Notes on the Man from Kerioth

Published March 27, 2024

The Catholic Thing

Today in Holy Week is traditionally known as “Spy Wednesday.” It recalls the day on which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin. The Gospel of John on Monday was especially harsh in its judgment of Judas. The scene is the house of Lazarus, where Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfumed oil. Judas is outraged:

Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples and the one who would betray him, said, “Why has this oil not been sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.

The Gospel reading for today, from Matthew, paints an equally venal portrait of the man from Kerioth (thus his label “Iscariot”):

One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” They paid him 30 pieces of silver, and from that time on, he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.

Later in the same reading, Jesus says “woe to the man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.” Judas piously asks, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” Jesus answers, with exquisite irony, “You have said so.”

What to make of Judas?

The Church, like any human institution, is comprised of people. And each of those people, including ourselves, is a sinner, from plumber to pope, with the sin of greed high on the popularity list. The Vatican financial scandals of the last few decades are ugly and damaging, but they’re hardly new to Church history.

Nor are they peculiar to Rome. In 2011, the chief financial officer of a major U.S. archdiocese was fired, indicted, and convicted for the theft of nearly $1 million in Church funds.

Similar examples, of various scale, abound because money is magnetic. Money means comfort. Money means power to do and get what we want. Thus it’s quite reasonable to see Judas as just another miserable thief; a pathetic, deceitful – and in this case, disastrously misguided – crook. It would also be very unwise to ignore the guilty verdict of two Apostles with direct experience of the man and the Gospel events they describe.

Yet ordinary greed doesn’t seem to satisfy as the main, or at least the only, motive for Judas’s actions. In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 film for television, Jesus of Nazareth, Judas – played with superb complexity by the actor Ian MacShane – is portrayed as a fellow traveler of the extremist Zealot party. The Zealots seek to expel the Romans from Israel and restore Jewish liberty. Judas sincerely admires Jesus and his mission. He disagrees with the Zealots’ appetite for violence, but he shares their assumption that a Messiah will restore Israel as an independent kingdom.

Judas joins Christ’s disciples with genuine devotion. But his understanding of the Messiah’s purpose is rebuffed by Jesus. Disillusioned and confused, he becomes an easy victim of Zerah (Ian Holm), the satanically shrewd counselor to the Sanhedrin, who convinces him to hand over Jesus to the authorities so that Jesus can prove who He is to the “fair-minded” Jewish leadership. When Judas realizes Zerah’s treachery and its consequences, he commits suicide in a fit of hopeless self-loathing.

Mel Gibson takes a similar approach in his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Whatever his other motives, Judas (Luca Lionello) becomes the naive pawn of a jealous and vindictive Sanhedrin. Horrified by what he’s done, and contemptuously dismissed by his manipulators when he tries to undo the damage, he’s hounded by demons of despair and hangs himself. As with Zeffirelli, Gibson presents Judas not as a greedy, self-aware cynic but rather as a weak and deluded loser, a disposable tool of evil in a much larger game.

So the lessons of this and every Spy Wednesday are several, and worth considering.

First, humanity’s perennial, go-to Golden Calf is power in this world, here and now. So it was for the Jewish Zealots. So it is for us. It’s true that Christians should engage the civic order as an obligation of the Word of God. Human law and public authority are important because they teach and form, as well as regulate. And politics involves getting and using the power to do so – which means that politics has moral implications that the Christian can’t ignore and still remain faithful to his vocation as a light to the world. (Matthew 5:14-16)

But power is an addictive drug. We have our own Zealots today who are adroit at using religious faith for political ends. This is especially (and ironically) true on the otherwise secular Left. Much of today’s “progressive” politics is a kind of Biblical messianism without the irritating baggage of a personal God.

Second, we’re never smarter than Jesus Christ – a lesson learned bitterly by Judas. When Jesus said, “my kingdom is not of this world,” he meant it. Christianity needs to guide our everyday behavior in the world with love and justice. But it’s not finally about power, and it’s worthless without its next-worldly, transcendent horizon. Either it’s salvific in the light of eternity, or it’s a waste of time. It can never be reduced to a system of wholesome ethics or social action. We can get that elsewhere.

Third, despair is a disguised sin of pride. Both Peter and Judas betrayed Jesus; Peter by his words, Judas by his actions. The abyss that separated the two men is what they did next. Peter loved Jesus more than himself and his damaged vanity, which led to his repentance and forgiveness. Judas abandoned himself to the evil of what he did, imagined himself unforgivable, and in doing that, repudiated God’s very nature.

In our own lives, we all choose between ourselves and God. On the brink of the Triduum, Judas is simply a reminder.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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