Our gospel reading for tonight gives us the beginning of the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. In John’s Gospel it takes place after the footwashing, so we know for a fact that Judas was one of the ones whose feet Jesus washed. But John’s account of the Last Supper does not include the moment when Jesus took the bread and wine and gave them the new meaning as his Body and Blood, so it’s not clear from John whether or not Judas participated in the first Eucharist. Luke would seem to indicate that he did; in his gospel, after Jesus has shared the bread and wine with his disciples, he says “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:21-22). Mark, however, places the conversation we read in tonight’s gospel before the sharing of the bread and wine, seeming to suggest that Judas had already left when the first Eucharist was celebrated, and Matthew seems to agree with this timing. The best we can say is that it’s not clear exactly when Judas left the Upper Room, or whether or not he participated in the first Eucharist.
The truth is, there’s a lot in the story of Judas that’s not clear, and that comes as a surprise to some people. To them, the lines have been drawn. When Mark records Jesus calling his twelve apostles, the last one is named as ‘Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’, as if that false treachery was part of his character from the beginning. John tells us in his gospel that Judas was the treasurer of the apostolic band; he kept the money purse, ‘and used to steal what was put into it’ (John 12:6), and when Mary of Bethany poured the expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet to show her love for him, Judas was harshly critical of her. So it seems on the surface to be quite clear: Judas was a thoroughly bad man, and he had been from the beginning. A betrayal was necessary, Judas was foreordained to be the betrayer, and that was that.
The truth, however, might not be so clear cut. It’s important to remember that everyone who wrote about Judas in the New Testament had an excellent reason to hate his guts! No one reports the story from his point of view. Peter’s denial of Jesus is also a kind of treachery, and it’s clear that Peter was completely overcome by what he had done. But no one describes Peter in the lists of apostles as ‘Simon Peter, who denied him’. That’s because people knew and were sympathetic to Peter’s point of view; they understood his fear, and they also knew that he had repented and been forgiven by Jesus. But no one really had access to the inner workings of the mind of Judas, so no one could tell the story from his point of view.
In fact, many things about Judas are a mystery. He’s called ‘Judas Iscariot’, but we don’t really know what ‘Iscariot’ means. Some people think it means ‘from Kerioth’; there were at least two towns named Kerioth at the time, one of them in Moab, and the other not far from the Judean town of Hebron. If the second was Judas’ home town, then he would probably be the only member of the twelve who was not a Galilean. But some people say that the name is derived from the word ‘sikarios’, which means ‘dagger-user’ or ‘assassin’.
The truth is that we just don’t know. We don’t know where he was from, and we don’t know how he became interested in Jesus or why Jesus chose him as one of the Twelve. But he’s in all the apostle lists. Mark’s is the earliest; he says that Jesus ‘went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons’ (Mark 3:13-15). He then lists the Twelve, ending with ‘and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’.
It’s inconceivable to me that Jesus’ call to Judas was insincere. Jesus may sometimes have been hard to understand but he was not deceitful; if Jesus called Judas to be his follower, his disciple, and his missionary, then I think we have to take it as given that Jesus saw the potential in Judas and hoped he would fulfil it. Certainly by the time of the Last Supper Jesus knew who would betray him, but I don’t think we have to assume that he knew that right from day one.
It’s very interesting to me how the arrangements for the Last Supper are described. William Barclay points out in his commentaries that in order to have the little conversation with John and Judas that tonight’s gospel describes, those two must have been reclining on either side of Jesus. Remember that in those days people didn’t sit on chairs at the table as we do today; the table would have been a lot lower, and the dinner guests would have been reclining on little couches, leaning up on one elbow and reaching for the food with the other. John would have been sitting a little in front of Jesus, so that he could lean back to speak to him. Judas would have been on the other side of Jesus.
What an extraordinary thing! The two seats closest to the host would have been the places of highest honour at the feast. We would expect those places to be given to two of the three leaders of the apostolic band: Peter, John and James. And John does seem to have been close, but the other place had been given to Judas. We know that Peter was not in that place, because we read that Peter ‘motioned to (John) to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking’ (John 13:24). Jesus then said – and I think we can assume that this was a whisper – ‘ “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish”. So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot’ (John 13:26). Note: it doesn’t say ‘He passed it to him’ but ‘he gave it to him’. So Judas must have been sitting next to Jesus.
