Judas, Betrayal, and the Despair of Love

Caravaggio_-_Taking_of_Christ_-_Dublin.jpg~original.jpeg The Twelve—the gospels name them; the tradition remembers their missionary service and martyrdom; the Church acclaims them apostles and saints. With one infamous exception—Judas Iscariot. Companion, disciple, and friend, chosen by Jesus to be a representative of the new Israel, a witness to the Lord’s miraculous works and with him a preacher of the coming Kingdom. He no doubt had many virtues and did many good works, but all of that has been forgotten. Judas is remembered for one defining act—his betrayal of Jesus. He is the traitor who sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver. Even his remorse, consummated in suicide, did not redeem him in the eyes of the Church. “For the Son of man goes as it is written of him,” declared Jesus, “but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21; cf. John 17:12). For 2,000 years Christians have heard these words as confirming the eternal perdition of the betrayer. For St Ephrem the Syrian, Judas’s perfidy reveals him as the embodiment of Satan:

How strong is his [Satan’s] poison, upsetting the whole world. Who can hold back the sea of that bitter one? Everyone contains drops of it that can harm you. Judas was the treasurer of his poison, And although Satan’s form is hidden, In Judas he is totally visible; Though Satan’s history is a long one, It is summed up in the Iscariot. (Hymns of Paradise XV.15)

St Leo the Great suggests that Judas might have been forgiven, if he had sought the Lord’s mercy rather than abandoning himself to despair:

The traitor Judas did not attain to this mercy, for “the son of perdition” (Jn. 17:12), at whose right hand the devil had stood (Ps. 108:6), had before this died in despair; even while Christ was fulfilling the mystery of the general redemption. Even he perhaps might have obtained this forgiveness, had he not hastened to the gallowstree; for the Lord died for all evildoers. But nothing ever of the warnings of the Saviour’s mercy found place in that wicked heart: at one time given over to petty cheating, and then committed to this dread parricidal traffic.

On these impious ears in vain had fallen the words of the Lord, declaring: “I am not come to call the just, but sinners (Mt 9:13); or the words: “I came not to call the just, but sinners to penance” (Lk 5:32). Neither had he given thought to the clemency of Christ, Who ministered not alone to the infirmi­ties of the body, but healed likewise the wounds of the injured soul; as in His words to the paralytic: “Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee” (Mt 9:3; and to the woman brought before Him who was an adultress: “Neither will I condemn thee, go, and now sin no more” (Jn 8:11), so that He might show throughout all His works that in this Coming He had appeared, not as the Judge of the world, but as its Saviour. But the godless betrayer, shutting his mind to all these things, turned upon himself, not with a mind to repent, but in the madness of self-destruction: so that this man who had sold the Author of life to the executioners of His death, even in the act of dying sinned unto the increase of his own eternal punishment. (Sermon 62, De passione Domini XI [PL 54]; in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, II:183)

Perhaps Judas might have found salvation if he had truly repented, but instead he sealed his destiny by his suicide. Greater even than the horrendous sin of betrayal is despair of the divine mercy. St Catherine of Siena agrees:

This is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning of my mercy. For this offends me more than all the other sins they have committed. So the despair of Judas displeased me more and was a greater insult to my Son than his betrayal had been. Therefore, such as these are reproved for this false judgement of considering their sins to be greater than my mercy, and for this they are punished with the demons and tortured eternally with them. (The Dialogue 37)

In the popular Christian imagination, though, it is his treachery, not despair nor suicide, that is judged the decisive reason for Judas’ reprobation, meriting the most horrific punishment imaginable. In Dante’s vision of the Inferno, the ninth and final circle is hell is reserved for traitors. In its innermost zone, named Judecca, we find the Iscariot, placed head-first in the Devil’s mouth, his back ceasely flayed by the demonic claws, condemned to be the food of Satan in everlasting manducation.

1631da8907727ff169815b185ef5491f.jpg~original.jpeg Betrayal—no offence is more difficult to forgive. It breaks the bonds of friendship. We might say we forgive someone who has betrayed us, but can we ever trust them again? And if we cannot trust them, how can we be truly reconciled? Perhaps betrayal is the unforgiv­able sin of which Jesus spoke. For both betrayer and betrayed, it often seems that way. “I forgive you,” we say out loud; but silently we are thinking, “… but I can never forget.” Yet it is that forgetting that is necessary for healing and restoration. “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa 43:12).

