Judas Iscariot and the Mystery of God’s Plan of Salvation
BY John Lilly
October 29-November 4, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/25/06 at 9:00 AM
Pope Benedict XVI met with 30,000 people in St. Peter’s Square as he concluded his series of teachings on the Twelve Apostles. He offered his reflections on Judas Iscariot and his successor in the group of the Twelve Apostles, Matthias.
Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the fact that Judas was always included in the lists of the Twelve Apostles and was equal to them in status. Yet, in the end, Judas betrayed Jesus. “We have to ask ourselves why Jesus ever chose this man and trusted him,” the Holy Father said. “Even though he then went away to hang himself,” he said as he reflected upon the mystery of Judas’ eternal fate, “it is not up to us to judge his actions by putting ourselves in the place of God, who is infinitely merciful and just.”
“Why did he betray Jesus?” Pope Benedict XVI asked. Some scholars point to his greed for money. Other scholars offer a more messianic explanation: Judas was disappointed to see that Jesus’ plans did not include the political and military freedom of his country.
“In reality, though, the Gospel writings emphasize another aspect,” the Holy Father pointed out. “John explicitly says that ‘the devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.’ Likewise, Luke writes that ‘Satan entered into Judas, the one surnamed Iscariot, who was counted among the Twelve.’ Thus, they transcend any historical reasons and explain what occurred by attributing it to the personal responsibility of Judas, who gave in to the temptation of the evil one in a most pathetic way.”
It is a mistake to think that the great privilege of living in the company of Jesus is enough to make a person holy. Jesus does not force our will when he calls us.
“We must take Jesus’ side over and over again and assume his point of view. We must try, day after day, to be in full communion with him.”
Judas’ betrayal became an occasion for Jesus’ supreme act of love for the salvation of the world.
Matthias, Pope Benedict XVI noted, was a witness to the whole of Jesus’ life of earth. He remained faithful to Jesus to the end. We, too, the Holy Father emphasized, are called to make reparation for the sins of others by our faithful witness to Christ.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, as we conclude our series of reflections on the Twelve Apostles whom Jesus personally called during his life here on earth, we cannot omit the apostle who is always mentioned last in the lists of the Twelve Apostles: Judas Iscariot. Following that, we will reflect on Matthias, the person who was later chosen to be his substitute.
Mere mention of Judas’ name stirs up among Christians an instinctive reaction of disapproval and condemnation. The meaning of the name “Iscariot” is disputed.
The most popular explanation is that it means a “man from Kerioth,” in reference to his native village, which was located in the area around Hebron and is mentioned twice in Sacred Scripture (see Joshua 15:25; Amos 2:2). Others interpret it as a variant of the word “sicarius,” meaning “hired assassin,” alluding to a warrior armed with a dagger, which is called sica in Latin.
Finally, some see the name as
simply the transcription of a Hebrew-Aramaic root word that means “the one who
was going to betray him.” This expression is found twice in the fourth Gospel:
after Peter’s confession of faith (see John 6:71) and later during the
Other passages indicate that the betrayal was already in progress, by saying “who was betraying him,” as was the case during the Last Supper after Jesus announced his betrayal (see Matthew 26:25) and later when Jesus was arrested (see Matthew 26:46, 48; John 18:2, 5).
On the other hand, the lists of the Twelve Apostles record the betrayal as something that had already occurred: Mark refers to “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him” (see 3:19), while Matthew (see 10:4) and Luke (see 6:16) use similar formulas. The betrayal, as such, occurred in two movements: First, there was the planning stage, where Judas made an agreement with Jesus’ enemies in return for 30 pieces of silver (see Matthew 26:14-16); later, it was carried out with the kiss he gave to the master in Gethsemane (see Matthew 26:46-50).
