Two momentous days have passed: On Monday there was the cleansing of the Temple and the laments over Jerusalem’s lack of faith; Tuesday featured exhaustive teachings by Jesus and interrogations by His opponents.
Today, Wednesday, it would seem that Jesus stays in Bethany. According to Matthew’s Gospel, the day begins with an ominous warning:
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Matthew 26:1-2).
The scene then shifts across the Kidron valley, where we “overhear” this conversation:
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people” (Matthew 26:3-5).
It is interesting that they say, “not during the festival,” because according to the Synoptic Gospels that is exactly when it ended up happening. This serves as a reminder that things unfold according to the Lord’s authority. Nothing is out of His control. No one takes the Jesus’ life; He lays it down freely. Even if one considers the Johannine tradition, which uses a different Jewish calendar to date the Passover (one day later), this all takes place right in the thick of the Passover. Why? Because the Lord is fulfilling Passover. The priests and elders can plan all they want, but God is in control.
The Lord Jesus and the Twelve likely spent a quiet sort of day and it is now later in the afternoon. Matthew’s Gospel places Jesus in Bethany, at the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6-7). According to Luke (7:36), Simon was a Pharisee. His leprosy was in remission and he had been readmitted to the community. Could he have been one of the lepers Jesus cured? We do not know. The story here is complex; there are significant differences among the various Gospel accounts. Matthew records it as follows:
A woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:7-13).
The act of anointing Jesus may have happened more than once; in the four accounts of it there are differences in both the details and the timeframes.
Luke presents this story (or a similar one) much earlier in his Gospel (Chapter 7). In his account it is Jesus’ feet not His head that are anointed. Further, Luke portrays Simon in a bad light.
Mark and Matthew place the incident on Wednesday of Holy Week, but report that it is those at the dinner (likely the apostles) who take offense at the anointing.
John’s Gospel places this event six days before Passover, but at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In John’s account it is Mary who anoints the Lord (His feet, not His head) and Judas alone who takes offense.
For our purposes on this Wednesday of Holy Week, it is enough to note that Jesus sets the meaning of this woman’s action as anointing His body for burial. Jesus is clearly moved by her act of devotion and insight.
Jesus does not slight the poor in His response, but He teaches that the worship of God and obedience to His truth are higher goods than even the care of the poor. Serving the poor is not to be set in opposition to serving God. They are related, but God always comes first. For example, one cannot skip sacred worship on Sunday simply to serve the poor (except in a grave and urgent situation); serving the poor is not a substitute for worship. The worship of God comes first and is meant to fuel our charitable and just works. Further, set in the light of the looming passion, the dying One takes precedence over the poor ones.
One of the Twelve, Judas, has become increasingly disaffected. He has not been featured prominently among the Twelve; mention of him in the Gospels is minimal. Now he emerges, as if from the shadows, to betray Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all seem to place Judas’ plans to betray Jesus as set into motion at some point on this day. The Gospel of Matthew recounts,
Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over (Matt 26:14-16).
Why did he do it? There were storm clouds gathering for Judas, by which he may have opened the door to Satan. Scripture reveals that he was a thief, stealing from the common money bag (Jn 12:6). Jesus also hints that Judas was grieved by the Bread of Life discourse, which led many to abandon Jesus when He insisted that they must eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Jesus said, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot … (Jn 6:70-71).
We can only guess at Judas’ motivations. The most likely explanation is that he was disillusion when Jesus did not measure up to the common Jewish conception of the Messiah as a revolutionary warrior who would overthrow Roman power and reestablish the Kingdom of David. Judas may have been a member of the Zealot Party or at least influenced by them in this regard. Zealots are seldom interested in hearing of their own need for personal healing and repentance, let alone the call to love their enemies. This is obviously only speculative; Judas’ motivations remain to a large degree shrouded in the mystery of iniquity.
Yes, Judas betrayed Jesus for money—a significant amount—but compared to his salvation and his soul, it was but “a mess of pottage for his birthright” (see Gen 25:34). What will it profit a man that he should gain the whole world and lose his soul? (Mk 8:36)
The widespread belief that Judas might be in Heaven may be just a tad optimistic. The Church does not declare that any particular person is in Hell, however Jesus said the following about 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. (Matt 26:24). It is hard to imagine Jesus saying this of any human person who ultimately makes it to Heaven.
The more likely biblical judgment on Judas is that he died in sin, despairing of God’s mercy on His terms. One is free to hope for a different outcome for Judas, but while the story of Judas and his possible repentance does generate some sympathy in many people today, the judgment belongs to God.
It is the saddest story never told: The repentance of Judas and his restoration by Jesus. Think of all the churches that were never built: “The Church of St. Judas, Penitent.” Think of the feast day never celebrated: “The Repentance of Judas.”
Judas goes his way, freely. God did not force him to play this role. He only knew what Judas would do beforehand and based His plans on Judas’ free choice.
Thus ends this Wednesday of Holy Week. It was a calmer day, a day spent among friends, yet a day on which Satan entered one man, who set a betrayal in motion. The storm clouds gather.