The Despair of the Traitor

We do not know at what precise moment in our Lord's Passion the last weird scene in Judas's dreadful crime took place, at what instant the unfortunate man, yielding to the waves of despair sweeping over - his guilty soul, gave up the struggle and determined upon his own ruin. It may have happened while our Lord was before Herod or on His way back to Pilate. Events had, however, by that time sufficiently advanced to convince the faithless Apostle that any prospect of escape for the prisoner was hopeless. What the end would be was clear: Jesus would be condemned. Set of sun would find Him lifeless outside the walls of the city, and its slanting rays would light up the blood-stained body of the Master dead upon the cross.

Our Lord's condemnation Judas saw in the great throngs surging through the streets. He heard it in their strident cries for His blood, perceived it in the fierce looks upon their faces. From all sides he felt the evidence of his treachery, and there was no escape, no help, no hope. There was the blood of an innocent man, a loved master, upon his soul, and "casting down the pieces of silver in the Temple, he departed; and went and hanged himself with a halter."

This story of Judas, while a sad one, and possibly among the keenest sufferings of our Lord's passion, if not the keenest, as some Saints have said, has its lesson for us. We shall, therefore, trace step by step, the various stages in the dread scenes of this awful tragedy.

Judas was from Judea, born, perhaps, down amid the sunny, vine-clad hills of Hebron, where David was anointed king, and where, perhaps, the Baptist was born. He may have been a child of winning ways whom his mother loved, and whom she brought many a time and oft to the Temple at the Passover-tide. When he had grown to manhood, happening to be in Galilee, he had witnessed the wonders wrought by the Galilean prophet among the hills and by the Lake. Such power and such kindliness, such strength and such tenderness, such love and such affection, he had never witnessed among the Priests whom he had seen in the Temple at the Holy City. Moved by zeal and affection for the new Prophet, he joined himself to the disciples and cast in his lot with them. On that bright spring morning in the first year of our Lord s public ministry, when coming down from the mountain where He had spent the night in prayer, He picked out the Twelve for a closer companionship and Judas was one of the chosen ones.

We can be certain that that morning there was no thought of treachery, no determination of deceit, no purpose of disloyalty to his new Master, in the heart of Judas. He was probably more gifted than the others; he was from Judea, and had frequently been in the Holy City and at the Temple; he had mingled with the Priests, the Pharisees, and the Romans in the market place at the Joppa gate, and in the porches of the Temple on Mount Moriah. He had more experience in everyday affairs while his companions were simple fishermen, unacquainted with a life different from the simple customs and toil which filled up their days and nights fishing upon the Lake.

When our Lord picked Judas out that spring morning, his heart must have been touched with love and affection, and the crime that later proved his undoing was far from his thoughts. His ruin was no sudden storm, no quick volcanic outburst of passion which swept him off his feet, but a gradual growth that blinded his mind, weakened his will and little by little rotted the healthy fibre of his spirit. The blindness of soul came on gradually, the weakness of will imperceptibly and his warm love cooled slowly and unsuspectingly till at length gripped by the vice of avarice he betrayed his Master for thirty pieces of silver.

Judas's fall was brought about through the indulgence of one inclination, one tendency, one passion, the passion of avarice. This vice grew, day by day, in his soul till its mastery was so strong, its grip so tight that for its gratification he did not hesitate to sell for the price of a common slave, the Master whom he had once loved.

Because of his experience, of his knowledge of affairs, our Lord had appointed him to the charge of the money contributed by pious souls for the support of the Apostles. Going up and down the country, preaching the Kingdom of God, provision for our Lord's and His Apostles support was supplied by the charity of those who naturally, in this manner, wished to express their gratitude. Whatever was thus given was passed on to Judas, who was supposed to use it for the common needs. There seems no doubt, that after a time the avaricious Apostle began to pilfer and appropriate to himself what belonged to all, and thus he began to feed fat the passion already sufficiently strong in his soul.

The day dawned when his greed for gold became so powerful that he was blinded to all else and sold his Master to satisfy his longing for money. Judas might never have betrayed our Lord if the strong appeal to his master passion had not found his soul ready to respond. When that appeal came, he would have been able to resist, had he not already enervated his spiritual life by previous indulgence in smaller matters. Thus confronted by great temptation, and finding himself too weak to cope with it, and its solicitation too strong, he yielded and with one wild leap plunged over the yawning abyss of despair.

Something similar can happen in any human life. To any man may come a crisis when in a moment he must make a decision upon which depends joy or sorrow, Heaven or hell. That decision, that choice, is determined by the whole past. His daily decisions between self-indulgence and duty, throughout the departed years, are really what fix his choice for weal or woe, at this all-important moment. So it was with Judas. Little by little, day by day, act by act, avarice had gripped his soul by small frequent infidelities, so that when the trial came, when the test was applied, when the choice had to be made between money and the Master, he failed. He betrayed Christ and steeped his hands in His blood and stained his soul with the guilt of the murder of the Man-God. That last deed of treachery was prepared for by repeated acts of infidelity during the years of his ministry.

