps no matter how hard he tried he simply could not rid himself of his faults, of his avaricious disposition, and not being able to suppress it any longer it finally overcame him. Or perhaps he believed wholeheartedly in the Messiah, and that Jesus was him. But he was unable to shake the preconception that the Messiah would come in a rousing bang of supernatural glory and power, and so he thought that by handing over Jesus he would force his hand—force Jesus to wield his power and overcome the dark forces of the world. Or even maybe Judas knew that Jesus must die for the sake of the salvation of the world, and so he played the role of traitor as a matter of self-sacrifice, in order to aid in whatever way he could in the plan of salvation.
None of these are, of course, true. They are intriguing, certainly, perhaps even appealing at some level. But they’re merely romanticized pictures of evil, easier for us to swallow than the truth of the matter. One fact about Judas is clear: He was a true believer, at least at one time. Jesus would not have welcomed him into the Twelve had he been otherwise. He must have come to Jesus with genuine faith and a genuine desire to follow. Follow he did. And like all the apostles, Judas brought his weaknesses and his vices with him.
We see some of these weaknesses in the other apostles. Peter was impulsive and inconstant. “By nature he was far from rocklike.” That’s clear enough from his failed attempt at walking on water, or his insistence that Jesus not go to Jerusalem, or his cutting off of the servant’s ear when Jesus was taken. We also have Thomas, the skeptic, who just cannot find it in himself to believe without a sign. Even the beloved disciple, John, had his faults. He was a zealot, a fanatic. We get some of this in his occasionally quite harsh words in his writings. And Judas? He loved money.
But in Peter was a good heart, and he allows his impulsiveness to be tempered by the grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit. In John we see true surrender to the Holy One, despite his fanaticism. Thomas was skeptical, true, but he was also honest. When the truth became clear, he recognized and accepted it (“My Lord and my God!”). But Judas, at least at some point, ceased trying to change his ways. “His readiness to reform went lame.”
Guardini here points to the moment at Capernaum, where so many abandoned Jesus when he taught that they must eat the flesh of the Son of Man. Perhaps it was here that Judas lost his faith, but ultimately we do not know when it happened. Only that it did, and that lack of faith became a terrible thing within him. To lack faith is a terrible enough thing, but to be without faith and also to be constantly confronted with the Son himself! The fire of opposition must have burned within him, as he walked in the presence of pure holiness.
“Where there is no pure readiness of faith and love to accept this sacred force as beginning and end, the atmosphere must become poisonous. In such a person, a satanic irritation swells like a malevolent tumor. He revolts against the tremendous power of the pathos unfolding before him and becomes increasingly spiteful and critical of word and deed, until the mere presence of the saint, every gesture, every inflection of his voice, becomes intolerable. Then it happens: Judas finds himself the natural ally of the enemy. All his Pharasaic instincts awaken, and suddenly he sees Jesus as Israel’s greatest danger.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
The story of Judas leading up to the betrayal is difficult enough, and perhaps why we prefer the more romantic versions of the story. In the true story, we can easily see ourselves in Judas. We can easily see ourselves, over time, losing our faith and slowly falling further and further away to the point that we become completely opposed to the Truth, to Christ. Our tendency to sin is powerful within us, and this reality is one we don’t like to face. There is a bit of Judas in us all.
Consider the betrayal itself. Was Judas the only one who betrayed Jesus? They all fled! Peter even denies ever knowing him, three times! Even John fled. Despite the fact that he did return and stood at the foot of the cross, that must still stand as a betrayal. The great masses who cheered the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem, the five thousand he fed with loaves and fishes, the sick he healed, all betrayed him. The masses chose a criminal over Jesus! We are no different than these. We choose other things in our lives over Christ all the time. Judas sold Christ for silver. We sell Christ for vanity, profit, security, even vengeance.
“Are these more than thirty pieces of silver? We have little cause to speak of “the traitor” with indignation or as someone far away and long ago. Judas himself unmasks us. We understand his Christian significance in the measure that we understand him from our own negative possibilities, and we should beg God not to let the treachery into which we constantly fall become fixed within us. The name Judas stands for established treason, betrayal that has sealed the heart, preventing it from finding the road back to genuine contrition.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
And so we are to pray. Not that we never be like Judas. We are like him already. But that we do not become fixed in our Judas-like ways as he became—that we might be genuinely open to reform and correction, and never seal our hearts to Christ.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.