The heart of betrayal is love—that mutual affection that binds two or more in intimate com­munity. In that love, as Ray Anderson insightfully diagnoses, we find “the source of betrayal and the seeds of treachery” (The Gospel According to Judas, p. 36). We may grievously injure a stranger, but injury alone does not constitute betrayal. Betrayal presupposes love, communion, and promised loyalty. Love is both its source and its object. Betrayal cuts its victim to the core of his being. The violation is profound, generating fury, rage, confusion, anguish. “Only when trust is first formed through shared life can it be broken, “writes Anderson. “And only the sense of outrage, fueled by a primitive moral instinct and carried out with the passion of love’s despair, can wreak the havoc and destruction in a family and among friends that betrayal causes…. For betrayal tears away the flesh of fellowship, leaving only the visible skeleton of love’s despair” (p. 37).

Judas is remembered by the Church as a traitor and son of perdition. Caiphas and Pontius Pilate are treated more kindly. They were agents in Christ’s execution, but Judas was a friend and intimate. Peter thrice denied Jesus, but he did not hand him over to his enemies. That honor was reserved for Judas alone. His sin belongs to a different category. Judas was chosen by Jesus, yet he broke faith, both with Jesus and with his fellow disciples. “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). How was such iniquity pos­sible? Did not Jesus see into his heart? Did he not love him with a perfect love? Judas should have been there with Peter, James, and the others on Easter morning (yet how could there be an Easter morning without the betrayal?); but he wasn’t. The risen Lord did not appear to him. He was not present to hear Christ’s words of love and peace nor receive the Spirit that he bestowed upon them. His apostolic chair was empty. Somehow the treachery of Judas belongs to the mysterious providence of God. As the Apostle Peter tells the followers of Christ after the Ascension: “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry” (Acts 1:16-17).

JJudas_Iscariot_from_Tarzhishte_Monastery_2.jpg~original.jpegudas failed Jesus. Perhaps he was disillu­sioned; perhaps he felt that promises had been made but not kept; perhaps he even felt be­trayed by Jesus. What­ever his motives, Judas could not undo the horrific consequences of the kiss.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was con­demned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)

Judas believed that by his sin he had excluded himself from the mercy of Jesus, and the Church has long concurred. Yet is this how Jesus would tell the story of Judas? Anderson does not think so: “The gospel story is God’s story of our lives as seen through his love and grace. None of us can write ourselves out of God’s story—not even Judas” (pp. 38-39).

(13 October 2016; rev.)

(Go to “Apostle to the Reprobate”)

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17 Responses to Judas, Betrayal, and the Despair of Love

  1. Ed H says:

    Judas is the greatest obstacle to Dr. Hart’s thesis that all shall be saved. The Lord Himself said: “But alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is handed over; a good thing for that man if he had not been born.” (Dr. Hart’s translation).
    This is impossible to say if Judas is ultimately to be redeemed. For surely eternal life with God is always better than having never been born, even if the way to such redemption is filled first with betrayal, remorse and eventual repentance.
    How could the Lord have said such a thing if He foresaw Judas’ eventual bliss in God’s presence?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      But why take Jesus’ statement as an ultimate and definitive statement of Judas’ eternal destiny rather than a hyperbolic expression? In the midst of his despair and remorse, I imagine Judas himself was feeling that he had committed the unforiveable sin, that it would have been better if he had never been born.

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      • gleehug says:

        Or take his statement as a statement of commiseration for the woe Judas would suffer. Jesus would have been acquainted with the idea from Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.

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    • DBH says:

      A good thing is not the best thing possible; it is only a good thing relative to other things. There is such a thing as hyperbolic expression, especially when one is employing a common idiom.

      It really is silly to take a verse like that and imagine that it proves some ultimate point. The Bible, like any text, is a *text*, not a collection of propositions with a fixed and simple binary status as either absolutely true or absolutely false. If it were, then 1 Corinthians 15:22 or Romans 5:18 would make universalism an absolute and indisputable “fact” of Christian discourse.

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    • Tom says:

      I can appreciate the confusion (hopefully just confusion).

      I keep these points in mind:

      1) The preference may not intend to measure some objective good (Judas’s non-existence) with the objective bad (his suffering hell). Keener (Craig K – smart guy) reminds us that cursing one’s birth was a common figure of speech used to lament in the light of great suffering. Check out Job 3. Job is hardly to be read ‘ontologically’ as measuring the objective good of his non-existence in light of his suffering. Keener notes a rabbinic saying that anyone whose first words when waking up were not from the Torah is better off not having been born. So – some appreciation of how the language of lament (which exaggerates) functions.

      2) Another suggestion is that it needn’t be read as positing Judas’s ‘never having come into existence’ (i.e., never having been ‘conceived’ at all) but only his never having been born (‘delivered’). Ecc 6.3: “If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, ‘Better the stillborn than he’.”

      3) And still another approach is a possible translation resolution. The original (its order):

      ‘But woe to “that man” by whom the Son of Man is delivered up. Good were it ‘for him’ had not been born “that man”.’

