Judas Iscariot: The most reviled name in all of Sacred Scripture is judged only by his act of betrayal, but without him among the Apostles is there any Gospel at all?
False witness and betrayal are two of the most heinous themes in all of world literature, and Sacred Scripture is no exception. Literature is filled with it because so are we. Not many of us get to live our lives without ever experiencing the false witness of an enemy or the betrayal of a friend.
Recently, I was confronted by the death of someone whom I once thought of as a friend, someone who once betrayed me with a self-serving story of false witness for nothing more redemptive than thirty pieces of silver. It’s an account that will be taken up soon by some other writer for I am not objective enough to bring justice, let alone mercy, to that story.
But for now, there is one aspect of it that I must write about at this of all times. As I was preparing to offer Mass late on a Sunday night, the thought came that I should offer it for this betrayer, this liar, this thief. Every part of my psyche and spirit rebelled against that thought, but in the end, I did what I had been beckoned to do.
It was difficult. It was very difficult. And it cost me even more of myself than that person had already taken. It cost me the perversely comforting experience of eternal resentment. I have not forgiven this false accuser. That is a grace I have not yet discovered. Nor could I so easily set aside the depth of his betrayal.
In offering the Mass, I just asked God not to see this story only as I do. I asked Him not to forever let this soul slip from His grasp, for perhaps there were influences at work that I do not know. I have always suspected so.
The obituary said he died “peacefully” just two weeks before his 49th birthday. It said nothing about the cause of death nor anything about a Mass. There was a generic “celebration of his life.” False witness does not leave much to celebrate. Faith, too, had been betrayed for money.
I am still angry with this person even in death, but I take no consolation that his presence in this world has passed. My anger will have to be comfort enough because at some point I realized that my Mass was likely the only one in the world that had been sacrificed for this soul with any legitimate hope for salvation.
That’s the problem with false witness. Its purveyors tell themselves they have no need for salvation. I do not know whether he is any better off for this Mass having been offered, but I do know that I am.
EVER ANCIENT, EVER NEW
The experience also focused my attention on history’s most notorious agent of false witness and betrayal, Judas Iscariot. Who has ever prayed for the soul of a betrayer? Not I – at least, not yet – but I also just weeks ago thought it impossible that I would pray for the soul of my accuser.
I cannot get Judas off my mind this week. And as with most Biblical narratives, once I took a hard look, I found a story on its surface and a far greater one in its depths. In those depths is an account of the meaning of the Cross that I found to be staggering today. It changes the way I today see the Cross and the role of Judas in bringing it about.
Just before my 35th priesthood ordination anniversary, Father Stuart MacDonald wrote a guest post for These Stone Walls entitled, “Ever Ancient, Ever New: Jesus’ Priesthood in a Time of Chaos.” It strikes me that there is not a single place in the narrative of salvation history that does not reflect chaos.
Understanding the Sacrifice of Calvary requires a journey all the way back to the time of Abraham, some 2000 years before the Birth of the Messiah. God had earlier made a covenant with Abraham, a promise to make of his descendants a great nation.
The story of the birth of his son, Isaac, foreshadows that of John the Baptist who in turn foreshadows Jesus. Abraham and Sarah, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, were too old to bear a child, and yet they did. And not just any child. Isaac was the evidence and hope of God’s covenant with Abraham. “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven.”
Then, in Genesis 22, God called Abraham to do the unthinkable: to sacrifice his only son, the one person who was to fulfill God’s covenant. The scene unfolds on Mount Moriah, a place later described in the Book of Chronicles (2 Ch 3:1) as the very site of the future Jerusalem Temple. In obedience, Abraham placed the wood for the sacrifice upon the back of his son, Isaac, who must carry the wood to the hilltop (Gen 22:6).
On that Via Dolorosa, the child Isaac asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham’s answer “God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” Notice the subtle play on words. There is no punctuation in the original Hebrew of the text. The thought process does not convey, “God Himself will provide the lamb…. but rather, “God will provide Himself, the lamb for sacrifice.”
