Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Homily Series for the Year of Faith
March 26, 2013
We are in the midst of the holiest week of the Year and as we prepare to enter into Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection anew, the Church has us ponder, all three days before Holy Thursday, the tragic figure of Judas Iscariot. It does this not merely because his betrayal chronologically preceded the events of the new and eternal Passover, but also because all believers have much to learn from the way the devil successfully tempted him.
In this Year of Faith, it’s important for us to ponder in Judas’ vices the virtues faith requires. Judas’ greed puts the lavish love that should flow from faith, seen yesterday in Mary of Bethany’s generosity in anointing Jesus’ feet. Judas’ despair highlights in contrast the type of trust Peter had, even though, like Judas, he was filled with shame for having betrayed and abandoned the Lord.
So let us look together at this tragic figure, the most notorious betrayer of all time, about whom Jesus said it was better for him never to have been born.
We learned yesterday from St. John that Judas was a thief. He robbed from Christ, from the other apostles, from the incipient Church. Jesus, for him, had become merely an excuse to seek after his own interests. Jesus was not the one thing necessary, as he was for Mary of Bethany. Jesus wasn’t even an end, but merely a means for Judas to satisfy his own greed.
Judas supposedly had serious qualms of conscience about the failure to sell the year’s worth of aromatic nard with which Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet, but he thought nothing about selling Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Judas had been a disciple merely in his body, not in his heart. Judas had been called personally by the Lord, had lived with him for about 1,000 days, had followed him for three years, had heard him preach and teach, had seen him walk on water, still stormy seas, feed thousands with a five rolls and two sardines, raise three people from the dead, heal on countless occasions the sick, blind and lame and have mercy on countless sinners, had even received from the Lord the power to do many of these same things himself, and had been entrusted by him with the money bag for the Twelve. But he tragically had never gotten to know Jesus, and even more tragically had never gotten to love him. He remained just a follower of Jesus on the outside, not on the inside. In betraying Jesus, Judas valued him less than a handful of coins, forgetting that it would profit him nothing to gain the whole world and forfeit his life.
This is in contrast to the example of St. Peter, whom we also see up close in today’s Gospel. Peter was an internal disciple, someone who followed the Lord not just with his body but also his heart. He desired to know the Lord with all his mind and to love him with all his heart, soul and strength. Peter wanted to do Christ’s will. He wanted to follow the Lord.
I believe Peter really meant what he said, that he would lay down his life for the Lord (as he ended up doing upside-down on a Cross in the Vatican valley). But Peter failed to recognize what Jesus tells him in St. Matthew’s Gospel: that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Peter’s spirit did want to give himself entirely to following the Lord, but his flesh was so weak that he was willing to swear that he didn’t even know the Lord — ultimately, to apostasize — just to stay warm on the cold dark night of Jesus’ Passover!
A similar thing happened to Peter when Jesus was walking on water. Peter begged the Lord to give him the ability to come to him — Peter always wanted to come to the Lord and be with him — and then actually began to walk on water. As soon as he took his eyes off of the Lord, however, as soon as his weak flesh took account of the wind, he sank and this fisherman, who lived on that lake and who obviously had to be a good swimmer, cried out to the Lord to save him from drowning. Peter’s spirit was always willing, but his flesh was frail. Even though his flesh would betray the Lord, his spirit believed.
We see the contrast between Peter and Judas especially in the response each had to betraying the Lord Jesus. During the scene in today’s Gospel when all the apostles said, in response to Jesus’ declaration that one of them would betray him, both Peter and Judas had protested with the rest, “Surely not I.” But Peter couldn’t fathom that before the cock crowed he would have denied the Lord three times. Judas, on the other hand, was continuing to live the lie he had been living at least for months with Jesus and the other eleven.
What is particularly and tragically moving in all of this the scene in the Gospel was taking place on what would be the last night of Judas’ life. The following morning, as Jesus was about to be hanged by his limbs via nails on the man-made tree of the Cross to the northwestern part of Jerusalem, Judas would hang himself out of despair on a tree to the south in a field that became known as Hakeldama, or Field of Blood. He would hang himself with such force that an eviscerating disembowelment would result, as Peter tells us in the Acts of the Apostles. Judas, who betrayed the Lord ultimately to death for a handful of silver coins, would die even before the Lord himself died.
His personal catastrophe prompts us to ask: What had happened to this man? How could things have gone so wrong? How could, after three years with Jesus, he have given up all hope?
