Before we can celebrate and reap the promises of Christ's Resurrection, we have to examine the darkness of human failing it conquers. Today we conclude this series of Lenten reflections with the richness of lessons offered by none other than Judas, for the Judas who dwells in all of us.
The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him,
but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.
It would be better for that man if he had never been born."
Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply,
"Surely it is not I, Rabbi?"
He answered, "You have said so."
Jesus’ Last Supper statement about Judas seems so harsh: “It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
You know things are pretty bad if the Savior himself says you probably shouldn’t have existed in the first place.
But a close reading of this shows Jesus’ compassionate understanding of the whole situation. He knows that he must suffer and die on the cross; he knows this destiny must come by way of the shocking betrayal by one of his closest comrades, one whom he himself called. But he also knows that forever will his traitor bear not only the weight of this grave sin but also the judgment and hatred of generations for millennia. He felt sorry for Judas.
Today’s Gospel brings us to that still moment just before sin happens, and it is worth examining closely for what it can teach us about the nature of sin, how to view the sinner, and how to avoid sinning ourselves.
Before sin happens, there is motive. Does motive matter?
This is clearly a premeditated sin on Judas’ part, but we do not really know his motive.
Perhaps Jesus made him feel inferior and jealous, and he just wanted him “put in his place.”
In those days when many were of an apocalyptic mindset like John the Baptist and his followers, perhaps Judas thought Jesus was not bringing about the Kingdom of God fast enough or in the way he thought it should be, and he wanted to shake things up, to force Jesus to be the kind of revolutionary he wanted him to be.
We often think of Judas as evil, an agent of Satan. But likely it was more complicated than that. “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” we are taught (and often forget). Rarely if ever is this afforded to the traitor of Christ.
The point here is, people sin for many reasons. Their motives may not make the sin admissible, but it may make it understandable. Understanding is the first step toward a compassionate response.
Before there is sin there is planning. In this stage, the sinner envisions how to implement the sin to bring about the desired result based on his motive.
Judas has put his plan into motion already, and in a very ugly way: making a deal with the chief priests to hand Jesus over for a humiliating sum of 30 pieces of silver. We cannot even really say that avarice was at the heart of this motive, the price is so paltry.
The planning and preparation stage takes the act of sin a step beyond intention and motive. The sinner plays it out in his mind, like movie. He or she weighs the options, the risks, the techniques, and the timing to have it all come off smoothly.
“They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.”
At this stage Judas is not fully present; he is divided unto himself, as if observing from a distance every current and future situation, scouting for the perfect opportunity to move his plan forward. Every move he makes is one of deception. He acts according to the script in his head.
The problem is, he does not know the motives of others. There are too many moving parts. Matthew tells us that when Judas saw that his betrayal resulted in the condemnation and torture of Jesus, he deeply regretted his action. This suggests that this outcome was not what he predicted.
Sin is a gamble; it is impossible to know for sure that even the best laid plans will work. Additionally, sin by its nature spreads like wildfire and opens the way for more and more ugliness. Judas may not have expected his action to go that far; before he knew it, he was powerless to stop it.
And sometimes, before sin, there is that moment of conscience. At the Last Supper, when Jesus announces that he will be betrayed by one of his disciples, either Judas is playing dumb when he says, as the others do, “Surely it is not I, Lord?” -- or, he is genuinely wondering if what he has set in motion is going to fulfill Jesus’ dark prediction.
But what if we read it another way: what if, in that moment, he looks to be delivered by Jesus from his own web of deception? “Surely it is not I, Lord?” – “Surely, I am not so malicious, so awful, so bereft of moral conscience that I would really go through with this, Lord?”
Jesus leaves it open: “You have said so.” He seems to be saying, “You tell me.”
Ultimately, what today’s Gospel offers us for meditation is the reminder that before sin is committed, before the point of no return is reached, there is always – always – the opportunity to turn back.
To turn back to the light. To turn back to God.
Many painters in the following centuries chose to portray Judas as ugly, deformed, or miserly and suspicious-looking. In the artwork accompanying today’s reflection, we see Nikolai Ge’s vision of Judas after the betrayal is complete. Having fled from the garden, Judas' faceless figure turns back for one last look at the melee, leaving Jesus and the other apostles to the mess he created. He may turn back, but he can never go back, never be one of them again. He has done his part to change the course of history and the course of souls.
But at what cost?
And once more he must turn away from God and flee into the darkness.
This Lent we have explored ways of communicating with God to discern his will, methods of avoiding gossip and hypocrisy, outsmarting temptation, having courage to tell the truth, and we have sought inspiration in the lives of saints who expended themselves after the example of Christ.
And now we end with Judas, who did not allow himself to live to partake in the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection, despite having played such a crucial but painful role in bringing it forth.
We live by the Resurrection as our literal saving grace. May we never lose sight of the light of God, and may temptation never draw us too far from that beacon. And if, like Judas, by sin we turn away, may we find the strength and humility to turn and turn again by penitence and forgiveness to make lighter the burden of the Lamb upon whom we place all our human iniquities.