Each Good Friday brings me to a very low state, maybe like many of you who have—with me—just commemorated the Lord’s passion. I can recall, growing up as a young boy of the ‘LeFort clan’, my family of six would be at all of the services of the Triduum. And each Good Friday, I looked forward to afternoon stations, but never to the evening commemoration. Someone this past weekend reminded me of why I didn’t like the passion. After Palm Sunday Mass, and the recitation of the Passion, a man came out and said, “why does the priest always get the best part?” I smiled, not sure what exactly was the best part: was it being betrayed? …maybe the scourging? …surely, he didn’t mean the crucifixion? No, what he meant was the people always get the worst part because they have to yell, “Crucify him!” Yep, that’s exactly what always made me so uncomfortable on Good Friday.
But as difficult as it is, as awkward or as painful as it might be, it really does us well to reflect on the power of sin and the necessary antidote of mercy. While there are so many characters from the story of the Passion, could we look at Judas and examine him for just a few moments?
First, I want to examine Judas because none of us wants to be him, to play him, to be associated with him. He’s the bad one, we want to play the good ones. But wait, we may want to reconsider. Judas was chosen from the very beginning to be one of the Twelve. He was chosen by Jesus for a special duty, a vocation of service to Christ. In inserting his name in the list of apostles, the gospel-writer Luke says, “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (Lk 6:16). So, Judas was not born a traitor and was not a traitor at the time Jesus chose him; he became a traitor! He himself then chose to turn away from God.
The Gospels give us his motive: money. Judas was entrusted with the group’s common purse; on the occasion of Jesus’ anointing in Bethany, Judas had protested against the waste of the precious perfumed ointment that Mary poured on Jesus’ feet, not because he was interested in the poor but, as John notes, “because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it” (Jn 12:6). His proposal to the chief priests is explicit: “‘What will you give me if I deliver him to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver” (Mt 26:15).
“The love of money,” Scripture says, “is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10). Behind every evil in our society is money, or at least money is also included there. So it should not surprise us that Judas fell for the trickery. And, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we oftentimes fall for the trickery as well. We put our trust in mammon which we can see, rather than in God, whom we cannot see. We trust in the path of pleasure and comfort, instead of the path which leads to the Cross. We opt for power and riches, instead of poverty and weakness. If only we could allow ourselves to see more clearly….
One final observation: didn’t the Apostle Peter also betray the Lord by his denials? So, what’s the difference? Sure, Peter wept in bitter remorse for his betrayal, but Judas too confessed, “I have betrayed innocent blood” and gave back the thirty pieces of silver. So what’s the difference?
The difference is in the way that Peter and Judas see the crucified Lord. Peter had confidence in the mercy of Christ, and Judas did not! Judas’ greatest sin was not in having betrayed Christ, but in having doubted his mercy.
And so, here is what the story of our brother Judas should move us to do: to surrender ourselves to the one who freely forgives, to throw ourselves likewise into the outstretched arms of the Crucified One. The most important thing in the story of Judas is not his betrayal but Jesus’ response to it. He knew well what was growing in his disciple’s heart, but he does not expose it; he wants to give Judas the opportunity right up until the last minute to turn back, and is almost shielding him. He knows why Judas came to the garden of olives, but he does not refuse his cold kiss and even calls him “friend” (see Mt 26:50). He sought out Peter after his denial to give him forgiveness, so who knows how he might have sought out Judas at some point in his way to Calvary! When Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), he certainly does not exclude Judas from those for whom he prays.
If we have imitated Judas in his betrayal, some of us more and some less, let us not imitate him in his lack of confidence in forgiveness. There is a sacrament through which it is possible to have a sure experience of Christ’s mercy: the sacrament of reconciliation. How wonderful this sacrament is! It is sweet to experience Jesus as Teacher, as Lord, but even sweeter to experience him as Redeemer, as the one who draws you out of the abyss, like he drew Peter out of the sea, as the one who touches you and, like he did with the leper, says to you, “I do will it; be clean” (Mt 8:3).
The great Italian poet of the middle ages, Dante Alighieri, who places Judas in the deepest part of hell in his Divine Comedy, tells of the last-minute conversion of Manfred, the son of Frederick II and the king of Sicily, whom everyone at the time considered damned because he died as an excommunicated. Having been mortally wounded in battle, he confides to the poet that in the very last moment of his life, “…weeping, I gave my soul / to Him who grants forgiveness willingly” and he sends a message from Purgatory to earth that is still relevant for us:
Horrible was the nature of my sins, but boundless mercy stretches out its arms to any man who comes in search of it.
This is what Christ’s Passover can do for each and every one of us.