In the Gospels, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ, is depicted as a man generally disposed to underhanded activity. Though he was entrusted with the treasury by which Christ’s earthly mission had been funded, it’s said that he stole from it for his own purposes (John 12:6).
It was Judas, as well, who disparaged the thought of emptying an expensive bottle of perfumed oil over Jesus’ feet. The bottle could have been sold and the money used to feed the poor (John 12:5). How wasteful! How indulgent!
Many Christians of our own day might secretly agree with Judas on this point, or even openly agree with him when they don’t realize that their criticisms about extravagant liturgy and lavish church architecture amount to the same thing.
But, in many ways, though the Gospel writers view his character in hindsight, Judas was probably passionate about what he thought was Jesus’ true mission. When Jesus announced that one of his disciples would betray him, Judas didn’t jump to mind within the group as the obvious culprit. His flaws weren’t completely invisible to his companions, but there are many people in the Church whose actions don’t always align with what they claim to believe or want to be.
Putting Judas in his historical context, he seems to have been among those who expected a military Messiah who would drive the Romans out of Israel, reestablishing the throne of David, and inaugurating an everlasting age of righteousness in which the valleys were raised and the hills laid low, the widow and the orphan fed, debts forgiven, inheritance restored, and everyone worshipped God in peace (cf. Isaiah 40:4–5)).
When you look at Judas from this perspective, he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy, or even particularly unreasonable. But, like many Christians today, especially in the West, and especially on the political Left, he does seem to have missed the bigger picture. While the social justice “this-worldly” goals for which he advocated aren’t bad in themselves, Jesus’ point that, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7), is a reminder that a social utopia is neither an end nor a means to an end, but an outcome of a supernatural event—the final return of creation to the Creator.
Only in the Heavenly Jerusalem will every tear be wiped away (Revelation 7:17, 21:4). Until then, the world is a desert in which, on occasion, we find oases of hope.
Judas might have been something of a Social Justice Warrior, who, like the SJW’s of today, are inclined to justify their own aggregation of wealth and power as a means to a utopian end, but, once again, Judas’ real claim to infamy is the fact that he’s the guy who handed Jesus over to the authorities.
There’s no question that Judas’ actions are depicted in the Gospels as a betrayal, and on account of their divine authority, we have to accept that they were. But was Judas’ act of betrayal his handing Jesus over or his perverse motivation for doing so? This isn’t a superficial question.
Jesus had already declared to his disciples that he would be handed over and sentenced to death, and he told Judas to do quickly what he was about to do (John 13:27). When Jesus was asked who among the disciples would betray him, not even Judas seemed to have known it would be he (Matthew 26:25), and, in one account, Jesus answers the question only with the enigmatic assertion that the one who dips his hand into the dish with him will betray him (Matthew 26:23). Keeping in mind that Jesus and his disciples are eating a Seder meal, you can imagine the distress they must have felt at this answer. All of them would betray him, not just one.
Understandably, then, Peter and the other disciples in turn declare that they would never deny Jesus or fall away from him. But they would, and Jesus knew it. Peter went further than all of them, though, including Judas. Not only would Peter fall away, he’d do it three times before the break of dawn. While Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Luke 22:48), Peter denied that he even knew him (Matthew 26:72; Mark 14:71; Luke 22:57).
That was really bad.
In the end, the only disciple who didn’t completely abandon Christ in the last hour was John, and that seems only to be on account of Mary’s encouragement. The rest of them ran away and hid.
The difference, then, between Judas and Peter isn’t that Judas had his moral flaws and Peter didn’t, nor is it that Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter didn’t. They both had their moral flaws. They both betrayed Jesus.
It was something else.
On Palm Sunday and Good Friday—two times before Easter—we rehearse the Passion narratives at Mass for the Gospel reading. At that time, we in the pews speak the words of Peter’s denial and the words of the crowds who call for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Christ. We declare that we have no king but Caesar. In this exercise, you and I are acknowledging our own betrayal of Jesus, which we participate in whenever we sin, preferring our own ideas about how the world should be over God’s—the darkness over the light (cf. John 3:19). In this, we’re just like Judas—telling God how to run the world, because we know the way things ought to be.
Peter did this, too, when he protested the very idea of the Passion when Jesus first announced it. Jesus rebuked him for that, basically calling him Satan (Matthew 16:22–23; Mark 8:32–33).
So, the real difference between Judas and Peter is that, even after his radical betrayal of Christ, Peter turned back to Jesus in the sure hope of his reconciliation and Judas, though he was remorseful for his sin, by all accounts, despaired in it. In their respective next-steps after sin, Peter’s actions constituted a confession of saving faith that, in Christ, grace is more powerful than sin, while Judas’ actions constituted a counter-confession, that in the end, he really believed that sin was more powerful than grace.
This dichotomy brings to light the overarching biblical theme of the “two ways,” the Way of Life and the Way of Death, and it’s the reason we walk through the drama of the Passion of Christ over and over again, year after year, and come to grips with our own part in it. The question we ask in this moment is this: having betrayed him, what now? Will we hide our faces from Christ and walk the Way of Death or turn back to Christ and walk in the Way of Life?