      I’m not an expert in Greek (“I’m a blogger damn it not a theologian!”) but as you can probably see, there is some ambiguity about the identity of the pronouns (‘him’ and ‘that man’) in the 2nd phrase relative to the two subjects named in the first phrase (‘that man’ and ‘the Son of Man’). In the first phrase, ‘that man’ = Judas. SoM = Jesus. But must we assume that both pronouns in the latter phrase refer to Judas? I don’t see why. Must we read: “Good were it for ‘him’ [the one who betrays the SoM = Judas] had not been born ‘that man’ [the one who betrays the SoM = Judas]”?

      Indeed, some translations understand the 2nd phrase as: “It would be better for ‘him’ [i.e., the Son of Man, since Jesus is the most recent subject mentioned in the previous phrase] had ‘that man’ [i.e., Judas] not been born.” In other words, Jesus would be better off not having been betrayed, which is obvious. Maybe too obvious to be worth saying. And if that’s the point – one still has to keep the figurative nature of lament pronouncements in mind.

      My money is on (1) above. I mean, if you’re going to set up a scale of objective values being compared literally, then hold to that throughout. For example, if it’s objectively better for Judas to have not been born, then explain how it’s objectively better FOR JUDAS. How is it good “to/for” him that he never have existed? How he know this ‘good’? And don’t send the “good” off somewhere else. It’s good “for him.” But the connection is impossible IF taken as strictly measuring things ‘objectively-the-case’.

      Tom

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    • Jesus also said: “Hate your mother and father.”

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  2. Justin says:

    I find it supremely interesting that +Matthew wrote in the passage above that Judas repented. As this Lent comes to a conclusion, that is something I must contemplate.

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  3. Has any NT scholar ever made the case that Jesus was citing Job when he stated that it would have been better for him never to have been born? Job says the same about himself for several chapters.

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  4. The whole narrative of the Passion leaves me pondering several things:

    1. Did any of these players really have a choice? Had the Crucifixion not taken place, then the human race would not have been delivered from death. Was it really possible for Pilate or Judas to back out, saying, “This is not going where I thought it would and I want no futher parts of this.”

    2. If they couldn’t back out, because the determined will of God, i.e., that He would become man and suffer crucifixion, must be fulfilled, then truly they had no choice. The wheels are set in motion and the goal must be achieved. The fear Pilate felt, the remorse of Judas, none of that mattered because the goal of salvation must be achieved. They are “collateral damage” and not to be concerned about as human beings. They played their part, the role they were given, and now they can be disposed of.

    3. Which would mean, in keeping with the hellist narrative and DBH’s excellent discourse on this regarding creatio ex nihlo, that God created Judas, Pilate, and all others foreknowing what they would do, foreknowing their fall, and ultimately having their utter destruction in hell as the only goal of their existence. They were made to be damned in order to achieve salvation for the lucky few. Which means the Calvinists are right.

    4. Which in turn leaves me fearful for my own soul, for if the God/Man would befriend and hold close to Him Judas, then turn viciously on Him on the Judgment Day (C’mere and git yer ass-whuppin’ boy!) then of what assurance do I have that my own sense of friendship with Him isn’t anything more than a pipe dream? That on the Judgment Day, I shall find out that my efforts to achieve salvation by obedience to the Church, the mandates of God, and the Bible, have not all been a rather sordid joke because I perhaps failed in some critical error to overcome sin? This is the whip by which I see so many Christians driven, myself included. Die in “mortal sin” (or backslidden, as my former Southern Baptist background used to say) and there is no remedy, and no consideration of all that you have done prior to that point. You go immediately from being God’s friend to His despized enemy.

    5. Finally, the most horrifying thing about this, and one that many hellists have failed to internalize is this: I AM JUDAS! We all are. Every time we choose a sin we do the very same thing that Judas did – we betray love. And for us, I think it is far, FAR worse because we have a much more intimate experience of what that love is. We have the Holy Spirit, the Church, the full understanding of all that took place. We can look back on history, both human and personal, and see the gracious and loving acts of God towards ourselves and all of mankind. Judas had none of that working for him.

    Some have suggested that Judas had a motive of forcing Christ’s hand, that when push came to shove, Christ would exert His power and authority as the Messiah and bring in the Kingdom. In this theory, it was not malice, but theoligical ignorance of all that the Messiah had come to accomplish, which pushed Judas to act, hoping for a response from his Master.

    That notwithstanding, knowing the love of God as I do, having been delivered from a horrendous life of sin, every time I sin, I betray love. If Judas is cut off from Christ and the love of God for this sin, even as horrendous as this betrayal is, then of what assurance to any of us have that we will not be treated in the same manner?