An Angel of the Lord ultimately stayed Abraham’s hand, and then pointed out a ram in the thicket to complete the sacrifice. In his fascinating book, The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth (Image Books 1999) author Scott Hahn provides a reflection on the Genesis account that I had long linked to the Cross:
“Christians would later look upon the story of Abraham and Isaac as a profound allegory for the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.” (p. 18)
The similarities in the two accounts, says Scott Hahn, are astonishing. The first line of the New Testament – Matthew 1:1 – identifies “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” Jesus, like Isaac, was a faithful father’s only son. Isaac, like Jesus, carried “the wood” for his own sacrifice upon Mount Moriah. In fact, Calvary, the place of the Crucifixion of Christ, is a hillock in the Moriah range.
This places three pivotal Scriptural accounts – each separated by about 1,000 years – in the same place: The site where Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac, the site of the Jerusalem Temple of Sacrifice, and the site of the Crucifixion of Christ.
In Hebrew, that place is called “Golgotha,” meaning “the place of the skull.” Its origin is uncertain, but there is an ancient Hebrew folklore that the skull of Adam was discovered there. Before the Romans arrived in Palestine, it was a place used for public executions, primarily for stoning. The word “Calvary” is from the Latin “calvaria” meaning “skull.” It was translated into Latin from the Greek, “kranion,” which in turn was a translation of the Hebrew, “Golgotha.”
No angel would stay the Hand of God. God provided Himself the Lamb for the sacrifice. This interplay between these Biblical accounts separated by 2,000 years is the source for our plea in the Mass, “Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”
AT THE HOUR OF DARKNESS
The four Gospel accounts in the Canon of Scripture all came into written form after the apostolic witnesses experienced the Resurrection of Jesus. So everything they set out to preserve for the future was seen in that light. The outcome of the story is triumphantly clear in the minds of the New Testament authors. Had the Gospel ended at the Cross, the accounts would be very different.
Judas Iscariot, therefore, is identified early in each Gospel account when he is first summoned by Jesus to the ranks of the Apostles as “the one who would betray him.” John (6:71) adds the Greek term, “diabolos” (6:70), to identify Judas. It is translated “of the devil,” but its connotation is also that of a thief, an informer, a liar, and a betrayer, one drawn into evil by the lure of money.
These adjectives are not presented only to explain the character of Judas, but also to explain that greed left Judas open to Satan. Each Gospel account is clear that Jesus chose him among the Twelve, and in all three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus presents a constant awareness of the coming betrayal of Judas – seemingly as a necessary part of the story.
During Holy Week this year, we hear the full account of the Passion Narrative from Mark (on Palm Sunday) and John (on Good Friday) But for this post I want to focus on the version from Luke The Gospel of Luke is unique in Scripture It is the only Scriptural account written by a non-Jewish author.
Luke’s Gospel is the only account with a sequel, Acts of the Apostles, which was also written by Luke. And it is the only Gospel account to include the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, all of which figure into this story set in motion by the betrayal of Judas.
Luke, though a Gentile and a physician, was also a scholar. He makes few direct references to Old Testament texts, but his Gospel is filled with echoes and allusions to Old Testament themes. Greek Christians may not have readily understood this, but he also wrote his Gospel for Jewish Christians in the Diaspora who would have found in Luke a rich and valuable affirmation of salvation history in their life of faith.
What is most clear to me in Luke’s treatment of Judas is that the story is written with a theme that I readily identify with spiritual warfare. The Passion Narrative has a thread that begins with a story I have written before. In “Azazel and the Priests Who Stopped on the Road to Jericho,” I wrote about the meaning of Satan’s temptation of Christ in the desert. It ends in Luke’s Gospel:
“When the devil had ended every temptation [of Christ], he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13)
Luke constructs his account of the Judas story with threads throughout his Gospel. He shows that the power of Satan, which is frustrated by Jesus in the account of his 40-day temptation in the desert “until an opportune time,” finds its opportunity, not in Jesus, but in Judas whose act of betrayal triggers “the hour of darkness” and the Passion of the Christ:
“Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, who was a member of the Twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests…. (Luke 22:3)
The origin and meaning of “Iscariot” is uncertain. It is not known whether it is a name or a title associated with Judas. In Hebrew, it means “man of Keriot”, a small town marking the border of the territory of the Tribe of Judah (see Joshua 15:21.25), to which both Judas and Jesus belonged. Betrayal is all the more bitter when the betrayer is closely associated. The Greek Iskariotes has the cognate sicarias, meaning “assassin,” a name ascribed to a band of outlaws in New Testament times.
