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!