Judas as Patron Saint (Mark 14:21)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 18-25, 1987, p. 262. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Judas’ attitudes parallel our own. We are so caught within the iron vise of our secular, materialistic, hedonistic perspectives that the God of Jesus is like an illicit mistress or lover whom we, like Judas, kiss in the dark.

For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born [Mark 14:21].

The specific reasons may differ from age to age, from nation to nation. We Americans want God dead because we do so very well without him. The memory of our former dependence on God simply encumbers our modern worldliness. We don’t need God for flood control; we have dams. We don’t need God to heal; we have the pharmacy. We don’t need God for comfort; we have psychiatry. God has never successfully brought peace. Peace we have achieved by our policy of mutually assured destruction and shrewd international orchestrations assuring that, in most cases at least, the wretched of the earth dissipate their rage by killing each other.

In Jesus’ time, people’s reasons for deicide were almost totally opposite to our own. While we don’t need God, they needed God too much. They had no pharmacies, no psychiatrists and no technocracy. Their peace, the peace of Rome, seemed, like our own world’s pax Americana, perfectly rational and just to those after whom it was named. But to the objects of its pacification it seemed like slavery. The technically primitive, destitute and enslaved people did not long for a "deliverer" whose ministry was one of suffering; a messiah whose version of the messianic age was the cross seemed to be no messiah at all. And if the impoverished Jesus were God’s answer to Israel’s desperate cry, this seemed like a cruel joke. The Son of such a God must pay a price for his Father’s macabre sense of humor.

We don’t know what motivated Judas, but his pathetic attempts to return the money and his suicide indicate it probably wasn’t greed. I think Judas was brokenhearted that Jesus would do no more than suffer. Watching Jesus’ ministry go down the drain, Judas struck at him with the feelings of a betrayed spouse -- rage, disappointment, injured love and humiliation. A marriage born in high hopes is shattered by weakness. How could I have been so blind? Judas may have asked himself.

Which of us has not wondered with Judas whether God does anything besides hinder those who are left to get on with life in the face of the void? Which of us has not experienced Judas’s remorse as we realize that our lives often lack any passionate, ethical involvement with the transcendent? Are our brave new world’s achievements worth the emptiness we feel when we contemplate the void? When we hear tales of modern saints such as Mother Teresa or of the suffering and martyrdom of those behind the iron curtain,, we look at the trinkets we have gathered to measure our success and in wistful remorse almost wish that we could relinquish them all and recover our innocence. But innocence lost seems lost forever.

It isn’t even a matter of obeying or disobeying. Jesus’ vision of reality simply doesn’t compute. What Jesus calls blessedness we call failure. Blessed are you poor, he said. We don’t understand how poverty could be a blessing. He also said that blessed are the pure in heart. If society could somehow become pure in heart -- that is, if it could be characterized by the "willing of one thing" (the good) , as Kierkegaard put it -- it would fall in economic collapse. The salvation we desire is deliverance from poverty so that we might be possessed by many things.

In light of Jesus’ incredible "otherworldliness" and the fact that his radicalism seems inappropriate to every conceivable historical and social situation, why should anyone even bother to take him seriously? Why didn’t Judas simply return to Galilee a bit sadder but a whole lot wiser? He must have known that he wouldn’t have been able to bring himself to spend the 30 silver pieces. The money was a pretext for Judas’s acting on the challenge of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was too compelling for Judas simply to reject benignly. Jesus’ very being demanded a Yes or No to God. Judas said No with a receipt of cash and a kiss.

Jesus and his God receive many kisses from us today. We praise. We theologize. We join churches. We adopt "responsible" positions on national and international political issues. But we are so caught within the iron vise of our secular, materialistic, hedonistic perspectives that the God of Jesus is like an illicit mistress or lover whom we, like Judas, kiss in the dark. However, the presence of such a God in the daylight working hours would only disrupt our labor and embarrass our fellow workers.

Sometimes I think that my patron saint is not Peter or Paul or Francis or Calvin or King, but Judas. Caught in the collision between God and humanity, Judas followed Jesus as far as his strength and insight would take him, and at the end fell short. He was not alone; even Peter, the "rock," had failed Jesus. But Judas’s treachery was deliberate, while Peter’s denial was merely a spontaneous act of cowardice. Somehow, Peter’s weakness is forgivable, but Judas’s cold-blooded act could end only in death.

Of course, my failure to take up my cross and follow Jesus is in one sense more like Peter’s denial. I am simply overwhelmed by the thought of the cross, and I instinctively recoil. But when I "instinctively" recoil day after day, year after year, the natural aversion finally becomes a deliberate policy to grab the world’s wealth and betray Jesus with the kiss of the Christian religion.

We can derive some comfort from George Bernard Shaw’s bon mot, "The last Christian died on the cross," for there is a certain absolution in realizing that we all fall pitifully short. If all others fail, why shouldn’t I? Yet, this cop-out slanders the great "cloud of witnesses" who did not betray, deny or run away, but having been crushed in the collision between God and the world were blessed by Jesus. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

Had Judas been confronted with the challenge "Deny the Messiah or die" only a few weeks earlier, while still hoping Jesus was the real messiah, he would probably have been the first Christian martyr. Or what if he had succumbed to pneumonia on the day he was to betray Jesus, and the chief priests went ahead without Judas’s testimony, which obviously they didn’t need? What if Judas recovered from his delirium only to hear that while he was desperately ill Jesus had been crucified and was resurrected? Perhaps after shuddering with relief upon remembering what he almost did, Judas might have gone on to become one who, like Paul, was "unworthy to be called an apostle" but nonetheless proved to be a great apostle. There is a sense in which poor Judas was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. How often we are saved from saying or doing something we would profoundly regret simply because we reconsider before we get the chance to act.

We, of all people, should find it difficult to condemn Judas. He never did anything to us, except to be the agent whose dark work was a necessary part of our salvation. In many ways, we are as guilty as Judas in the death of God; yet from this death we hope for infinite benefit. Why should Judas be judged more harshly than we are? The best hope most of us have in facing the final judgment will be to stand in solidarity with Judas. For in pleading his case we will be pleading our own.