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“For Worldly Sorrow Brings Death.” A Meditation on the Sad End of Judas and What Might Have Been.

April 15, 2014

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As we continue to ponder some of the texts of the Matthean Passion Narrative, we turn to the difficult case of Judas. To many modern readers, Judas is something of a sympathetic character. Some of this is due to our (rather flawed) moral reasoning, reasoning that places exaggerated emphasis on subjective issues (such as intentions, feelings, etc.) and almost no emphasis on the objective morality of the act itself. Granted, both elements are important, but our modern emphasis creates a rather skewed tendency to evade personal responsibility and to overlook the objective harm of sin.

But, to be fair, the biblical text itself also evokes some sympathy for Judas, who deeply regretted what he had done and even went so far as to return the money. The text says,

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)

It is clear that Judas is sorrowful for his sin and this is surely one component of what we call contrition. He even returns the money, a further sign of his sorrow, and wishes to be free of any profit from his sin.

And yet we are also faced with the fact that he went and hanged himself, which, while further indicating his sorrow, remains objectively an act of despair. Instead of turning to Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end the pain of his guilt rather than facing the Lord, admitting his sin, and humbly seeking mercy from the Lord and His Body, the Church.

In this, Judas acts quite differently from Peter, who at first ran off in sorrow after denying the Lord, but did not turn in on himself. Rather, in spite of his humiliation, Peter remained rooted in the early community of the Church, and found healing with the Lord in an honest conversation at the lakeside (cf John 21). None of this could have been easy for Peter. Surely, a part of him wanted to run off and hide his guilt and shame from the Lord and from others. But unlike Judas, he stayed in communion with the early Church and let the Lord find him.

St. Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow for sin, and what he writes is instructive for us here when we ponder Judas and his fate:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)

And thus Godly sorrow draws us to repentance and back to the Lord. The Greek word here translated as “repentance” is μετάνοιαν (metanoian) meaning, more richly, “to come to a change of mind,” or “to change one’s thinking.” And this change “leads” us to salvation.

But what is salvation? It is not just to have a certain legal status; it is to be in a saving and transformative relationship with the Lord. And Godly sorrow leaves no regret because of this healing, merciful, and joyful relationship to which it restores us.

In this way, we can see how Judas’ sorrow was lacking in two important fruits. First, it did not lead him back to salvation, that is, back to Jesus. Second, it did not remove regret. Judas remained devastated and was not willing to seek to return to a relationship with Jesus. Why was this? It is hard to say. Perhaps he would have been too humiliated to face Jesus or the community. Whatever regret he had, he was not willing to share it humbly. And thus, instead of turning to the Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end his pain on his own terms rather than those of the Lord or his Body, the Church.

St. Paul says simply and bluntly of worldly sorrow: it produces death. It is known by its fruits: separation, isolation, inwardness, and finally death – both spiritual and physical.

So yes, Judas had sorrow for what he had done. But it was the wrong kind of sorrow, the worst kind of sorrow.

What became of Judas in terms of salvation? To many of us, despite a reflection like this, we retain the hope that perhaps he could ultimately have been saved. Was he? Here too we cannot certainly say. But Jesus himself gives us a rather sad clue when he says of Judas,

The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Mk 14:21)

It is difficult for us to imagine Jesus saying this about a man who is ultimately saved and makes it heaven. So while we’re not sure, it certainly doesn’t look too good for Judas!

Our sympathy for Judas has understandable roots. But in the end, his fatal flaw (and the difference between him and Peter) was that Judas repented unto himself, not unto the Lord. When you walk, sometimes you fall; but if you fall, make sure you fall on Jesus!

A final postscript to the sad story of Judas is to ponder what might have been. Can you imagine the glory of the moment, had Judas come to Jesus in sorrow and received mercy and forgiveness? Imagine beautiful churches all over the world named “St. Judas Parish,” “St Judas – Patron of Sinners,” “St Judas Refuge of Criminals,” “The Parish of St Judas the Reconciled.” Imagine the novenas and prayers of similar titles: “Novena to St. Judas, Patron of Lost Souls,”  “A Prayer to St Judas for a Worthy Confession.” Parishes might even have dedicated their “Lost and Found” department to St. Judas!

But none of this was to be, “for worldly sorrow brings death.” Save us O Lord from final despair!

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Comments (14)

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  1. JoanieH says:

    I’ve never heard “worldly sorrow” elucidated in such a way, and now that it is clearer to me, it’s noticeable in many places, including myself. What a distinction to make, and a very important one at that. Though the story of Judas is very sad, it is great that we can learn from him in this perhaps “unintended” parable. Very beneficial observation to make for Holy Week. Thank you.