In any case, the Gospel writers emphasize that Judas was indeed an apostle, including all that it entailed: He is repeatedly called “one of the twelve” (see Matthew 26:14, 47; Mark 14:10, 20; John 6:71) or one “who was counted among the Twelve” (see Luke 22:3). Moreover, on two occasions, Jesus, addressing the apostles and speaking about Judas, refers to him as “one of you” (see Matthew 26:21; Mark 14:18; John 6:70; 13:21). Peter would later say that Judas “was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry” (see Acts 1:17). Thus, he belongs to the group of those whom Jesus had chosen as his close companions and collaborators.
This raises two questions as we attempt to explain the events that occurred. First, we have to ask ourselves why Jesus ever chose this man and trusted him. In fact, even though Judas was clearly in charge of the group’s finances (see John 12:6b; 13:29a), he is also described as a “thief” (see John 12:6a).
His choice remains mysterious, all the more so, given that Jesus judges him rather severely: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” (see Matthew 26:24). The mystery becomes even greater when we consider Judas’ eternal fate, knowing that he “deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood’” (see Matthew 27:3-4).
Even though he then went away to hang himself (see Matthew 27:5), it is not up to us to judge his actions by putting ourselves in the place of God, who is infinitely merciful and just.
The second question touches upon the motive for Judas’ behavior. Why did he betray Jesus? The question has been the subject of several theories.
Some point to his greed for money. Others favor an explanation that is messianic in nature: Judas was disappointed to see that Jesus’ plan did not include the political and military liberation of his country.
In reality, though, the Gospel writings highlight another aspect. John explicitly says that “the devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over” (John 13:2). Likewise, Luke writes that “Satan entered into Judas, the once surnamed Iscariot, who was counted among the Twelve” (Luke 22:3).
Thus, they transcend any historical reasons and explain what occurred by attributing it to the personal responsibility of Judas, who gave in to the temptation of the evil one in a most pathetic way. Whatever the case, Judas’ betrayal continues to be a mystery. Jesus treated him like a friend (see Matthew 26:50), yet in his invitations to him to follow him on the path of the Beatitudes he did not force his will or protect him against Satan’s temptations, but respected his human freedom.
Communion With Jesus
Truly, there are many ways the human heart can be perverted. The only way to avoid them is by not cultivating a view of life that is merely individualistic and autonomous. On the contrary, we must take Jesus’ side over and over again and assume his point of view. We must try, day after day, to be in full communion with him.
Let us recall that even Peter
opposed him and what awaited him in
After his fall, Peter repented and
found forgiveness and grace. Judas also repented but his repentance degenerated
into despair and, in this way, became self-destructing. This is an invitation
for us to always remember what St. Benedict says at the end of Chapter 5 — the
fundamental chapter — of his Rule:
“Never despair of God’s mercy.” Indeed, “God is greater than our hearts,” as
Therefore, let us remember two things. First, Jesus respects our freedom. Second, Jesus awaits our openness for repentance and conversion: he is rich in mercy and forgiveness. In fact, when we think about the negative role that Judas played, we must consider it within the framework of God’s greater plan for these events.
Judas’ betrayal led to Jesus’ death, but Jesus transformed this tremendous torment into a saving love by handing himself over to the Father (see Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:2, 25). The verb “betray” is a version of the Greek word that means “to hand over.” At times its subject is God himself in person: He is the one who, out of love, “handed over” Jesus for us all (see Romans 8:32).
In his mysterious plan of salvation, God takes Judas’ act, for which there is no excuse, as on opportunity for the total gift of his Son for the redemption of the world.
The Faithful One
Concluding, we wish to recall the
one who was chosen after Easter to replace this traitor. Two men were proposed
to the community of the
We do not know anything more about him, except that he was a witness to all the events of Jesus’ life on earth (see Acts 1: 21-22), and remained faithful to him to the end. Later, God’s call to take Judas’ place was added to the greatness of his faithfulness, as though compensating for Judas’ betrayal.
Let us draw a final lesson here: Even though there is no lack of unworthy and traitorous Christians in the Church, it is up to each one of us to counterbalance the evil they do with our clear testimony to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
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