This past summer term I led a Sunday morning session on Mark’s account of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. In my presentation I looked at a wide variety of factors which may have motivated Judas.
Greed is the most common motive assigned to Judas. Judas saw an opportunity to cash in on Jesus. But Mark, unlike Matthew, does not highlight this as a factor. He simply states that in response to his offer, the chief priests rejoiced and promised to give him money. No actual sum was specified, and we are never told that they did pay him what they promised.
Some have suggested that disillusionment may have laid at the root of his betrayal. Was Judas disillusioned by the failure of Jesus to follow up his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Instead of using his popular support to storm the Roman HQ, Mark tells us that when Jesus “had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the 12” (11.11).
In contrast to Mark, Luke and John give Satan the credit. As far as they were concerned, for them Judas was simply Satan’s instrument. But to what extent can we put all the blame on Satan? For none of us can be used by Satan without our consent. The glory – and the tragedy of humankind is that we have been given a free will: it is for us to choose to be used by God or to be used by Satan.
Mark, along with the other Gospel writers, attributes the betrayal of Judas to the fulfilment of Scripture. “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (14.21: see also 14.48, 49). Unlike John, Mark does not refer to a particular Scripture is referred to. It could be that Mark just wanted to say that everything takes place according to God’s plan.
But if God was at work in the betrayal, where does this leave Judas? I am not convinced that Judas was predestined to betray Jesus, and I find it difficult to believe that Jesus picked Judas to be one of the 12 in order that Judas might betray him. If we believe that our Lord’s incarnation involved some lack of knowledge (and there were things that Jesus confessed he did not know) then it is not difficult to believe that he chose Judas with the same affection as he chose the others. Indeed, even when Jesus did realize what Judas was up to, he did not give up. For at the Last Supper Jesus appealed to him to change his mind by confronting him with his own sin: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me” (14.18)
In the final analysis we do not know what motivated Judas. Yet even if Judas did betray Jesus for the worst of reasons, it is doubtful if he is the real villain of the Passion story. For Jesus did not die because of Judas – he died because of you and me. Yes, we, as a result of our sin, put Jesus on the Cross. We must never forget that. It is all too easy to see the warts of Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas, and the crowd – but in the end the people we should condemn are ourselves.
What is more, as Mark’s account of the final events in the Garden of Gethsemane make clear, the other disciples let Jesus down well and truly: “All of them deserted him and fled” (14.50). As James Edwards wrote in his commentary on Mark:
All drank the cup (14.23), all pledged to die with him (14.31)… and all desert! The ‘all’ in v50 is made emphatic in Greek by placing it at the end of the sentence: the betrayal of Judas is thus multiplied by the wholesale failure of the disciples; they all abandon Jesus and flee.
However, the ultimate tragedy of Judas was not that he betrayed Jesus, but that he saw betrayal as unforgiveable. It is here that we may make a comparison with Peter. For Peter denied his Lord. True, Jesus was in the hands of his enemies at that time, but nonetheless Peter denied Jesus three times. Was Peter’s denial any worse than Judas’ betrayal? The real difference between the two is that Peter discovered there was a way back. Judas was not lost because he betrayed Christ, but because he never asked to be forgiven. In the words of Alexander Maclaren, the famous Manchester Baptist preacher:
There is no penitence or remorse which is deep enough for the smallest transgression; but there is no transgression which is so great but that forgiveness for it may come.
There is no such thing as an unpardonable sin – the only unpardonable sin is the refusing the pardon that avails for us all. The good news of the Gospel is that in the words of 1 John 1.8: “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin”. Sadly, Judas was blind to the possibility of beginning again.