Even when I read the Bible I am an English major. I cannot help but read the Gospels as stories. One of the relationships I find the most fascinating is that between Judas, John and Jesus.
I attend a wonderful Bible Study with a group of young Catholic women here in Denver, and this year we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark. We read Mark 14 and 15 the other night, the chapters that recount the events leading up to and including the Passion. Chapter 14 begins with “the anointing at Bethany,” where a woman anoints Jesus with a very expensive “alabaster jar of perfumed oil.” Mark then notes,
There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her. (Mark 14:4-5)
Jesus, however, comes to the woman’s defense in a beautiful and powerful way:
Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6-9)
I have always found his remarks here to be so haunting. Indeed, though Mark does not tell us her name, he records the event so that everywhere in the whole world we remember this woman.
Interestingly, it is right after this scene at Bethany that Mark recounts the betrayal of Judas. Right after Jesus finishes speaking, it seems, “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them” (Mark 14:10).
It seems as if this scene at Bethany was somehow the last straw for Judas. Mark does not tell us why.
Last year, we were reading the Gospel of John, which also recounts this scene. But notice the differences:
Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (John 12:1-3)
We have a lot more detail here in John’s Gospel, which is one of the reasons I firmly believe this gospel does come from an eyewitness, the youngest apostle himself. I find it moving that the author remembers, even after so many years, how “the house was filled with the fragrance.”
But John also remembers who it was that objected to the woman’s — here, Mary of Bethany’s– lavish act of love:
Then Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.
So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8, emphasis added)
Note the commentary in italics. All four Gospels recount that Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus for money. And, in their listing of the apostles, they always give Judas the epithet “the one who betrayed him.” But it is John who seems to feel the sting of the betrayal so personally — so much so that he always portrays Judas in the worse possible light. Here, he makes it clear that it was Judas to objected to Mary’s act of love– it was Judas who thought the breaking of the jar a waste of money, and who brought up the obvious objection inspired perhaps by Jesus’ own previous teaching on the poor.
John’s bitter commentary here– “He said this not because he cared about the poor”– seems very moving to me. Even after all this time, he is still so angry with Judas. Even after knowing about the Resurrection, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering, he– the youngest apostle, the “one whom Jesus loved”, the gentle, courageous one who stayed with him by the Cross, who was given the gift of caring for Mary as Jesus died– still feels so hurt and so bitter here that he cannot write unfeelingly about Judas’ actions.
Clearly, Saints Mark and Luke were not apostles of Jesus themselves. Mark, according to tradition, wrote his gospel based on the preaching of Saint Peter and Luke was a companion of Saint Paul. It seems unlikely to me that the author of Matthew’s gospel was the apostle Matthew himself — he writes with the same objectivity and restraint as the other synoptic writers.
But the Gospel of John is not written like that at all. There are all sorts of details and personal touches that suggest an eyewitness, and I think the treatment of Judas in this gospel is especially telling.
Even after all these years — John is writing sometime in the 80s or 90s AD, as an old man — the betrayal of Judas brings back his anger. He notes, during the Last Supper, that “Satan enters [Judas]” and “it was night” when he departs to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Much earlier, in the famous Chapter 6 of the gospel where he recounts Jesus’ promise of the Eucharist, the bread of life discourse, John concludes Jesus’ words this way:
“But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. (John 6:64)
Even here, John connects one of Jesus most profound teachings with the betrayal of Judas. John seems to think that Judas’ rejection of Christ began far earlier than the synoptic gospels recount.
Significantly, John says no more about Judas after the betrayal in the garden. For him, nothing else needs to be said.
But Matthew does. And he even seems to view Judas with some compassion:
Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”
They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.”
Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5, emphasis added)
It will always be a mystery why Judas chose to betray Jesus. If he was the keeper of the money, as John says, in some way Jesus must have trusted him to give him such a task. Tradition seems to hold that Judas valued money more than Jesus — obviously he accepted the thirty pieces of silver– yet there must be more to it than that. I think the moment where the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus “for burial” is significant for Judas. Perhaps this is the moment where he realizes Jesus is not the Messiah Judas thought he was going to be. On the one hand, Jesus claims to be more important than even serving the poor, but on the other he indicates that his death is very near. He is not going to be the liberator of the Jewish people from Roman oppression, he is not going to restore Jewish life in the Promise Land. Instead, he is going to die. All of this is too much for Judas. He is disappointed.
I think Judas’ story is tragic and terrifying. We all betray Jesus for strange and stupid reasons every day, and we too are disappointed in Him. He disrupts our orderly plans and our constricted hopes and gives us the cross instead.
We all hope that when we do betray Jesus, we can be like Peter and seek His forgiveness. We hope that sometimes we can even be like John and not betray Him in the first place, and stay with Him by the cross until the very end.
But all too often we are like Judas. We are disappointed and so we give Him up — we stop praying, we turn away, we busy ourselves and ignore him. And then when we realize what we have done, we are so ashamed that we cannot bring ourselves to run back to Him. We refuse to go to Confession, we refuse to beg for His mercy because our pride says we do not deserve it.
Of course we don’t deserve it. That’s the point. Even John, the good apostle, the best friend of Jesus, the caretaker of Mary, is clearly imperfect in his struggle to forgive Judas sixty years after the Passion took place.
The hard thing about Good Friday is that it remains only an invitation to mercy. You can kneel at the foot of the cross, or you can mock the cross, or you can simply turn away and go hang yourself on the tree of your own pride. But the cross still stands, and Jesus is still there waiting for us with outstretched arms.