How Do I Not Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

SCRIPTURES & ART: The Gospel for Wednesday of Holy Week focuses on Judas Iscariot’s deal with the Temple authorities to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

János Pentelei Molnar, “The Thirty Pieces of Silver,” 1909
János Pentelei Molnar, “The Thirty Pieces of Silver,” 1909 (photo: Public Domain)

As we have seen, the Gospels of the first three days of Holy Week set the stage for Jesus’ Passion and Death. Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly on Sunday. Monday’s Gospel speaks of the anointing of his feet with costly nard, which stirs up Judas’ indignation. Tuesday’s speaks of Jesus’ discreet indication of his betrayer at the Last Supper. Wednesday’s focuses on the “Pact of Judas,” his deal with the Temple authorities to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

The reading of the Gospels this week should not be taken to suggest the actual chronological flow of events. All three Gospels focus on Judas’ avarice, but today’s Gospel indicates that Judas had already conspired with the Jewish establishment before the Last Supper was even planned. The readings as arranged at Mass establish a general tenor to these days, not a strict sequential historical play-by-play. 

Matthew presents Judas as taking the initiative: he “goes” to the “chief priests” and already asks not for a bribe but its amount. They offer him “30 pieces of silver” which — as noted in our essay on Sunday’s reading — has significance in terms of Old Testament antecedents (Jeremiah, Zechariah, Exodus, even arguably Genesis) but is actually a pitiful sum, the compensation due an owner for harming a slave (Exodus 21:32). Two things are telling about it: (1) the contempt in which the chief priests held Jesus, whose emptying himself to take the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7) elicits not their faith but their derision; and (2) the malice driving Judas, who simply takes that pitiful sum without apparently making even the least effort to bargain it upward. He simply sets upon looking “for an opportunity to hand him over.”

Taking “30 pieces of silver” has passed into our language as a euphemism for being a sellout: a Ukrainian border guard, on orders of his superior, handed the departing Belarusian ambassador 30 coins, intended symbolically to represent that country’s collusion in Russia’s 2022 attack on Ukraine.

Today’s Gospel details a second sign of Judas’ malicious contempt: Jesus discreetly notes that his betrayer would share food with him, dip “his hand into the dish with me.” Imagine hummus or some other Near Eastern food where one shares a common dipping bowl. Sharing a meal is a sign of common trust (the reason the cutting edge of a knife on a properly set table faces inward reflects that custom). It’s what we mean by “breaking bread together,” although that idiom emerges from the Last Supper. In a post-COVID world where there are still places that do not offer buffets or salad bars likewise points to the idea of a feeling of common trust at table Judas betrays.

Of course, Judas still has two more acts of hypocritical contempt in store: his sacrilegious reception of the Holy Eucharist at that Last Supper and his use of a kiss as his tipoff sign to betray Christ. Receiving the Eucharist is a sign of communion — we call this sacrament “Communion” — yet communion is the last thing one can say characterizes the relationship between Judas and Jesus. Taking the Bread of Life while he plans Jesus’ death is what makes Judas’ act not “pharmaceutical” but death-dealing (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It’s that same principle that motivates those who maintain properly that politicians whose policies promote death should not be sacrilegeously admitted to the Bread of Life of the Eucharist. 

Judas does the same thing in the Garden of Gethsemane: he perverts the reality of something to achieve his goals. He perverted the Eucharist as communion with the Lord and Giver of Life to plot his death. And he perverts a kiss — a sign of love and trust — to betray him. 

Human acts are not infinitely malleable. If somebody slapped you in the face hard and then said, “It’s a sign I love you,” you’d have to conclude that the person is either mocking you or is mentally impaired. You’d conclude those things — and you’d be right — because no matter what one claims, a slap in the face cannot mean what the slapper claims it means. That principle has obvious implications across a whole range of moral behavior: Paul Quay did an excellent job applying it to the symbolic meaning of human sexuality. 

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by Hungarian artist János Pentelei-Molnár (1878-1924). Trained in Munich, Paris and Budapest, the painting dates from 1909. I can find no English commentaries on it.

Judas is presumably the young man on the left in envious green. His youth may be both historically accurate and making a point. Jesus was about 30 when he began his public ministry, and one suspects many of the Apostles were his peers in terms of age. The chief priests would have probably been older, “senior statesmen” in the political dance between the Jewish people and their Roman overlords. But Pentelei-Molnár may also be making a point about Judas’ youth and immaturity: he gets suckered for 30 pieces of silver.

Are his two closest interlocutors Annas and Caiaphas? Is Caiaphas in the blood red, having suggested the expediency of “one man dying for the people” (John 11:50; 18:40). He appears to be the one pushing the coins forward. The others simply watch, though perhaps his opposite number casts a more careful eye on the young colluder?

The focus of light in the painting appears to be the coins. They illumine the three main dramatis personae and, by extension, everybody else. 

The two figures we identify as Annas and Caiaphas are not dressed as first-century Jewish priests but as Hungarian leaders in national costume. Though the painting comes late in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and at least 40 years after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 that in theory made both peoples co-equal in their “united kingdom,” one suspects that the Hungarians felt a need to showcase their national identity at the time. Similar phenomena can be seen in other Central European countries of the era, with this difference: Hungarians were in theory part of ruling and occupying people, not the ruled and occupied, like the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks or Croats. 

I make the observation because sometimes the introduction of anachronistic elements into religious art complicates understanding the art. I maintain that, above all, art must speak by sight. While the presence of the coins may suggest it, if a person did not know the title of this piece, would he necessarily conclude that it depicts Judas and the Temple authorities colluding to arrest Jesus? Given how “30 pieces of silver” has entered into Western culture as a euphemism for political sellout, could one not assume that the painting depicts some episode in Hungarian history when just that happened? That’s what I mean by the ambiguity of art. Like the symbol of a kiss, it can bend only so far before it begins to break. Compare it to Giotto’s treatment of the same subject here.

Edward Okuń, “Judas,” 1901

Why Did Judas Iscariot Do What He Did?

“Let's think of the little Judases that we all have within ourselves. Every one of us is capable of choosing between loyalty and self-interest. We are each capable of betraying, of selling, of making choices based on our own interests. Where are you, Judas?” (Pope Francis, April 8, 2020)