Today’s first reading from Isaiah sets the tone of betrayal and persecution that occupies the gospel account relating the story of Judas, one of the most enigmatic and tragic characters in the entire Bible. Traditionally, this was called Spy Wednesday, and sometimes Holy Wednesday, and in the Orthodox Church, Holy and Great Wednesday — not officially part of the great Lenten Feasts that culminate in the Easter celebrations, but still noteworthy. The Eastern Church has chosen to focus on the woman with the alabaster jar who anointed Jesus’ feet the day before the Last Supper, which seems like a good idea, too. That’s about love, repentance, and forgiveness.
We don’t know much about Judas. He was the son of a man named Simon according to the Gospel of John [John 6:71, John 13:2, 26] — and John tells us more about Judas
than any other gospel. Iscariot may mean that he came from a village with that name —Kerioth (Qerioth), which is mentioned in the Book of Joshua [Josh 15:25] and has been identified with a ruin called el-Kureitein, some 10 miles south of Hebron.
What we do know about Judas is based on his role first of all in the band of disciples around Jesus. He was the treasurer, whether by accident or design. John tells us that he was also a thief and a liar, possibly even a murderer (being, as it is surmised, one of the sicarii or cutthroats, which might also explain his surname). In any case, John clearly puts to rest ancient if not recent efforts to rehabilitate Judas as a misguided patriot trying to force Jesus to take up the cause of Jewish emancipation as a military leader. He says, simply, that Judas was a devil [John 6:70-71], and that when the hour came, “the devil put it into his heart to betray Jesus” [John 13:2].
In any case, Judas Iscarioth has achieved a kind of immortality as the betrayer, the friend who handed over his leader with a kiss, at least according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John omits it, as if the very thought was too hateful. In fact, he mentions only that Judas led those who came to arrest Jesus. The real drama is between Jesus and the guards.
Only Matthew tells us that Judas hanged himself. Luke thinks that he jumped or fell over a cliff, and that the bribe he had been paid to betray Jesus was used to buy the field where beggars and reprobates were buried.
It doesn’t matter a great deal what happened to Judas. The point is the betrayal, and our concern is betrayal — selling out our Lord for whatever reason: money, power, control, perhaps just boredom. It is, perhaps, all too easy. Peter did it out of cowardice and found forgiveness, and that is ultimately our hope as well. As for Judas, only God knows — but there have been those in the history of Christianity who have prayed for his soul, much as old desert monks prayed for the Egyptian soldiers who perished in the Red Sea. Perhaps that is ultimately what it means to follow Jesus — to seek forgiveness and to forgive and pray for our enemies. It’s a good thought for the end of Lent, anyway.