Tuesday of Holy Week: The pain of betrayal
This is perhaps the saddest and most painful scene in the whole Bible. Jesus is ‘troubled in spirit’ because he is about to be betrayed (John 13:21-38).
In the upper room, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, a most tender act of loving service. He is now sharing bread with them, enjoying the company of his closest friends one last time. And in the midst of this blissful experience, there is a poisonous presence. As night falls, Judas is about to betray him. Jesus reveals this by quoting a psalm: Thus even my friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has turned against me (Ps 40:10).
It is no surprise that Christ quotes the Jewish prayer-book at this moment, since the Psalms are full of the deepest insight into the human heart. Another passage springs to mind: If this had been done by an enemy I could bear his taunts. If a rival had risen against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, my own companion, my intimate friend! (Ps 54:14) ‘My own companion’ – literally, the one who shares my bread (panis), as Judas does in this scene (Jn 13:26).
And ‘Satan entered into him’. Does Judas act willingly here or not? When we do wicked things, we so often do them against our deepest will: our actions operate at a superficial level, without being grounded in the deepest level of our being, which is goodness and love. So St Paul can say: ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ (Rom 7:19).
Was Judas operating at this superficial level, on the make for a quick 30 pieces of silver, or does his betrayal reveal a deep and definitive corruption of his heart? Dante thought the latter, putting Judas in the innermost circle of Hell where he is gnawed eternally by Satan’s middle mouth. For Dante, betrayal is the worst sin. Perhaps this is because it repays evil for good. If one of the mottoes of a Christian is ‘love your enemies’, then ‘hate your friends’ must be the worst kind of evil.
Judas was one of the Twelve: he belonged to the inner circle of Jesus’ friends. He even had the trusted position of looking after the money-box. He was supposed to be one of the great leaders of the New Israel, the Church. Instead of receiving Jesus, the Bread of Life, he caused him the pain of betrayal.
In the end, Judas feels regret for his great sin, but his suicide casts doubt on whether he truly repented (Mt 27:3-5). He sees that Jesus is innocent, but does not call him ‘Lord’. Whereas Peter weeps bitterly when he denies Jesus, his friend, and reaffirms his love for him after the Resurrection, it is not clear that Judas ever considered Jesus his friend. The offer of friendship, the invitation to companionship, seems to have been entirely unreciprocated by Judas.
In this Holy Week, we have the chance to be like Peter, not Judas. We can turn back from the many ways in which we have betrayed Jesus, and return to his friendship and companionship.
Images: Stained glass from Moulins Cathedral, France; Gustave Doré, Satan chewing Judas in the Inferno.