  2. edraCruz says:

    The tale of two sorrows, one that turned into oneself in desperation and cannot forgive himself and one that turned unto the one he offended and sought forgiveness. Forgive me oh LORD, have mercy on me a poor sinner, remember me in YOUR Kingdom for into THY Hand I commend my life, my spirit. Yeshua HaMashiach!

  3. Mark says:

    “Imagine beautiful churches all over the world named “St. Judas Parish…”

    This brings to mind an exhibit at the Ursulinenkirche in Linz a few years ago, called “Requiem für einen Freund. Judas Iskariot”. (I don’t know if it’s there any longer, the discussion about it was from back in 2005). You can read about it here:

    http://www.kath.net/news/10044 (German)
    http://forum.fidelitas.pl/viewtopic.php?t=278 (Polish)
    http://cathcon.blogspot.com/2005/03/shrine-to-judas-in-town-of-linz.html (English)

    • Strange. Let me be clear, my pondering on the Church names etc., was premised on something that did not happen so far as we know by any revelation, Namely that Judas repented unto the Lord and the Church. Hence to have shrines etc or to speak of Judas as “A friend” is not appropriate.

  4. Teofila Bepko says:

    So wise and true.
    God bless you.
    +++

  5. Marguerite says:

    I’ve also read that Judas’ despair came from his going back to the Pharisees to undo his sin of betrayal instead of going to Jesus for forgiveness.

  6. Annette Strachan says:

    Had Judas EVER loved The Lord? Was he ever as Peter?

  7. Vijaya says:

    This year we celebrate the fifth year anniversary of our reception into the Church, and now that we have grown deeper in our faith, my sorrow over my past sins are greater than before. I know we have been forgiven, but we still bear the consequences. Some regrets run too deep for me to be completely joyful. I hate being a Judas.

    Your reflection is a reminder of what turning inward and navel-gazing can do — lead to despair. Thank you so much for writing this. I will try harder to trust our blessed Lord.

  8. C Beltz says:

    Judas’s sorrow stemmed from stunted spirituality. He looked to human beings to assuage his guilt, rather than looking to God. When humans couldn’t make him “feel” better, he gave way to despair. He probably thought he would have felt better had they done his will and let Jesus go. Little known fact, it woudn’t have helped.

    Pride caused him to seek death rather than life. The battle with pride has been the same from the beginning as it is today. On earth, as it is in heaven. Pride causes us to put our “selfs” before God. It sits at the heart of every other sin. It caused the angels to fall from heaven, and the war continues here on earth.

    Since we are human, we are incapable of divine forgiveness. Judas lacked humility, where Peter was gifted with an abundance. Humility would have given Judas the courage to seek what he could not find here on earth. Instead, wounded by his pride, he chose himself rather than Jesus. Twice.

    Praise Jesus, He showed us who we really are – yet without Him, we are unable to attain our true nature. God became human, lived as a human, died as a human. A human saved the world through humility. Thank you Lord Jesus for showing us our true identity. Thank You for showing us the way home.

  9. I Like The Church Fathers says:

    Thanks for using an image from Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Monsignor.

    Ian McShane gave an excellent performance as Judas and, of course, Robert Powell is unsurpassed as Jesus – still the finest Jesus ever committed to film. So many other great performances in that production – Rod Steiger as Pilate, Ian Holm as the Sadducee.

    As brave as Mel Gibson was in giving us The Passion of the Christ, it is simply not on the same level as Zeffirelli’s masterwork.

  10. Annette Strachan says:

    Please watch YouTube We Are in Two Wars – Archbishop Fulton Sheen
    Wearing purple he defends God and his country, St. Peter he said proved himself a
    good fisherman because all he could do was hack off an ear when he wanted to cut
    a neck.
    Thanks.

  11. Carol says:

    Definitely agree, it does not look good for Judas. But – surely we have to leave it with God who alone knows for certain what Judas’ eternal fate is. I’m way old enough to remember when the Church would not have a Catholic funeral for a suicide but that has changed, apparently the thinking being that a person driven to take his/her own life is probably not capable of making rational, clear decisions about what they’re about to do.

  12. Theophilus2 says:

    “”Then Judas the Iscariot, one [of] his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.”” (Jn 12; 4-6)
    We tend to feel sad that Judas didn’t repent and be reconciled but we must remember that God in His Eternity knows Judas. He chose him for a reason, his calling was his purpose, no? (of course God never wills we betray Him) St. John shows us that Judas doesn’t seem too concerned about being a good disciple. A tree is known by it’s fruit.

  13. Deacon Timothy Tilghman says:

    l like th e comparison b/t Judas and Peter, both betrayed Jesus and were remorseful. One found a more constructive way to express his remorse, repent and return to the business of the day.