Barclay understands this placement at the supper table as being Jesus’ last appeal to Judas. Jesus’ words recorded by Luke – “For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22) – are not words of judgement but of sorrow. Jesus loved Judas as much as he did the other apostles, and he knew how this betrayal would end up for him. He longed to spare Judas that sorrow, and so he honoured him at the Last Supper with a seat next to him. Even now, he hoped that he could dissuade him from doing what he did.
But it was not to be. Judas had made the arrangement with the authorities, money had changed hands, and the die had been cast. They wanted to arrest Jesus, but in a lonely place where there was no crowd around. To make that work, they needed someone on the inside who knew where Jesus would be, and could lead them to him. And that’s exactly what Judas did. He knew Jesus was in the habit of going to Gethsemane, so he left the Upper Room, went to fetch the authorities, and took them straight to the place. And in a world where not everyone would have seen the face of Jesus on an Instagram post or a TV screen, he pointed out the right person to the guards by greeting him with a kiss.
Afterwards, as we know, he regretted his action. Matthew tells us that Judas repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the authorities, but they dismissed him contemptuously. So he threw down the money in the Temple and went out and hanged himself. Then the priests, suddenly developing a conscience, decided that it would be wrong to use blood money for the Temple treasury, so they went out and bought a field with it, which soon got the name ‘Field of Blood’. Luke, however, tells the story quite differently in Acts; the way he recalls it, it was Judas who bought the field, and then went to inspect it, he had a disastrous fall there, and all his bowels gushed out – which was why the field was called ‘Field of Blood’.
In other words, like everything else about the story of Judas, his end is unclear to us! If Matthew’s version is truer to the facts, then it would seem to indicate that Judas hoped he could dissuade the chief priests from having Jesus crucified; when it became clear that he could not do this, he fell into despair and went out and committed suicide. In his mind, changed feelings would not have been enough; if he couldn’t save Jesus from death, then Jesus was lost and so was he.
But I want to end by raising the question: was Judas automatically a lost cause? If he had held on for a few hours, until after the resurrection, and seen that no, it was not the end for Jesus, would there have been hope for him as well?
I think we have to say ‘yes’. After all, that’s exactly what happened to Peter. Peter also was cut to the heart by what he had done when he betrayed Jesus. Matthew tells us that after the cock crew Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly’ (Matthew 26:75), and Luke’s wording is similar. Mark says ‘He broke down and wept’ (Mark 14:72). We can imagine that his sense of guilt over what he had done was just as strong as Judas’.
And yet, Peter was restored. No doubt the other apostles were struck by the irony of the fact that he had loudly proclaimed that even if everyone else fell away, he wouldn’t – and then he had fallen away. But Jesus made it clear by his actions after the resurrection that he had forgiven Peter, and Peter never forgot that.
The tragedy of Judas is that he refused to believe in that possibility. To him, it was all over; he had sinned in the worst imaginable way, and there was no possibility that God could forgive him. Judas was lost, not because he betrayed Jesus, but because he just could not believe in the possibility of grace.
Many people today have the same problem. They believe firmly in the principle of justice. Good deeds are rewarded, bad deeds are punished. They know that they have committed many bad deeds – maybe, in some cases, particularly heinous ones. If they are believers in God, they know that God is a righteous and holy God. And so they are afraid.
They have forgotten those famous words of John Newton:
‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound), that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see’.
Some people are offended by that word ‘wretch’. Their offence betrays the fact that they don’t understand the good news of Jesus. The good news tells us that Jesus died for sinners. We are all sinners, so we all qualify. Peter qualifies. I qualify, you qualify. And so does Judas.
Grace was reaching out to Judas. Sadly, Judas could not bring himself to believe it; he punished himself, rather than accepting God’s forgiveness. Tonight, let’s not make the same mistake. Whatever we’ve done, let’s not believe that it’s too awful for God to forgive. After we’re finished weeping bitterly, as Peter did, let’s come to Jesus, the friend of sinners, and receive the grace and forgiveness offered to us. And then let’s pass it on to those who sin against us as well.