Betrayal, Repentance, and Grace: The Story of Judas

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

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” – Matthew 27:3-4

Let’s consider the story of Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer.  Today if you were called a Judas it was a mark of scorn and derision. Yet, in the time of Jesus Judas was a popular name for boys, being a variation of Judah, the son of Jacob from whom Judea, Judaism and the word Jew all are derived. Perhaps more importantly in choosing a boy’s name, one of the great warriors and heroes of the first century before Christ was a man named Judas Maccabeus, who with his father and brothers drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem in 165 B.C.

In the first century as the Romans occupied the Holy Land, to name a child Judas was an act of defiance pointing to the warrior who liberated the land from its enemies. Two of the disciples were named Judas. There was Judas the son of James and Judas Iscariot. Judas the son of James seems also to have been called Thaddaeus. Judas was also the name of one of Jesus brothers (or half brother as Catholicism teaches). This brother was also known as Jude and wrote one of the New Testament epistles.

Jesus chose twelve apostles. Judas was personally chosen by Jesus. I read a business book talking about staffing, and it noted that even Jesus made a bad hire once in awhile. It seems likely to me that Jesus knew Judas’ weaknesses when he called him. His surname, Iscariot, may point to the town from which he came, a town in Judea named Kerioth. Ish-keriot would mean “from Kerioth.” Others have suggested that the name might refer to Judas being a part of a group of rebels, whom the Romans would have called terrorists, known as Sicarii from a Latin word that means “dagger wielders.” These men carried small daggers hidden in their clothing, and were known to approach Romans and Roman sympathizers in a crowd and stab them. They were the most extreme first century revolutionaries. But we don’t know if this party was even in existence in the first third of the first century.

This is what we do know about Judas Iscariot. Apparently, Judas left everything, his home, family, and job, in order to follow Jesus. For three years he listened to Jesus, walked hundreds of miles with him, and helped the poor, the hungry and the sick as he stood by Jesus’ side. He was sent out with the others to preach and heal. But somewhere Judas became conflicted, or perhaps his internal conflicts merely came to a head during the course of Jesus’ ministry.

In John 12 a woman brings a pound of costly perfume, opens it and anoints Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The Gospel of John records the woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus. He writes, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)”

So, John tells us two things: Judas had been put in charge of the money, presumably by Jesus, and he had been stealing money from the common purse. Jesus rebukes Judas for questioning the woman who anointed him. You’ll remember that the word Messiah or Christ means “anointed one,” and this term was used of a king or priest set apart for this high office by being anointed with a very special oil. In essence, Jesus has become the anointed one—the Messiah—at the hands of this woman. Shortly after Jesus’ rebuke of Judas, Judas determines to betray Jesus, and to sell him out for 30 pieces of silver.  

Some have suggested that Judas, if he was one of the radical rebels, became disillusioned with Jesus. He had signed on thinking Jesus was the kind of messiah, like Judas Maccabaeus, who would lead an army to overthrow the Romans. But Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to pray for those who oppressed them, and then he began teaching that he would die a martyr’s death in Jerusalem. Judas’ interest was not in a religious messiah giving spiritual truths and drawing people to God as much as an earthly messiah ready to wage war to bring God’s kingdom on earth.

John’s portrayal of Judas focuses primarily on the lure of wealth. Judas loved Jesus, but he seems to have struggled with the siren song of money. He had given up his job to follow Jesus, and then Jesus began talking about dying, and the disciples suffering. Judas hadn’t signed on for this. We ourselves struggle with this dual allegiance of our heart: to wealth and following Jesus.

Too often Christians who started on the right path found they had the same struggle as the rich young ruler, who the gospel writers say went away sad because he was wealthy and could not imagine giving up his life defined by riches in order to follow Jesus…. At the last supper, Jesus, knowing Judas has sold him out, places Judas in the seat of honor, right next to him. He washes Judas’ feet. As he serves the Eucharist, Jesus gives Judas the bread and says, “Take and eat—this is my body given for you,” and “This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Can you see Judas’ hands shaking?

Do you see him, tears welling up in his eyes?

Jesus eventually turns to him and says, “Go, what you must do, do it quickly.” Judas goes to fetch the guard of the priests. Jesus leads his disciples to the Garden. As they are praying the guard comes, led by Judas. The sign, a kiss, a sign of Judas’ conflict—I love you, and I don’t want to follow you. I heard a pastor rightly say that there is a little bit of Judas in all of us. We’ve all betrayed Jesus at one time or another….

The next morning Judas watches from the shadows as Jesus is hauled before Pontius Pilate, who tries Jesus, tortures him, and eventually sends him to be crucified. Judas watches, now in horror and full of shame: “What have I done?” Matthew tells one story, Luke in Acts a different story of what happened. We’ll stick with Matthew’s story. Judas sees Jesus condemned, and his heart is broken, overwhelmed with sorrow and remorse.

Matthew writes: “He repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us?’” Then we read, “Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself..”

I ask you: what would have happened had Judas just waited two days? By Sunday morning Jesus was raised from the dead.

What would have happened if Judas had fallen at Jesus’ feet, and begged for mercy?

What would Jesus have done?

I believe he would have lifted him up, wrapped his arms around him and forgiven him, if he had just waited two days. If he had just waited two days everything would have looked different. Jesus triumphed over evil, sin, hate and death. His gospel was shown, with power, to be true. Judas would have realized that even his own acts of betrayal would not have the final word—if only he’d waited two days.

I’ve ministered over the years with families who have lost a loved one to suicide. Some took their lives in deep depression, an overwhelming fog in which there seemed no hope in life. Some, like Judas, from intense guilt. Some because the darkness seemed overwhelming. Some did not intend to complete the act but accidentally did. Tragically the church once taught that suicide was unforgivable. It was taking a life, with no chance for repentance.

Today most thoughtful people of faith and clergy recognize that suicide reflects intense pain and an overwhelming feeling of being lost. The Scriptures are clear that Jesus came to save the lost, not to turn his back on them. God has great compassion for the broken hearted. I always picture the Lord saying to the one who took their own life, “I’m so disappointed. Your life was a gift. I had so much more living for you to do. I needed you to hold on. I had plans for you, and the darkness was not going to have the final word.” But after this, I see the Lord reaching out his hands and saying, “Come home. You are mine—you’ve always been mine. Come home, my child—all is forgiven.”… We’ve all been Judas, and Jesus still offers us the bread and wine. There is a reason to live. And there is always grace.