During Holy Week last year I was asked by my priest to offer a reflection at one of the evening services. The passage described Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, as described in John 13:21-32. It is a dark story, in a dark week, which finally erupts into a great light.
I decided that the best way to start was to search the gospel accounts and find out what we know about Judas. Here’s what I learned:
- He was chosen as one of the original twelve apostles, and was keeper of the purse.
- He did at least some good works, like feeding the poor.
- He was given the authority to cast out demons and heal the sick.
- He was sent out to proclaim the good news.
In other words, he was an apostle like all the others. But, he was also a thief.
Next I decided to see what we can tell about Jesus’ relationship with Judas. The first thing I discovered was that Jesus wanted him from the beginning:
He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. (Mark 3:13)
Jesus wanted him despite knowing the reality of who Judas was. He wasn’t blindsided at the final hour:
For Jesus knew from the first … the one that would betray him. (John 6:64)
But Jesus sorrows over this knowledge. John tells us that Jesus was “troubled in spirit” when he says again at that last supper that one of them would betray him. He uses the same phrasing about sorrow when talking about the death of his good friend Lazarus. His sadness over Judas was like grieving.
Matthew tells us that Jesus calls Judas “friend” at the very moment of his final betrayal, standing in the garden of Gethsemane, saying:
“Friend, do what you are here to do.” (Matt 26:50)
On that Holy Thursday, Jesus organized the Passover feast and acted as host. He began the evening by stripping down and washing the apostles’ feet, which was the action of a servant, not of a host. He even washed the feet of his betrayer before offering up his body and blood for the first time.
Despite knowing all that he knows about Judas, Jesus positions him close by, in a place of honor, where they might eat together from the same bowl. Jesus says:
“It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. (John 13: 26)
In an Eastern custom that is still in practice, a “sop” is offered to the most honored guest. The sop is the tastiest morsel of food tucked into a bit of bread, or a piece of bread dipped in the most delicious pool of lamb juices in the communal bowl.
Jesus followed this tradition, and offered the sop to Judas. Singling the betrayer out as the most highly honored guest. In this same tradition, the sop is offered before anyone else begins to eat. It is sometimes delivered directly to the guest’s mouth.
And so if we put together all the various gospel accounts along with an understanding of this practice, we discover that Jesus offered up his body and blood, for the first time ever, to Judas. Judas, who he chose, and who he loves, and for whom he willingly suffers all that is to come.
Judas: the first recipient of the first Eucharist.
Jesus then tells him to go quickly, and do what he has to do. So Judas immediately gets up from Jesus’ side, and leaves.
The story ends with the phrase: And it was night.
A dark night indeed.
Matthew tells us when Judas hears that Jesus was condemned, he repents. He returns the 30 pieces of silver and is overcome with guilt and remorse. Mark tells us that Jesus had tried to warn him earlier, saying
“… woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” (Mark 14:21)
And what is “woe”? Great heartache. Sorrow. Despair. Judas surely did receive the full force of that woe. He experienced it so completely that he committed suicide.
It is said that Jesus is the bearer of all our sins. The last thing I want to be is heretical, but in a way, isn’t that really what Judas was? He took all our sinful tendencies into his own hands and brought about the worst imaginable sin; the killing of God. Poor Judas bore the weight of all the betrayals that have taken place since Adam's, and all those we'll continue to inflict until the end of time.
And aren’t we really both of these scapegoat characters?
Admit it; we would bite that irresistible fruit if a snake told us to, just like Adam did. And like Judas we turn our backs on Jesus in our own lives. Perhaps not as spectacularly, but possibly more frequently. We deny him as Peter did, and leave him alone as the rest of the disciples did, and we take the bread that Jesus dips and kiss him while offering him up to our own selfishness.
Haven’t we all been betrayers?
Jesus tells us that what we do to the least of his children, we do to him. Haven’t we all done things to his children for which we feel remorse and sorrow? Sometimes even to the point of wishing we were dead?
I know I have. I pray that I never will again, but it’s possible that smaller betrayals are part of my future.
The story of Judas is difficult. But thankfully the news, though sad, is good. Because in describing his relationship with Judas, Jesus tells us he knew US from the beginning. He knows all the evil we’ve done in the past, and all our temptations in the future.
And yet he washes our feet.
And he feeds us spiritual food, lifting his own hand to our mouths.
And he calls us friend at the very moment we disown him.
And he waits for us to repent, and then pulls us into the circle of the heavenly kingdom where we will join the twelve in the perpetual wedding feast of the lamb.
This Holy Week I pray that God will have mercy on the soul of the one who betrayed him then, and on all of us who continue to betray him now.