When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.
But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. Therefore, that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the son’s of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
Imagine the scene in the chambers of the chief priests and elders. Place yourself there. Become a bystander or a servant. Perhaps you are one of the elders or the doorkeeper. Imagine yourself in that room. Are the officials passing out cigars? Are they slapping each other on the back because they got the conviction they wanted? Are they relieved because this troublemaker, this “King” of the Jews will no longer be a force to contend with? Suddenly the door slams into the wall. Judas Iscariot pushes his way past the doorkeeper and through the crowd. What does his face look like? How does his voice sound as he blurts out, “I have sinned”?
What do you feel as you observe the scene? Are you annoyed? Are you confused? What’s going on? Suddenly, the thirty pieces of silver hit the floor, clanking as they scatter. Judas flees. He looks stricken. Impulsively you follow him out. You want to say something . . . anything. You follow him but he is moving fast. You try to catch up but you have to rest and get your breath. You start to move again. He can only go in one direction. You try to pick up your pace. You need to catch up with him. And then in the distance you see his silhouette. He is standing on a small log. The rope is looped over the tree. The noose is around his neck. You try to scream . . . DON’T! Before the scream escapes your lips he kicks away the log. It is over.
The sun is going down. The wind is picking up. It’s getting cold. Judas’ body swings in the breeze. Slowly you retrace your steps back into the town. The pathos in this Gospel passage is more than Judas betraying Jesus. Peter also betrayed Jesus. The pathos is that, unlike Peter, Judas could not imagine being forgiven by the one against whom he had sinned.
We’ll never know what drove Judas to betray Jesus. But we can wonder. Was it the tempting sounds of thirty pieces of silver jingling in the treasurer’s purse? Some scholars suggest that Judas betrayed Jesus because he had become disillusioned with Him. Like many others, even people today, Judas was expecting a political Messiah. He wanted a Messiah who would lead the Jewish people out from the Roman occupation. By turning him over to the authorities Judas may have been trying to force Jesus to act like the revolutionary leader he wanted him to be. No matter what Judas’ motives were, these verses from Matthew’s Gospel following the act of betrayal describe one of the great tragedies in scripture, the tragedy of despair. The tragedy of ceasing to believe in God.
Judas betrayed Jesus. Judas was, in his turn, betrayed by those who used him to get to Jesus. Did Judas kill himself out of despair over having betrayed Jesus? Or did he kill himself because he was angry that he himself was betrayed? “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Harsh words. In the end it seems that two things drove Judas to suicide: Anger at being a fool. And despair upon realizing he had sinned.
A few years ago I found a battered book of daily meditations by an anonymous Jesuit that was translated from French into English in 1868. A meditation based on this Gospel passage gives sound advice for today. It reads in part: "Never let us count on help, sympathy, or respect, from those whom we have served against our own conscience and against the law of God." In short: Never trust the untrustworthy.
Another meditation in the same book found a bit further along gets to the heart of Judas’ sin. Judas’ belief “that his crime was unpardonable was disbelief in God . . .” When Judas believed his sin could not be forgiven he stopped believing in God. It was then that despair spiraled down and drove him to suicide.
Standard dictionaries define despair as loss of hope, hopelessness, to give up, to be without hope. In this narrative, however, despair has a more complex meaning. One theological source defines despair as the voluntary and complete abandonment of all hope of saving one’s soul. The voluntary abandonment of hope in salvation. The intentional denial of the meaning of Jesus’ saving act. That saving act we recall as we move through the liturgies of Holy Week.
Despair is not passive. Despair is a conscious choice. The Sin of Despair is an act of the will. It is an act that chooses to give up any hope of eternal life. Despair whispers in our ear that God will not pardon our sins. And we believe that whispered message.
That was Judas’ sin. Believing that God would not pardon his sin. We can only pray that that kind of despair never controls us, no matter what, no matter when, no matter why. Yes, we are sinners. But we are sinners loved by God. We are sinners loved by God who pardons our sins when we acknowledge them, when we confess them, and when we seek pardon, while resolving to amend our lives.
As we ponder the actions and death of Judas, as we stand speechless over his ultimate act of despair, we recall Jesus’ words on the cross.
“Father, forgive them
for they know not what they do.”
Judas was included in that forgiveness. Or could have been included in that forgiveness. It was too late. He never believed he could know God’s forgiveness and love.