    We all betray Christ! We had better hope that Judas will receive mercy. The suggestion that his sin is unforgiveable is the suggestion that perhaps mine and yours are also.

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  5. Pingback: Will Judas Be Forgiven? – Muddling Through Life

  6. Logan Polk says:

    Hi Father, you said this line here: “Caiphas and Pontius Pilate are treated more kindly. They were agents in Christ’s execution, but Judas was a friend and intimate.”

    I should note that in the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church (both of which I serve) go so far as to say St. Pontius Pilate is, well, a Saint. His feast day is July 2nd. When we consider Pontius, let us consider that he did everything in his power to prevent Jesus’ death. He whipped Him so that the Jews’ bloodlust might be sated, he tried to bring out the worst criminal he possibly could in relation to Jesus, Barabbas, a murderer, rapist, and insurrectionist, and yet they still picked Jesus. How horrified he must have been in that moment! Even in Jesus’ final moments, Pontius Pilate gave Christ the true victory even more, by placing over His head that His reason for death was that He was King of the Jews. Recall the Pharisees even tried to make him change this sign, but as he said, “What I have written, I have written.” Not to mention Jesus telling Pilate that “Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” Not to mention Pilate proclaiming Jesus’ innocence several times, yet the crowd would not cease.

    Even without knowing the Acts of Pilate (which by the way, according to St. Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History, whom we also venerate, notes that his letter to Emperor Tiberius was so popular that the Emperor of St. Eusebius’ day actually had a forgery of the letter made which DENOUNCED Jesus as God, and then had the FORGERY taught in all schools! That still shows educational corruption hasn’t changed one bit in 2000 years), one can easily conclude Pontius Pilate became a Christian in those moments as his wife St. Procla already had.

    St. Eusebius mentions that some traditions state St. Pontius committed suicide in despair much like Judas for what he had done against Christ, but Eusebius does not name any Saints in this regard, only “the Greeks.” Given how often he gives big names to back up his claims, the fact that this one is sparse should have some weight! Still, that was absolutely not the major opinion, and it’s worth noting that in both the Ethiopian and Armenian Church, whom consider Pilate a Saint, we do not condemn him in our Nicene Creed recital. It should be remembered both Armenia and Ethiopia are the earliest nation-wide Churches to be established, so this remittal should carry an impact as well. Where it states “And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,” we say “He suffered and was crucified and was buried and rose again” with no mention of St. Pontius. Even our sister Churches the Copts and Syrians do not say “under Pontius Pilate” but rather “In the days of Pontius Pilate.”

    To tie back into Judas a moment: In speaking of Oriental tradition, I should note we have a definitive tradition of Christ’s descent into Hell rescuing all souls therein. Judas killed himself BEFORE the crucifixion. St. Clement of Alexandria speaks of Christ going down and preaching to the dead, and all who would listen followed Him to Heaven. Then, each one of the 12 Apostles on their deaths ALSO went down and preached to the damned. Would not Judas, who died in despair of never seeing his Savior again, have immediately leapt into Jesus’ arms and wept “Abba, Abba!” upon seeing Him again?

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A generation or so before St. Leo, St. Asterius made much the same point in his sermon XIII toward waking people up to metanoia, preceding his reference to Judas with one to St. Peter, and following it with references to those who had crucified Our Lord but later believed and were baptized and then to St. Paul, and introducing the whole with references to Exodus 20:6 and Ezekiel 18:23 (PG 40, cols. 557-58). I wonder if this may have been a widespread view throughout the Church in those centuries?

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  8. p myshkin says:

    it would seem there is so much promise in contemplating the Divine Mercy, and Judas as a fiery being of light forever loved by the one he betrayed, exalted even by the one he betrayed. What greater magnificence can be found than to consider the Divine Mercy so omnipotent that even the betrayer cannot escape it’s tendrils of love.
    consider the Cur De Ars who confronted w/a widow in mourning for her husband dead by his own hand. the saint assured her that grace was given him for a necessary act of contrition between the leap and his mortal cessation. surveys of those who have survived such leaps indicate this is not an altogether anomalous occurrence.
    per Hebrews 6:6 each of my apostasies, living as though the truth were not true, makes me guilty of re-murdering God. Alas he is only a God betrayer, but I am a God murderer, and I always imagine and hope that I shall know eternally the Divine Benevolence, so how am I to possibly know such Beatitude if it is beyond this betrayer, my brother, Judas.
    Finally, imagine how Jesus and his Most Holy, Lovely, Virgin Mother must have loved, still loves Judas. That love that leaves the 99 behind, how is it possible a person could know this love in its fullness and freely turn away; this would indeed be a miracle (anti-miracle) of staggering proportion.

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