Here were are at the crossroads of another Lenten Friday. Today, I’m drawn to the contemplation of mercy that is the whole summation of Good Friday, which we will celebrate in just a few weeks.
I think about God’s great mercy in sending His Son (John 3:16) and the unfathomable love and mercy involved in Christ’s passion and resurrection.
I think of Mary, John and the Church: that even in his hour of death, Jesus provides for his loved ones (John 19:26-27, 31-34).
I think of Simon Peter, who betrayed our Lord three times over and was mercifully permitted to confess Christ in reparation (John 21: 15-19).
There are so many characters who receive Christ’s mercy even as He is pouring out His blood for us (the women of Jerusalem, the repentant thief, the soldiers…), yet there is one figure in this whole narrative who does not seem to fit with the theme of “mercy.”
“Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chiefs and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.’ They said, ‘What is that to us? Look to it yourself.’ Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.” — Mt 27:3-5 (NAB)
In Matthew’s Gospel we read that Judas is truly, sincerely repentant. That cannot be doubted. Yet, in Christian history, Judas has not been regarded in the same way as the repentant thief. Judas has been placed in Hell for his sins– where is the great mercy in his story?
Dante placed Judas in the innermost circle of Hell as the worst traitor in history:
“That upper spirit, Who hath worst punishment,” so spake my guide, “Is Judas, he that hath his head within And plies the feet without.” Canto XXXIV, Inferno
Judas is being shred to bits in the mouth of Lucifer for all eternity because he betrayed Christ’s trust– for Dante, betrayal is the worst of sins.
Yet we know that Jesus did not “trust” Judas in the way Caesar trusted Brutus. Jesus knew his betrayer was in his midst and even permitted him to leave (Lk 22:21-22) Jesus did not stop Judas from greeting him with a kiss in the Garden (Mk 14:44-45) If the condemning sin of Judas is in his betrayal, we seem to have a huge theological contradiction: for how can Judas sincerely repent of his betrayal and *still* be cast into Hell for that same sin?
No, Judas’ final sin was not his betrayal, great as it was. Judas’ sin comes precisely at that moment of repentance. In a strange twist, Judas turns to the chief priests and elders to seek some sort of forgiveness. Of course they cannot give it. Of course, they turn him away, for they, too, share his guilt in Christ’s death. Faced with this rejection, Judas now has a choice.
I like to imagine a different history, one where Judas is so sorry for his betrayal that he runs to Jesus. He breaks through the crowds lining the streets as Christ passes by on the way to Golgotha. Rather than conscripting Simon the Cyrene, Judas volunteers to carry the cross of His Lord. He joins Mary, John and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross and receives a shower of mercy as Christ’s blood and water gush forth in a font of forgiveness.
This is not what happens. This could have happened. Yet rather than seek out Christ and face his sin, Judas despairs of being forgiven. He is ashamed. He is embarrassed. He is scared of the reparation Jesus might demand from him. Worst of all, he fears that Jesus will reject him.
Judas’ sin is in his lack of trust. Judas’ sin is that he does not believe Christ is powerful enough, kind enough, loving enough and merciful enough to take away his sin as he did those of the young paralytic (Mk 2:1-12) Judas believes that he cannot be forgiven, even by God. This is the sin of despair.
“By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice– for the Lord is faithful to his promises– and to his mercy.” CCC #2091
In the pain of the harsh knowledge of his sins, Judas completely despairs of hope in God and commits suicide. Taking his own life is the final act of despair: he refuses to live a life that he believes cannot be forgiven.
Where is mercy in this story? We have to believe that it was on offer the entire time. At any point, Judas could have asked Christ to forgive him and it would have been granted. Yet for lack of hope, he did not. For lack of understanding, for lack of fortitude, for whatever reason: Judas did not ask Christ for forgiveness. Instead, he abandoned hope.
I’ve been thinking about this because on an academic level, Judas is one of the biggest wrenches in questions of providence and theodicy. But I think on a personal level, Judas makes us squirm because we all identify with him, even if a little bit.
How many times do I shy away from the confessional because I am embarrassed? To whom do I turn instead of God when I am faced with my sins? Have I ever thought that God didn’t love me because of my sins? Or that He would be fierce and unmerciful in punishing me? Do I continue to punish myself and struggle to embrace God’s mercy after I’ve received it?
In this Year of Mercy, it is very important for us to strive to imitate Christ in his compassion and forgiveness towards others, yet we cannot do so if we fail to accept his mercy for ourselves. It is a precept of the Church that we must confess our sins at least once a year, not because the Church wants to keep tabs on us, but because she knows the the dire consequences of giving into that temptation to avoid asking for forgiveness. No matter what our sins, big or small, we must all learn from the tragedy of Judas: do not despair. God’s mercy abounds for us all.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” — Romans 15:13