The Pope: On Judas Iscariot and Matthias

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

On completing today the review of the Twelve Apostles called directly by Jesus during his earthly life, we cannot fail to mention the one who always appears in the last place: Judas Iscariot. We want to associate him with the person who was later chosen to substitute him, namely, Matthias.

The name Judas alone arouses among Christians an instinctive reaction of reprobation and condemnation. The meaning of the name “Iscariot” is controversial: The most used explanation says that it means “man from Queriyyot,” in reference to his native village, located in the surroundings of Hebron, mentioned twice in sacred Scripture (cf. Joshua 15:25; Amos 2:2).

Others interpret it as a variation of the term “hired assassin,” as if it alluded to a guerrilla armed with a dagger, called “sica” in Latin. Finally, some see in the label the simple transcription of a Hebrew-Aramaic root that means: “He who was going to betray him.” This mention is found twice in the fourth Gospel, that is, after a confession of faith by Peter (cf. John 6:71) and later during the anointing at Bethany (cf. John 12:4).

Other passages show that the betrayal was underway, saying: “He who betrayed him,” as happened during the Last Supper, after the announcement of the betrayal (cf. Matthew 26:25) and later at the moment Jesus was arrested (cf. Matthew 26:46.48; John 18:2.5). However, the lists of the twelve recall the betrayal as something that already occurred: “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him,” says Mark (3:19); Matthew (10:4) and Luke (6:16) use equivalent formulas.

The betrayal, as such, took place in two moments: first of all in its planning phase, when Judas comes to an agreement with Jesus’ enemies for 30 pieces of silver (cf. Matthew 26:14-16), and later in its execution with the kiss he gave the master in Gethsemane (cf. Matthew 26:46-50).

Anyway, the evangelists insist that his condition of apostle corresponded fully to him: He is repeatedly called “one of the twelve” (Matthew 26:14.47; Mark 14:10.20; John 6:71) or “of the number of the twelve” (Luke 22:3).

Moreover, on two occasions, Jesus, addressing the apostles and speaking precisely of him, indicates him as “one of you” (Matthew 26:21; Mark 14:18; John 6:70; 13:21). And Peter would say of Judas “he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry” (Acts 1:17).

He is, therefore, a figure belonging to the group of those whom Jesus had chosen as companions and close collaborators. This poses two questions when it comes to explaining what happened. The first consists in asking ourselves how it was possible that Jesus chose this man and trusted him.

In fact, though Judas is the group’s administrator (cf. John 12:6b; 13:29a), in reality he is also called “thief” (John 12:6a). The mystery of the choice is even greater, as Jesus utters a very severe judgment on him: “Woe to that man by whom the son of man is betrayed!” (Matthew 26:24).

This mystery is even more profound if one thinks of his eternal fate, knowing that Judas “repented and brought back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood'” (Matthew 27:3-4). Though he departed afterward to hang himself (cf. Matthew 27:5), it is not for us to judge his gesture, putting ourselves in God’s place, who is infinitely merciful and just.

A second question affects the motive of Judas’ behavior: Why did he betray Jesus? The question raises several theories. Some say it was his greed for money; others give an explanation of a messianic nature: Judas was disappointed on seeing that Jesus did not fit the program of the political-military liberation of his country.

In fact, the Gospel texts insist on another aspect: John says expressly that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (John 13:2); in the same way, Luke writes: “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve” (Luke 22:3).

In this way, one goes beyond historical motivations, explaining what occurred by basing it on Judas’ personal responsibility, who yielded miserably to a temptation of the evil one. In any case, Judas’ betrayal continues to be a mystery. Jesus treated him as a friend (cf. Matthew 26:50), but in his invitations to follow him on the path of the beatitudes he did not force his will or prevent him from falling into Satan’s temptations, respecting human freedom.

In fact, the possibilities of perversion of the human heart are truly many. The only way to prevent them consists in not cultivating a view of life that is only individualistic, autonomous, but in always placing oneself on the side of Jesus, assuming his point of view.

We must try, day after day, to be in full communion with him. Let us recall that even Peter wanted to oppose him and what awaited him in Jerusalem, but he received a very strong rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mark 8:32-33).

After his fall, Peter repented and found forgiveness and grace. Judas also repented, but his repentance degenerated into despair and in this way it became self-destruction. It is an invitation for us to always remember what St. Benedict says at the end of Chapter 5 — fundamental — of his Rule: “Never despair of God’s mercy.” In fact, “God is greater than our hearts,” as St. John says (1 John 3:20).

Let us remember two things. The first: Jesus respects our freedom. The second: Jesus waits for us to have the disposition to repent and to be converted; he is rich in mercy and forgiveness. In fact, when we think of the negative role Judas played, we must frame it in the higher way with which God disposed the events.

His betrayal led to the death of Jesus who transformed this tremendous torment into a space of salvific love and in self-giving to the Father (cf. Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:2.25). The verb “betray” is the Greek version which means “to give up.” At times its subject is also God himself in person: Out of love, he “gave up” Jesus for us all (cf. Romans 8:32). In his mysterious plan of salvation, God assumes Judas’ unjustifiable gesture as the motive for the total giving up of the Son for the redemption of the world.

On concluding, we wish to recall also he who, after Easter, was chosen to replace the traitor. In the Church of Jerusalem, two were put forward to the community and then lots were cast for their names: “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias” (Acts 1:23).

Precisely the latter was chosen, and in this way “he was enrolled with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26). We do not know anything more about him, with the exception that he was a witness of Jesus’ public life (cf. Acts 1: 21-22), being faithful to him to the end. To the greatness of his fidelity was added later the divine call to take Judas’ place, as though compensating his betrayal.

We draw a final lesson from here: Although there is no lack of unworthy and traitorous Christians in the Church, it is up to us to counterbalance the evil they do with our limpid testimony of Jesus Christ our lord and savior.

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~ by Rob on October 19, 2006.

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