I spoke today at the Weekly Manna gathering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Since this Wednesday before Easter is the day Catholics (and perhaps some other Christian denominations as well) once termed “Spy Wednesday,” I decided to speak about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. (Spy Wednesday gets its name as the day on which Judas betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Because Judas was not an outside enemy, but a traitor from within, his actions conjured up the image of a spy.)
Each of the synoptic Gospels – those of Matthew, Mark and Luke include an account of the betrayal. Here is Luke’s version:
Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he night betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.
During my talk, I posed three questions in relation to this episode. Here I summarize my comments on the first question: How did this happen?
To use the term betrayal to describe Judas’ action implies a close relationship that is rendered asunder. We don’t speak of betraying a stranger or an enemy. We betray a partner, a friend – someone with whom we are in relationship.
That raises the question: How could someone who was Jesus’ friend and companion, who new first hand Jesus’ goodness and power, betray him?
One commentator asked the question this way and suggested a way of thinking about the issue:
What can have happened to his soul that he would now betray the Lord for thirty pieces of silver? For it to be explicable, there must have been a long story behind the betrayal that night. For some time Judas would have been distant from Jesus even though he was still in his company. On the surface he would have remained normal, but he must have changed inside and become distant. The split with the Master, the loss of his faith and his vocation must have taken place little by little, as he yielded in more an more important things…In contrast perseverance is doing the small everyday thing with faith; it is supported by the humility of beginning again when we go astray though weakness.
That makes some sense. The betrayal comes not long after John’s Gospel gives us the account of Jesus and his disciples having dinner at the home of his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. (This is after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.). John records Judas being upset when Mary, the sister of Martha, uses some very expensive ointment to anoint Jesus.“Why was this not sold and given to the poor?” Judas asks.
And we are told that Judas concern was not that he cared for the poor, but because he was. A thief and used to help himself to what was in the moneybags. So Judas had been on a trajectory of sin and hard-heartedness before the betrayal.
Perhaps that gives a window into now only how Judas could have betrayed Jesus then, but how people betray Jesus now.
It doesn’t start with a big betrayal. But just as each yes to God – in no matter how small a matter – makes each other yes (including bigger yeses) easier, each no to God, each movement away from God makes it easier to take another (and bigger) step away.
Because whether you literally believe in Satan or some other force for evil, we know we are tempted away from the good. And that enemy spirit will find a foothold in our weakness, whether it is love of money as Judas suggests or pride or some other weakness and try to exploit that.
So we want to be on guard against little ways we move away from God lest they become bigger.