Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

I have always felt a certain attraction towards Judas. Yes, that Judas. Judas Iscariot. The betrayer. The Lost One. The bad guy who rivals only Satan in the collective Christian imagination.

Some days, I can’t help feeling that he is just the fall guy for Divine Providence. This makes me cranky, because it strikes me as cosmically unfair.

Now let me be clear: Judas betrayed Jesus. That was wrong. Very wrong. Sinfully wrong. Wrong in a way I hope that you and I are never wrong. But if the Gospel narratives are to be believed (and I think they are), then Jesus was headed to the suffering and death of the cross irrespective of whatever deals Judas cut (or didn’t) with the chief priests. And yet at the Last Supper Jesus still exclaims: “The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” (Mt. 26:24).

Aren’t we being just a little harsh? The dynamite of the last days of Christ was set to blow well before Judas started haggling in the moonlight. From a certain perspective, all he did was light the match.

Not long ago, I spent the days leading up to Holy Week on retreat under sunny Northern California skies, a merciful break from the bleakness of “spring” in Chicago. Despite all the sun, the spiritual and scriptural space that I inhabited was overcast.

My retreat centered on the events of Holy Thursday. In certain strands of Christianity, including mine, this is the day when Jesus “instituted the Eucharist,” or “instituted the priesthood.” Less frequently do we note that it’s also the day when Jesus was betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and abandoned by his closest friends.

In the Holy Thursday story, none of the apostles comes out looking very good. Least of all Judas and Peter. And my days of silence were a kind of extended engagement with this duo. I spent hours pondering a pretty simple question: what’s the difference between the two?

Premeditation? Because Peter denies Jesus reflexively, while Judas plans his betrayal? This seems an odd quality on which to exonerate Peter, who in the Gospels shows a stunning inability to premeditate anything. It feels somehow dishonest to praise him for doing the very thing that usually makes him the object of our laughter and chagrin.

It seems to me that the line distinguishing the two — betrayal and denial — is no line at all. What is denial of a friend but a form of betrayal, and a pretty egregious form at that?

And yet nobody would deny that there’s a qualitative difference in how we think about Peter and Judas. Peter sits behind the bulletproof glass of hagiography. The Peter we usually invoke is the Rock of unity and not the rock-head; the glorious martyr, not the denier of Christ; the dude with the Keys of Heaven jangling from his toga.

The glass around Judas is often just as bulletproof, and we tend to draw his portrait in black and white, whereas Peter’s admits of gray and a fair amount of rosy shading. No doubt Judas betrayed Christ, a fact on which all four of the Gospels agree. But beyond that, the consensus about him starts to erode. For example, how did he die? Matthew gives us the famous story of his hanging, but Luke gives a different account in the book of Acts. There, Judas falls down in a field and “bursts asunder,” clarified with the helpful note that “his bowels gushed out.” Usually, Matthew’s account and Luke’s are conflated, producing a scene especially fit for Hollywood. (If you’ve seen Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, you know what I’m talking about.)

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The reason we revere Peter and revile Judas boils down to faith. By “faith,” I do not mean something simple like “Peter believed that Jesus was God and Judas did not.” No, I’m talking about the type of faith that is mentioned in the Holy Thursday account in the Gospel of Luke:

“Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you.” But Jesus replied, “I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows this day, you will deny three times that you know me.”

There’s a bit of a paradox contained in these lines. On the one hand, Jesus prays that Peter’s faith will not fail, even as he accurately predicts the upcoming denial. So what is this faith that Jesus prays will not fail?

Faith in forgiveness. Jesus isn’t praying that Peter won’t deny him; he knows that will happen. Jesus is praying that Peter not lose faith that he can truly “turn back”: that he can repent, rejoin the community, and even strengthen his brothers and sisters. It is faith in the love and mercy of God, which is to say faith in the ministry of Jesus that Peter had witnessed first hand.

And turn back he did. After the bitter tears had dried up, after his wounded pride had healed and he could look fully at what he did, Peter came back (or, maybe, limped back) to the community that had assembled around Jesus.

Judas did not come back. Matthew’s Gospel says:

“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.”

To my mind, these are among the saddest words in Christianity. Though repentant, Judas has no faith in forgiveness — whether forgiveness of himself, forgiveness from the community, or forgiveness from God. We know he never returned. This is true whether he hung himself, fell in a ditch and spilled his guts, or died an old man in his bed.

The sadness of this is made all the sharper by the fact that as Judas hands Jesus over to the chief priests, Jesus calls him “Friend.” We should take Jesus at his word, even if Judas could not.

This is part of the Holy Thursday story. And frankly, it’s the part of the story that most resonates with me and, I suspect, many of us. Because in my more honest moments, it is easier to identify with Peter and Judas than with Jesus. Sin and brokenness are more familiar realities than self-giving love.

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I like to console myself sometimes with the idea that if I had been around at the time of Jesus, a lot of my questions and doubts about him would have been resolved. “It would be easy to believe” — I say to no one but myself, nodding in agreement with my inner monologue — “after seeing him walking on water, or witnessing his transfiguration on a high mountain.” How much luckier were the disciples, who saw him walking around, doing good, raising hell — or at least raising the dead?

Judas and Peter amply demonstrate that the connection between seeing and believing is far from straightforward. So too with us. We see and we believe, as they did. And we fall, as they did. None of us is spared the intrusion of the cold, dark hand of sin that from time to time covers our hearts — the type of temptation that can lead us to betray and deny even the ones we love.

“I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back . . . .” How hard that turning is, and how hard to believe that it will be greeted with: “Friend.”

I might be accused, even at such a late point in this essay, of trying to rehabilitate Judas. Not exactly. What I want to say is: we miss the point when we see Judas as just the Bible villain, the betrayer. He is that, and more. He is who we are, we who also betray in ways small and spectacular, secret and public. And he is who we might mistakenly become, when our faith in forgiveness falters.

Image via Shutterstock

Timothy O'Brien
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  • Tom from North Carolina

    I prefer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation; Jesus started believing his own PR and Judas was ultimately doing what Jesus wanted.

  • marlenewinell

    So you are saying Judas’ sin was not having faith in forgiveness? Wow, that’s a neat new trick!