“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
Judas the betrayer, Judas the villain. He is a key character of the Easter story. But I find him equal parts simple and baffling. Certainly repellent, yet also strangely compelling in the manner of all great villains.
His part of the Easter story is carefully crafted. Whenever Judas is mentioned in Mark 14 it’s never just ‘Judas’ It’s always ‘Judas, one of the twelve’, reminding us that Jesus' death came at the hands of one of his closest friends. Judas was one of the twelve, one who had followed him, been loved by him, been taught by him, who saw all the miracles and the healings. Like all of the twelve, Judas had given up everything to follow Jesus. In return he had been given remarkable spiritual gifts to heal the sick, to drive out demons, and to proclaim the Gospel (Lk 9:1-2). How is it possible that someone who had seen and heard everything from the beginning could betray Jesus? He had front row seats to every miracle and every sermon!
And why did Judas betray Jesus? For money. There have been plays and books written ascribing all sorts of political motivations to Judas, like a conflict over different visions of the Kingdom of God. But Judas’ motivation was greed. He loved money more than he loved Jesus. It’s hard to imagine how painful the betrayal of Judas must have been to Jesus. The pain of being abandoned by his disciples would have been one thing, but the pain of betrayal must have been worse still.
So, there is something sinister about the way that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is described in Mk 14:10-11. He goes to the Chief Priests and they are delighted and promise him money. And then we are told “So he (Judas) watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Mk 14:11). In contrast to all the other disciples who slept rather than kept watch in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas is the disciple who watched. He watched for an opportunity to arrest Jesus and hand him over to his enemies. The Garden of Gethsemane is the opportunity he watched for. There, quietly away from any witnesses, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss (Mk 14:45). With a kiss of final parting.
Despite the way that the other disciples abandon Jesus (even Peter), Jesus promised that he would gather them again after his resurrection. The other eleven will see Jesus again and be restored. What an encouragement to a disciple as weak willed and double minded as I know I can be! But not Judas. Judas will never see Jesus again. Judas will spend eternity separated from Jesus. The betrayer's kiss is also a kiss of final parting, of a man on the way to hell. Judas doesn’t know this, but Jesus does. Jesus knows this man that he loves, has not just betrayed him, but will suffer eternally because of it.
But there is something even deeper here, I suspect. Judas is a Greek name. In Hebrew Judas’ name was Judah. Judas was named after the tribe of Judah, the only tribe of God’s people left. And in a few short hours Judah will gather like a mob beneath the window of Pontius Pilate and Judah will demand that Jesus be executed and Barabbas released. I can’t help but think that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus stands for the way the whole nation betrays Jesus. Those who should have been his people, those he came to save, became his killers.
So in the end Judas is an example of how Jesus divides people. When you are confronted by Jesus: one of two things will happen: either you will become completely his, or you will be alienated from him forever. You either give yourself to him completely or you give him up completely. In the end, there is no middle ground.
And that’s what Easter does for us now - it prompts us to consider where we stand. Are we with Jesus - or against Him? Once again, with great joy, we come together this Easter to remember and celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection - Jesus' complete giving of Himself for us. And once again Jesus calls on us to give ourselves completely to him and to his gospel. To deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. That is the only logical response to Jesus at Easter. To do anything less is to ultimately part ways with Jesus in Judas-esque fashion, and to tragically ignore the forgiveness and life that Jesus freely offers.