It is clear in Luke’s presentation that this act of Judas is equated with original sin, the sin of Adam and Eve lured by the serpent. At the Last Supper, after the Institution of the Eucharist, Jesus said:
“But behold the hand of him who is to betray me is with me at this table, for the Son of Man goes as it has been determined” (Luke 22:21).
Jesus added, “But woe to that man by whom he is betrayed.” That “woe” is symbolized later in the way the life of Judas ends as described below. The phrase, “as it has been determined,” however, implies that the betrayal was seen not only in its own light but also as a necessary part of God’s plan.
Later, with Judas absent, Jesus warned his disciples at the Mount of Olives, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” They did anyway. After the arrest of Jesus at Gethsemane, they scattered. Peter, leader of the Twelve, denied three times that he even knew him. Then the cock crowed (Luke 22:61) just as Jesus predicted. This is often depicted as a literal rooster crowing, but the bugle ending the third-night watch for Roman legions at 3:00 AM was also called the “cockcrow.”
At Gethsemane, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, perverting a sign of friendship and affection into one of betrayal and false witness. This is what begins the Passion Narrative and the completion of Salvation History. Jesus tells Judas and the servants of the chief priest:
“When I was with you day after day in the Temple you did not lay a hand on me, but this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:53)
Later, in the Acts of the Apostles (26:18) Luke identifies the power of darkness as being in opposition to the power of light, an allusion to spiritual warfare. For Luke’s Gospel, it is our ignorance of spiritual warfare that leaves us most vulnerable.
Following immediately after the betrayal of Judas, one of the disciples present draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the servant of the High Priest. In the Gospel of John, the disciple is identified as Peter. This account is very significant and symbolic of the spiritual bankruptcy that Judas set in motion.
In the well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, a parable I wrote about in “Azazel and the Priests Who Stopped on the Road to Jericho,” a priest came upon the broken body of an injured man left beaten by robbers on the side of the road. Jesus says in the Parable that the priest just passed by in silence, but this was readily understandable to the Pharisee to whom the parable is told.
The Pharisee, an expert in the Old Covenant law of Moses, understood that the Book of Leviticus forbade a priest who is defiled by the dead body of an alien from offering sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple. The severed ear of the High Priest’s servant at Gethsemane refers back to the same precept:
“So no one who has a blemish shall draw near [to the Sanctuary], no one who is blind or lame or has a mutilated face…” (Leviticus 22:18)
The symbolism here is that the spiritual bankruptcy of the High Priest, who is not present at the arrest, is represented by his servant. In Luke’s Gospel, and in Luke alone, Jesus heals the ear. It is the sole miracle story in the Passion Narrative of any of the four Gospels and represents that Jesus wields the power of God even over the High Priest and Temple sacrifice.
When the role of Judas Iscariot is complete, he faces a bizarre end in Luke. The Gospel of Matthew (26:56) has Judas despairing and returning his 30 pieces of silver to the Temple. Luke, in Acts of the Apostles (1:16-20) explains that the actions of Judas were “so that the Scriptures may be fulfilled.” But in Luke, Judas meets an even more bitter end, bursting open and falling headlong as “all his bowels gushed out.” The field where this happened then became known as the Field of Blood, and the money that purchased it, “blood money.”
The point of the story of Judas in the Gospel of Luke is that discipleship engages us in spiritual warfare, and spiritual blindness leaves us vulnerable to our own devices, as it did Judas. This life “is your hour, and the power of darkness.” The plot against Jesus was Satan’s, and Judas was but its pawn.
So who prays for the souls of our betrayers? I did, and it was difficult. It was very difficult. But I can see today why Jesus called us to pray for those who persecute us. It is not only for their sake but for ours.
Editor’s Note: Please share this post. For further reading, the Easter Season comes alive in these others from These Stone Walls: