Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading the Gospel of Judas V: Judas the Apostate

Gospel writers can scarcely mention Judas without mentioning that he betrayed Jesus (Matthew 10:4; 26:14-16, 46-50; Mark 3:19; 14:10-11, 43-46; Luke 6:16; 22:3-6, 47-48; John 6:71; John 12:4). Though many of them wrote their accounts many years, in some cases decades, after the fact the sting of Judas’ betrayal was still keenly felt, not just by those who were eyewitnesses to it, but by Mark and Luke who were not eyewitnesses. We tend to think of Judas as betraying Jesus, but Judas betrayed more than just Jesus. He betrayed the other apostles too. They knew it and they clearly felt it. He was one of their own and that made his actions all the more despicable.

John gives the occasion of Judas’s alienation from Jesus when a woman lavished an expensive container of oil on Jesus’s feet. Judas, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, noted that the ointment was worth 300 denarii (John 12:5).  That amounts to 1200 drachmas or 7200 obols, a fifth of a talent. It was a significant sum of money. Judas piously complained that the oil could have been sold and given to the poor (John 12:5). John, who had worked closely with Judas for at least three years, observed as an aside, “not that he cared for the poor” (John 12:6). Judas tried to mask his greed with piety.

Earlier Jesus had observed, with some evident satisfaction, “the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5; Luke 7:22). Judas, however, was unhappy with what Jesus was doing and at that point, John seemed to think, decided that Jesus was an impediment. Perhaps Judas thought that if Jesus and his inconvenient program were out of the way that he, Judas, would then be able to control the money that had been given for Jesus’s use “because he was a thief, and had the bag” (John 12:6).

When things were not developing the way that Judas thought they ought to go, he went to his religious leaders: “Judas Iscariot went unto the chief priests” (Matthew 26:14). “And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him” (Matthew 26:16). All the way along, the gospel writers note that Judas sought to put a pious façade on his actions. He could claim that what he was doing had the approval of his religious leaders and so it must be right. The heinousness of his act did not faze him. He was past feeling. So he could rationalize that he was doing what was right and proper and with the full approval of the proper ecclesiastical authorities.

On another level, Judas allowed himself to be used by Jesus’s enemies to bring about Jesus’s destruction. Jesus had many enemies who wanted to get rid of Jesus, and Judas let them use him to accomplish that task. Unfortunately for them, it did not get rid of Jesus.

It is this Judas, the greedy, the selfish, the hypocritically pious, the power-hungry traitor that is remembered in history. Dante puts Judas in the lowest circle of hell in the mouth of the devil himself as the “anima là sù ch’ha maggior pena.”[1] The Oxford English Dictionary notes that since the fifteenth century, in English, a Judas is “one who treacherously betrays under the semblance of friendship; a traitor or betrayer of the worst kind.”

[1] Dante, Inferno 34.61-63.