Let us study the final scene in this sad and painful catastrophe. On the eve of Palm Sun day, as He passed through Bethany, our Lord was entertained by Simon, the leper. Possibly Simon had been cured of the foul disease of leprosy by the healing touch of the Master, and so took this opportunity of showing his gratitude to his benefactor. Simon had been an outcast in the hills with a leathern thong over his lips, banished from the haunts of man and from those that he loved, forbidden even to drink from the stream that flowed by, and forced to cry out: "Unclean, unclean," at the sound of a human footstep. One day he saw the Master on the white road that wound through the hills, and rushing he fell at His feet, pleading that he might be made sound. Gratitude was too deep in Simon's heart ever to allow him to forget that favor, and on Palm Sunday Eve, as our Lord was passing on to the Passover in the Sacred City, Simon manifested his thanks by entertaining our Lord at a banquet.

In the course of the feast "Mary took a pound of ointment of rich spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, he that was to betray Him, said: 'Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?'" Here we have evidence of the power of avarice over the soul of the unfortunate and changed Apostle. Three years ago he would not have regarded as waste any manifestation of affection for his Master, however costly, but in those three years, Judas had sadly changed, the daily indulgence of his avarice had killed in his soul the love for Christ, and now he begrudged Him this expression of Mary's gratitude and love, even cloaking his objection under the hypocritical guise of charity. For Saint John tells us: "He said this, not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief and having the purse carried the things that were put therein."

It was at this precise moment of weakness that the great temptation came to Judas, that the strong appeal was made to the master passion which was corroding his soul. Only a few weeks before our Lord had raised Lazarus from the dead, and no incident of recent years in the Sacred City was better known. This miracle was talked of in the porches of the Temple, in the market place at the Joppa gate, and in the streets. There was no one that had not heard of it, and so our Lord's popularity with the common people was enormously increased. Now at the time of the Passover which was at hand, the Galileans had come down from the up-country, and the report of the astounding miracle performed so recently on the dead Lazarus was naturally the first news that greeted them at their entrance to the city.

Our Lord was ever the idol of the Galileans and they, mingling with the common people, found an expression for their common enthusiasm in the outburst of loyalty that took place as they thronged on Palm Sunday morning to meet our Lord coming from Bethany to the Sacred City. The Priests saw the enthusiasm of the people, they heard the Hosannas that were chanted that morning, and heard them with chagrin, envy and jealousy. They saw their influence lessening, their power decreasing and their hold upon the people slipping from their grasp. They saw, as they said themselves, that the whole world was following Him.

Judas, with his powers of observation sharpened by his greed for gold, was no stranger to the sentiments of jealousy and envy in the hearts of the Priests. He knew that they did not want Christ in the Sacred City at the Passover time. He was aware that they were bent upon His undoing before the sacred festivities began. This, then, was his opportunity, this was the appeal to his avarice, this was the great temptation. The hatred of the Priests for Christ was so great, their desire to be rid of Him so strong, and their determination not to have Him in the city at the Feast so fixed that they would make it worth Judas's while to betray Him. They would pay him richly for his treachery.

It is not hard to picture the unfortunate Apostle stealthily making his way over the Mount of Olives and entering into the sacred precincts of the Temple, and there haggling and bargaining with the Jews for the blood of his Master until the contract was made. It was only on Good Friday morning that Judas realized the enormity of his crime, when our Lord was condemned to death. "Then Judas, who betrayed Him, seeing that He was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief Priests and Ancients, saying: I have sinned in betraying innocent blood/ But they said: What is that to us? Look thou to it. And casting down the pieces of silver in the Temple, he departed and went and hanged himself with a halter." When stung by remorse Judas appealed to the Priests; the men who had pleaded with him to do the deed of blood, who had flattered him and fawned upon him, now sent him reeling back into the darkness, with no word of encouragement, no word of comfort, and, casting down the pieces of silver on the marble pavement of the sanctuary, the cry of despair in his own soul rang louder than the jingling of the silver coin upon the stone floor.

Now the end and two scenes start up before us. From the Praetorium, stumbling with the cross upon His bleeding shoulders, the betrayed Master makes His way to Mount Calvary, and there for three hours, whilst His Mother stood at the foot of the cross, He hung between Heaven and earth, pleading for the soul of Judas. In the darkness of the eclipse, out from the eastern gate, his form bent, his forehead wrinkled, his eyes sunken in his head, with a halter round his arm, comes the despairing Judas. For a moment he looks to the north, looks towards Calvary, and then he turns sadly to the south, turns his back upon the Master hanging upon the cross, and stumbles out into the Hinnom valley, the Valley of Death, the valley where the graves have opened and the skulls are grinning as if in derision at him, and tying the rope round the limb of a juniper tree, with one wild cry of despondency, he flings himself outside the mercy of the dying Christ.

Judas's greatest sin was not the selling of his Master to the Priests and Pharisees, Judas's sin was the despair of the mercy of the Man whom he had betrayed. Had he but turned not to the south but to the north, and had he gone out the Damascus gate and about the skull-shaped hill of Mount Calvary, and crept up in the darkness and knelt beside the blue-mantled Mother and looked up into the face of the dying Christ, he would have been pardoned as the good thief was pardoned.

- from The Mountains of Myrrh, by Father John O'Rourke