Maundy Thursday: Understanding Judas

Normal people probably write about Jesus around Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. (I’m just guessing here, as I’ve never been normal.)

But every year around this time, I read and write about Judas Iscariot. (Past posts have been Judas as seen by the other disciples and Judas compared to Star Wars Mafia and Narnia.)

Images of Judas also portray him as super suspicious looking. Which I don't get, since the disciples didn't see it coming. If Judas had looked like these guys and Jesus had said, "Someone's going to betray me," I would have immediately looked at him.

Images of Judas portray him as super suspicious looking. Which I don’t get, since the disciples didn’t see his betrayal coming. If Judas had looked like these guys and Jesus had said, “Someone’s going to betray me,” I would have immediately looked at Judas.

Why Judas? I think it’s because there is something in betrayal that tugs at the darkest parts of us. We see it and we recognize it, like a familiar face in a crowd. We don’t want to. But it’s there, inside of us.

And that’s what I’m thinking as I write this. “I can guess why Judas would betray Jesus,” I mutter to myself, staring at the page as I plan my blog post. “What I don’t understand is why he followed him.”

Three years of his life dedicated to learning from the man he would ultimately betray. Three years. What drew him to Jesus in the first place? What reasons bring together the most infamous traitor in history and the incarnation of holiness? Wouldn’t someone whose life was darkness want to get as far away from the light as possible?

And, from somewhere in the depths of my mind, a man steps forward, tall and probably handsome once, but with age-beaten frown lines that give him a haggard look. “I know,” he says, nodding a bit pompously, pausing with the knowledge that I’ll wait for him to go on.

I do wait, and he does go on. “Something very similar happened to me, once. When I betrayed a friend. He was the hope of the nation, wise, well-spoken, rising in popularity…and I wanted him around me as much as possible. Perhaps I hoped some of it would rub off.

“But no. That’s not quite right. I knew, even then, who I was compared to him. He was righteous, I was rebellious. It was clear. Like a living hell, always there, always nagging at me.

“Why, then, did I seek his presence? Why did I call him my friend when just the sight of him reminded me of all my failures?”

The man’s shoulders droop, and I feel sorry for ever thinking of him as pompous. His voice is quiet now. “Why did I love him?”

He looks at me, and the look is dull and empty. “All I know is that God was with him, and God was not with me. I felt that vacuum in my soul. It tormented me. And when I heard his words, praise to the Lord I thought had abandoned me…it was beautiful and terrible at the same time.

“Until you feel that—until you are both drawn and repulsed by the same person and everything he represents, you can’t understand.”

He looks as if he is finished, then adds, “And maybe you’d have to be on the edge of madness as well. I felt that way some days. Judas was there too, if I don’t miss my guess. Your mind isn’t always your own. That must have had something to do with it.”

Before I can ask any questions, another man appears from the darkness, shorter and fatter, with a large, angular nose and a serious frown. “No, no, that wasn’t it, not really,” he says to the first man. “You’re missing something. I know what Judas was thinking, because I was like him, once. More so than you, I’m sure.”

He begins to pace slowly, leisurely. “Fascinating dynamic, really. Wanting a man of God to reveal your faults. When you’re surrounded by people who tell you to keep up appearances, who nod and fawn and let you get away with murder…well, a little confrontation makes things interesting, anyway.

“It was more than that, of course. Yes. More than that. With some so-called prophets, any amount of investigation—the slightest tap—reveals their words as hollow lies. But those two: the man I knew and the man Judas knew…they were different. They spoke with authority.

“But it was not the message I thought it was at first, and I imagine it was the same for Judas. There was disillusionment, to be sure, once the novelty wore off. But also a sense of…betrayal.” He waves his hand dismissively. “At its core, the message was not that new. And so simple! It wasn’t as flashy as we would have liked, that’s sure enough.”

He turns back to the first man, suddenly serious, eyes narrowed. “You can’t really understand. The man you’re thinking of—the one you betrayed—you never killed him. I did. I know what it’s like to send an innocent man to his death.

“When you make the choice, you know the decision was yours…and yet, it feels like your hand was forced, somehow. Pressure from others, of course—but there’s something rather…inevitable about it. Someone had to knock over the dominoes eventually.” He shrugs. “You just happened to be the one to tap on it first.”

It seems like he is finished, so I ask, “Who are you?”

The second man gives me a haughty sniff, as if I should have known instantly. “Herod, king of the Jews, such that they are, the pitiful lot. Murderer of John the Baptist.”

I turn to the first man, and he stiffens to a severe pose, as if at military attention. “Saul, once king of the Jews. Attempted murderer of David son of Jesse.”

I don’t know what else to say to these two ghosts, called up from my memory and the distant files of exegetical Bible study. “Are you…sorry? That you betrayed those men?”

Herod just laughs and disappears.

But Saul lingers, a puzzled look on his face. “I just realized something,” he says. “The emotion that is the closest we can experience to hell on earth?”

“Yes?” I ask.

“Regret.”

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