In speaking about his betrayer in the upper room before Judas had departed into the night, Jesus said “Alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Better for him if he had never been born!” Jesus said this not because he would seek divine vengeance upon him for his betrayal, since Jesus came to die even for Judas and called him “friend” until the end. He said it not because Judas’ very name would become ignominiously attached to betrayal for the rest of human history. He said it because Judas went to his death, as far as we can discern, never having known and loved the Lord, who would have forgiven him even this betrayal of betrayals.
Jesus went freely to the Cross. He himself said, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:17-18). Jesus freely went to his “fate,” and if Judas hadn’t been involved in it, someone else would have. After all, the Scribes, Pharisees and Herodians had been plotting to kill Jesus for over a year by this stage.
Judas had never realized that the point of life is to come to know and love Jesus, to trust in his mercy, to participate in his salvation, even if one doesn’t explicitly know Christ, as Judas did for at least three years. Judas never realized this, and hence his life ultimately was tragically a waste — and it was better that he had never been born.
Unlike Peter, who — after his apostasy when he swore that he never knew the Lord after having sworn hours earlier that he would never abandon him — wept when he realized he had sinned against the Lord and who turned to the Lord for mercy; unlike the Good Thief on the Cross, who hoping in God’s love and mercy, turned to the Lord and asked him to remember Him when he came into his kingdom hours before his death; Judas never understood the depths of God’s love and mercy.
He never understood the meaning of the parable of the prodigal Son. He never understood the meaning of Jesus’ teaching on the lost sheep and heaven’s rejoicing more for one repentant sinner than for all those who never sinned and needed repentance. He never understood the meaning of Jesus’ statement to Peter of the infinite forgiveness of God, seventy-seven times. He never understood that Jesus’ whole mission was to come to save sinners, to save men just like Judas, to save Judas himself.
After Judas had recognized how wrong his action was, after he saw that Jesus was condemned to death, he returned to the high chief priests and elders, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s reading, and said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood,” throwing the silver pieces on the floor. Yes he had sinned! But rather than have that sin lead him to the One who was about to die to save him from that sin if only he would turn back to him, Judas, despairing of that forgiveness, went to field and took his own life. What a tragedy indeed.
Where is the good news in the tragedy of Judas? Only God knows if there were any good news for Judas between the tightening of the noose and his sad death seconds later. For us, however, there is good news in the fact that Judas’ example illustrates just how essential hope and trust in the Lord’s mercy are for our Christian lives.
No matter what we’ve done in the past, no matter what we might do in the future, no matter how bad we think our lot is, no matter how unforgivable we think we might be, we can always turn to and trust in the Lord’s mercy. St. Peter did, even though he had considered a little warmth more valuable than his allegiance to Christ. St. Paul did, even though he used to kill Christians for a living, terrorizing the Christians in the 30s just like Nero would in the 60s and Roman emperors after that. And so should we.
St. Paul himself wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us? … He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:30-39). Nothing can keep us from God’s merciful love — not even our sins against the Lord, unless we let them by refusing to come to receive God’s mercy!
The same Satan who entered into Judas and turned everything dark seeks to enter into us. Very often we’ve sold out Jesus for far less than 30 pieces silver, choosing instead to work for minimum wage rather than attend Mass, or to choose some momentary warm of the fire of illicit love instead of remaining faithful. So often we have opted for Barabbas in disguise rather than uniting ourselves with Christ through picking up our Cross everyday and following him. We have denied Jesus many more than three times out of weak flesh. And this week we will remember the Crucifixion he had to endure because of those betrayals.
At the same time, however, we need, like Peter, never to lose hope in the Lord’s merciful love for us. Jesus knew Peter would betray him, but Jesus also knew what Peter would do for him after he had received his forgiveness. That’s why during the Last Supper, Jesus told Peter, “Satan has desired to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, Peter, that your strength may not fail, and that after you have converted back to me, you will strengthen your brothers and sisters in the faith.” And Peter did. The same Lord Jesus prays for us, for our conversion.
But he wants us to pray, too. In order to try to strengthen the weak flesh of Peter, James and John, he told them in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Be vigilant and pray that you may not undergo the test, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” We know that rather than doing that, Peter, James and John fell asleep, and that was doubtless part of their betrayal. This week the Lord wants us to stay away and pray that when Satan seeks to sift us like wheat this week and beyond, we may pass that test we undergo with a strengthened flesh to accord with a loving spirit.