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)

Edward Okuń, “Judas,” 1901
Edward Okuń, “Judas,” 1901 (photo: Public Domain)

Why did he do it? I mean, really, why did Judas betray Christ?

There are just so many theories. Some believe that Judas betrayed Christ because he, in a misguided way, wanted to help Jesus “clear the air” with the Jewish authorities and thus be able to get his message out even further. Others posit that Judas was possessed by the Devil. We read that Satan “entered him” (Luke 22:3). Did he have free will? Some have speculated that all this is part of a grand scheme of events, all part of the plan and Judas was just playing his part in the vast cosmic drama. Still others have the thought that Judas was just trying to force Jesus to take a stand, that he was disillusioned by Jesus’ slow pace and focus on the world to come rather than the revolutionary actions that this zealot wanted. A few, in a rather odd way of thinking, seem to imply that the Lord Jesus wished Judas to betray him so that all this lead to the events of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. And there are those who take the story on face value and hold that love of money, pure and simple greed for those 30 pieces of silver, was at the cause of Judas’ actions. Perhaps the most radical interpretation I had ever come across held that Judas had been simply a representative character, someone who represented the people of Israel of Jesus’ day.

In some of these accounts from exegetes, theologians and spiritual writers, Judas comes across as almost a victim of circumstance who just had the whole situation get out of hand. Why did he do it?

Personally, I think we’ll never know the whole situation and I don’t believe that we really need to know why he did it. What we do need to know for certain is that he betrayed the Lord. What we do need to know for certain is that he sinned and turned away from the Lord. We need to know that he was the agent who handed the One who is truth, goodness, beauty and love incarnate to the hands of sinful men. Why he did isn’t as important as the fact that he did it.

The fact is, for all of us, that we all, each in our own way, sin. Each of us, in thought, word and deed, betray the Lord who loves us by giving us life, who taught us through Sacred Scripture, through the unchanging Tradition of the Church and the Magisterium, and by whom we’ve been fed by his Real Presence in the Eucharist. We sin, sadly in great ways, by mortal sins and in little ways by venial sins. We sin by our personal actions and by our cooperation in social sin, the prevailing attitude of this world that leads to the culture of death. We sin in our actions and our attitudes. All of us, especially those of us who share in Sacred Orders, need to recognize this sad reality.

However, the good news is that, once we recognize our sin, we have no need for the despair that overtook Judas. We have the power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, of having our souls cleansed, shriven of the dirt and defilement of sin. We priests, we who absolve the sins of men and women in the world, of those under our pastoral care, need ourselves to seek out the healing remedy of the Sacrament of Penance, to make our confession to the Lord and receive that sacramental healing which only the Lord Jesus can offer us through the ministry of the Church. The Mirror of Truth that is the Sacrament of Reconciliation waits for us who are ministers of reconciliation. With so many in the world today without access to the Sacrament of Penance, if we who are priests who might be blessed to live in community with another priest, we should also seek sacramental absolution this Holy Week for our sins, all the while longing to bring the sacrament to our sisters and brothers in a regular fashion as soon as this pandemic begins to subside.

May we not be like Judas and fall into despair when we recognize, when we acknowledge our sins but as St. Francis De Sales urges us: “Do not be disheartened by your imperfections, but always rise up with fresh courage.”