Gospel and Homily Transcript
One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.
On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
the disciples approached Jesus and said,
“Where do you want us to prepare
for you to eat the Passover?”
“Go into the city to a certain man and tell him,
‘The teacher says, “My appointed time draws near;
in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.”‘”
The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered,
and prepared the Passover.
When it was evening,
he reclined at table with the Twelve.
And while they were eating, he said,
“Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
Deeply distressed at this,
they began to say to him one after another,
“Surely it is not I, Lord?”
He said in reply,
“He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me
is the one who will betray me.
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.”
The Fate of Judas
So as we hear today’s gospel, there are two questions that come to mind. Why did Judas betray Jesus and where is he now? Of course we don’t know the answer to either of those questions, but there are certainly hints in the gospel and there’s all kinds of speculations throughout history. Why did Judas betray him?
Well in Matthew’s Gospel Judas goes to the high priests and asks, “What will you give me if I betray him?” They hand over 30 pieces of silver. The suggestion is that Judas did it for the money. That same sentiment is underlined in John’s Gospel where John states right out the Judas was a thief. He was in charge of the common purse and used to help himself to a little bit extra for himself, doling it out to the others for what they needed and a little double portion for himself.
Certainly greed is a powerful motivator, but was there something else that was operating in Judas’s heart? We’ll never know for sure but in the mini-series by Franco Zeffirelli, Judas is portrayed as an intellectual and he gets caught in his own thinking—in his own political machinations. In his mind, in turning Jesus over to the chief priests—at least according to the mini-series—Judas as this in mind: Jesus will have an opportunity to speak and to prove who he is as the true Messiah; no longer in veiled language but speaking frankly. In that sense Judas is shown to be politically naïve because the chief priests have no interest in a fair trial for Jesus, they’re just happy to manipulate Judas so they can get Jesus in their own clutches.
Jesus Christ superstar has a very different depiction of Judas as well. Judas is Jesus’s right hand man and was ultimately disappointed at the way that Jesus’s ministry plays out. It’s not a ministry of power—military force, fame and might, being a superstar—it’s a pathway to humility, suffering, death and the revelation of divine mercy. We’ll never know exactly what was operating in the heart of Judas but what we do know is that Judas was deeply disappointed with himself when it became clear that Jesus was in the clutches of the chief priests and was going to be crucified and he deeply regretted what he did.
The Scriptures record that he took the 30 pieces of silver, threw it into the Temple went off and hung himself in despair at what he had done. I can’t help but think at times like this of the difference between Judas and Peter. Jesus predicts that Peter is going to deny him three times and indeed that’s exactly what Peter does even after his braggadocio of, “Everybody else may deny you, but not me. I will lay down my life for you.” And then at the insistence of others that he was one of Jesus’ followers, Jesus’ terrible prediction is fulfilled and Peter denies Jesus three times.
What’s the difference between Peter’s triple denial and Judas’s betrayal? It’s Judas’s inability to believe that he could be forgiven. I think if we weigh a triple denial and one betrayal, which is the greater sin? I’m not sure, but the huge difference is when we think of Judas we think of the ultimate in betrayal and sin and when we think of Peter we think of redemption, we think of our first pope, we think of a great saint. The difference lies in their ability to get the focus off themselves and to put it where it belongs on Jesus and his mercy and his compassion. That’s true for every one of us. We need to continue to look to Jesus for his mercy.
A play that was written several years ago that played off Broadway was called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Fr. James Martin—who writes for America magazine—worked with this theater company in New York while they were developing this play and he actually wrote a book about that process called A Jesuit off-Broadway. It was the process of struggling with these questions of why did Judas do it and where is Judas now? Jesus says in today’s gospel, “It would be better that that man had never been born who betrayed the Son of Man.”
Does that mean that Judas is in hell? That God is so angry at Judas, that he says, ‘You’re going to rot for all eternity because of what you’ve done?’ My own prayer and my own understanding theologically is that the gates of hell are open and those who are in hell are there because they choose to be. Jesus is there with his arms wide open—his heart wide open, just as Jesus is on the cross with his arms wide open and his heart wide open—and he says, ‘Come to me. Come to me.’ And if Judas is in the hell it’s because he chooses to be in hell and if there’s anyone in hell it’s because they choose to be in hell. Jesus’s invitation is come to me, but there are lots of reasons why we resist because we have to let go of our prejudice; we have to let go of our anger; we have to let go of our own sense of disappointment; we have to let go of our own sense of shame to come into the presence of the God of mercy.
What Stephen Adly Guirgis posits in this play is that Jesus comes to Judas and Judas is in this catatonic state, he’s frozen in his own mind, in his own sense of disgust at Jesus’s betrayal of him. That has some classical resonance doesn’t it? If you’re familiar with Dante’s Inferno, Dante posits that Satan is not burning in fiery flames, Satan is encrusted in ice because his heart is stony cold and so Dante imagines Lucifer frozen in this place of coldness, indifference, hatred for all.
That’s kind of the residence here where Jesus encounters Judas and he’s in this catatonic state and Jesus speaks to him, calls him by name, says, ‘Judas I love you. Look at me. Look at me.’ Judas slowly emerges from this catatonic state, sees Jesus and then begins to lambaste him saying, ‘You betrayed me. You abandoned me. You broke me. You didn’t stand by me and Jesus stands there saying, ‘Judas I love you. Judas I love you. Judas I love you.’ Ultimately Judas recedes into his own sense of hurt in his own misunderstandings in the machinations of his own mind about how he had been wronged, he had been hurt, he had been betrayed. He goes back into this catatonic state and the play ends with Jesus taking off his shirt, putting it into a bucket of water and washing Judas’ feet; lovingly, endlessly, washing his feet, tears streaming from his eyes.
This is the Jesus of mercy. This is the Jesus who desires that no one is lost, but love cannot be forced on another. It needs to be freely chosen. Jesus’ arms are stretched on the cross and Jesus’ ultimate victory in the resurrection is, “Come to me. Let me be your Savior. Let me save you from yourself, from the machinations of your own mind, from your own guilt, from your own shame from your own greed, from your own prejudice. I can save you from those, but you need to come to me.”
That choice is ours. Let’s pray we make that right choice. Amen? Amen.