Picture yourself: a follower of Jesus during the first century. One called – audibly – by name to follow Him, one selected to be among His inner circle, one of the twelve. The most notable miracles? You saw them. The most memorable sermons? You heard them. You were sent out with another of the twelve to proclaim the Good News and performed miracles yourself in His name. For three years you lived and breathed right alongside Jesus soaking in everything He said and did.
I can only imagine what that experience would do to my faith. I’d like to hope it would be a life-defining experience, the sort that would leave any one of us unalterably changed. Which is always what makes the story of one of Jesus’ twelve, Judas, so troubling. He lived this… and he walked away. While we know very little about Judas Iscariot: his call, his betrayal of Christ, and his death (Matthew 27, Acts 1), we know with certainty that he was a traitor (Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:19, Luke 6:16, John 6:71), who apparently stole from the apostle’s common purse (John 12:4-6).
The Apostles were almost certainly stunned by Judas’ actions: the tone of their recollections of him in Gospels show great sadness or even bitterness at the mention of his name. Dean Jones performed a wonderful one-man play called St. John in Exile – Jones plays the title character, John, reflecting on the Gospel story while living out his days in exile on the prison island of Patmos. When he narrates Jesus’ betrayal, there is a moving mixture of anger and anguish in his voice as he recognizes Judas leading the mob to arrest Jesus (start watching at 34:05):
Watched in context of the entire, this scene is much more powerful – but even with these thirty seconds, you get a pretty clear sense of what’s going on. It would be no different for us if a close friend or well-known acquaintance were to commit some heinous crime. We’d look back on the good times we had with him or her and look for clues that would suggest they were capable of committing such evil. We’d wonder how it was that we missed the signs – and whether we might have been able to do something to stop it.
To be fair, Judas isn’t the only one who betrayed Jesus – Peter’s denial definitely fits into the same category. But what Peter did following his betrayal stands in stark contrast to Judas’ final actions. After the rooster famously crowed, we read that St. Peter went and wept bitterly (Luke 22:62). Eventually, he made his way back to the apostles, likely a broken man. And it was his threefold affirmation of his love for Jesus (John 21:15-19) that allows the Lord the room to build Peter back up again into the Apostle Jesus had always known Peter could be. This was only possible because Peter came back. Judas never did. Somewhere in the hours following his betrayal, Judas decided that his sin was beyond the power of God to forgive, and wound up taking his own life in what must have been a moment of utter despair.
I think there’s a little Judas in all of us. I don’t mean here the experience of despair – though some among us are far too familiar with that – I mean the change of heart that can turn us away from Christ. I like to think that Judas’ conversion – his desire to follow Jesus as an apostle – was as sincere as the rest of the eleven. For many disciples then as for many Christians today, it’s likely that Jesus didn’t exactly meet up to Judas’ expectations for a Messiah. He wasn’t acting like the military leader many had been expecting – a warrior cut from the same cloth as King David. To make matters worse, Jesus seemed to upset everyone that mattered – both the secular authorities (Rome) as well as the religious leaders of the day. The honor of following Jesus seemed to be turning to real danger… and it’s reasonable to think that, bit by bit, Judas began to question everything. We may never completely understand how he got from those questions to the act of betrayal… but in the end what matters is that Judas’ story stands as a warning to all of us.
It’s extremely unlikely that Judas’ betrayal was a sudden, dramatic shift. It’s more likely that he allowed his doubts to chip away, piece by piece, at his resolve to be remain faithful. The end result was that Judas, at least in his own mind, had wound up with a warped sense of Jesus’ teachings – and he almost certainly felt justified in turning him in.
How have we – you and I – imposed our own expectations of a Messiah onto Jesus? In what ways have we allowed the discomfort of being challenged by His teachings (or those of the Church) to shape the ways in which we follow? Are we questioning everything, not to seek answers but to re-make God in our image?