What was Judas thinking?
He was one of a dozen men who were closer to Jesus than anyone. They heard more of his teaching, spent more time with him, saw more of what he did than anyone. They were considered his friends.
So how could Judas do it? How could he hand Jesus over?
The Scripture for today is blunt. Just three verses to tell us how Judas sold Jesus out:
“Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him” (Matthew 26:14-16).
Why in the world would he do a thing like that?
Some think of Judas as pure evil, the typecast bad guy in the passion narrative who stabbed Jesus in the back. I’ve always felt uneasy about that view of him, but I’m not the best judge of character. So rather than go on my gut feeling, this week I took a look at Matthew’s account of Judas. And it doesn’t start out putting Judas in a very positive light:
- When he’s introduced in Matthew 10:4 on a list of the twelve disciples, Judas is identified as “the one who betrayed him.” Labelled, right from the start.
- Then in today’s passage, 26:14-18, Judas makes the deal with the chief priests to give Jesus over.
- Not long after, at the last supper (26:20-25), Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him. Then he narrows it down: it’s one who dipped in the bowl with him. Adam Hamilton points out that this means Judas is seated right next to Jesus, at a place of honor. Judas objects: “Surely not me, Rabbi?” But Jesus insists: “You said so.”
- Then, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas shows up with a mob (26:46-48). Judas famously kisses Jesus to identify him. The disciples begin to fight, but Jesus calls them off. Jesus does not fight or resist. Jesus goes quietly, willingly, even jabbing at the crowd for taking him in secret: “I’ve been teaching out in the open – why didn’t you take me then?”
- Jesus goes before the High Priest and then is sent to Pilate. Judas, meanwhile, experiences a change – at least, according to Matthew 27:3-10. Matthew alone tells us that once Judas sees that Jesus was condemned, he runs back to the chief priests and elders to try and return their money. “I’ve shed innocent blood,” he says. But they won’t take the money, and Judas is driven to suicide. He hangs himself.
There’s the facts, at least the way Matthew gives them. And even though Judas is labelled the betrayer from the start, he doesn’t look like pure evil to me. He looks confused. He looks like someone who got a much different result than he expected.
I think this is why I sympathize with Judas, because I can relate to that. I’ve been surprised by my own mistakes more than once. For example, there was this time years ago when I told a white lie, one that put the blame on the wrong person. I told it because it felt totally harmless and completely justified. I thought nothing of it. Then, when that white lie blew up in my face, I was shocked. I seriously never expected things to go south… but boy, they did (and you can bet I don’t tell many “white lies” anymore).
Ever done something like that – made a mistake you didn’t even realize was a mistake?
I wonder if this was what was happening with Judas, except on a much bigger scale. Maybe he didn’t realize he was doing something bad; maybe he expected some good to come out of his betrayal. Which sounds crazy, I know, but listen: Some say Judas was a zealot, a member of a political party that expected a violent overthrow of the Roman government. If Judas believed Jesus to be the Messiah, and if he was indeed one of these zealots, he would have been expecting Jesus to rise an army up and kick some Imperial butt. Maybe he got impatient with Jesus and all his talk of loving your neighbor and forgiving 490 times. Maybe he thought Jesus just needed a nudge, a reason to jump into action and use his power to knock them all flat and take over.
I don’t know what Judas was thinking; it may have been something entirely different than that. But I do know that when I get focused on a good, important cause – or at least what I believe to be a good, important cause – it can be almost blinding. In that frame of mind I’m even more susceptible to making mistakes without recognizing them as mistakes.
Long ago, when I was young enough to still struggle with acne, I also struggled with losing a good friend over a seemingly good cause. In the moment of things it felt critically important for the good of the cause to stand up and give (my version of) the unfiltered truth about this person. The word “betrayal” isn’t far from an accurate description of what I did, but at the time it didn’t feel that at all. It felt like doing the good, honest thing. The next day – after my public declaration – I was genuinely surprised to discover a friendship shattered into pieces. I can clearly see now that there was no way to say the things I did without losing a friend, but then I never saw it coming. I only saw my cause, and I naively thought everyone would understand exactly why I spoke out like I did.
Was this something like what happened to Judas?
I may be right or I may be wrong, but I see in Judas Iscariot a man who got confused. A man who did something expecting one outcome and was shocked by what he created. A man whose regret drove him to suicide.
A man we might have more in common with than we’d like to admit, because we too make mistakes unknowingly. We too betray people. We even betray Jesus Christ.
I don’t know about you, but I want to learn from those mistakes – both mine and Judas’. And in Judas, I see a man who expected Jesus to reign in a particular kind of way. I think he expected a Messiah who would fight and win, a king who would wield unrivaled power, a God who would establish his rule through force. And – if I’m right – that expectation is what led Judas to unwittingly betray the king he sought to serve.
We can be led astray in a similar way. If we forget what kind of king Jesus Christ is, we might start to serve him incorrectly. We might serve Christ through revenge when he is insulted and retaliation when his will is neglected. We might serve Christ by hating those we perceive to be his enemies. We might serve Christ by fearfully protecting his church with tightly closed fists and locked, barricaded doors.
But if we serve Christ in any of these ways, we are really betraying him.
Oh, our intentions are good. I know they are. But one day we will be just as surprised as Judas to discover that this is not what our king has in mind at all.
Our king said, “turn the other cheek.”
Our king said, “love your enemies.”
Our king said, “give your outer cloak.”
Our king said, “go the extra mile.”
And then, leaving no room for doubt, our king did what he said. Our king gave his whole life for us on a cross and forgave the ones who put him there.
Friends, I have a soft spot in my heart for Judas Iscariot, and it’s because I know I’m not so different from him. I, too, can forget what kind of king we serve. He’s not like any other king I’ve heard of! I have forgotten that Jesus is different, and I have betrayed him.
Maybe you have, too.
Today, let us remember. Let us remember that Jesus Christ is a king who took his throne by being defeated, who won by dying, who gained everything by giving it all. Let us remember exactly what kind of king he is so that we may serve him loyally.
May we love. May we forgive. May we serve.
May we be faithful to our King, Jesus the Christ.