Judas Iscariot does not speak many words in the gospels, but his personal presence is manifest. He is the apostle who betrayed his Lord. Judas’ historical contribution to the death of Jesus was actually quite limited, being but the pebble that set in motion the avalanche of the Passion. Caiphas and Pilate surely bear the greater responsibility. If Judas had not come forward, the high priests would no doubt have found another way to capture the troublesome prophet from Nazareth. Yet the evangelists place the guilt and culpability squarely upon Judas. As Karl Barth puts it: “Judas is the great sinner of the New Testament” (CD, II/2:461). The young disciple is absorbed into the story of Israel and becomes the typological revelation of both the faithlessness of Israel and insidious power of the Satan who has ever sought to destroy God’s good creation. Just as the Evil One inexplicably appears in the Garden to tempt Adam and Eve into disobedience, so the Evil One appears to have been present in the circle of the Twelve from the moment of their election: “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (Jn 6:70). To Satan is attributed the ultimate cause of Judas’ betrayal (Jn 13:2; Lk 22:3). For this reason Jesus bestows upon the young disciple the terrifying title, “son of perdition” (Jn 17:12).
The Evangelists struggle to explain the treason of Judas. They name him a thief and suggest that greed was the principle motivation of his perfidy (Jn 12:6; Mk 14:11). Yet throughout the centuries readers of the gospels have found this explanation unsatisfactory. If greed was his tragic flaw, why did he accept Jesus’ summons to costly discipleship? Surely something more was at work. Wherein, therefore, lies the real sin of Judas? Here I have found the profound reflections of Karl Barth in the Church Dogmatics particularly helpful; indeed, I consider his fifty-page small-print excursus on Judas to be necessary reading for Orthodox and Catholic preachers.
Barth directs us to Judas’ response to the anointing of Jesus by Mary, sister of Lazarus (or is it Mary Magdalene?):
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Laz′arus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (Jn 12:1-8)
This anointing of Jesus, Barth writes, “is an absolutely prodigal, a wholly generous and selfless, and at the same time an absolutely humble action” (CD, II/2:462). Jesus approves of Mary’s action, describing it as an honoring of his impending death and sacrifice. But Judas protests, saying that the oil should have been sold and the proceeds donated to the poor. Barth interprets Judas’ protest as a refusal to surrender to Jesus. He wants to have Jesus on his own terms, as it were:
It is clear that this deed of Mary’s describes the life of the apostles so far as they are wholly clean, so far as the presence and protection and vigilance of Jesus have not been in vain for them. And this is what is to take place in the world through their life—the whole house is to be filled with the odour of the ointment. But it is precisely this, this prodigality, which Judas—as seen by his protest (v. 4)—cannot and will not understand or accept. He is not opposed to the surrender of Mary’s costly ointment. But he wants something for it—namely 300 denarii—not for himself, as he explains, but to give to the poor. He is not willing that the complete devotion, which by her deed Mary had in a sense given the apostles as a pattern for their own life, should be an absolute offering to Jesus. For him it is too little a thing that the death of Jesus should be glorified by it. If there is to be an offering, he wants to exploit it. A good and profitable work is to be carried out in the strength and exercise of this devotion. It is to be for the benefit of the poor, of those who are injured or needy, to help improve their lot and that of others, and in that way it will be a meaningful devotion. This view, this attitude of Judas, is what makes him unclean. It finds relatively innocuous expression. It is not really evil. To correct it would be comparatively easy. But it was because of it that Judas “handed over” Jesus. If a man does not devote himself prodigally to Jesus, if he considers something too good to be offered to Him, if he thinks another purpose more important than the glorifying of His condescension, of His death, that man is as such unclean and opposes his election. He makes himself impossible as an apostle. He must and will hand Jesus over—hand Him over to men, to be crucified. He has virtually done so already in and with this attitude toward Jesus. Already, by this attitude, he has acted as one of the men at whose hands Jesus can only be slain. Already he has made himself an accomplice. If he is an apostle, he is already the apostle “who will deliver Him up,” as is said of Judas in the apostolic lists from the outset, and on amost every subsequent mention of his name. …
He is not opposed to Jesus. He even wishes to be for Him. But he is for Him in such a way—not totally, that is to say—that actually he is against Him. He reserves to himself the right to decide for himself, in face of Jesus, what the way of apostolic discipleship really involves. … It is in this way that he makes himself impossible as an apostle. It is in this way that he is from the very first the apostle who will hand Jesus over. (CD, II/2:462-463)
Who is not guilty of the greed of Judas? Every time I attempt to offer to the Lord a selfless sacrifice, I abruptly reclaim it as my own; every time I attempt to surrender my heart to Christ, I quickly rein it in. The prodigality and surrender of Mary seems to be beyond me. Lord, have mercy.