The very name fills wannabe villains with envious dreams and aspirations to emulate the greatest traitor in history. He who betrayed the Son of God himself, a man of such poor morals that most everyone would consider him hell’s star attraction. The very name has become an obscenity, a byword for the most treacherous, unfaithful, and despicable who walk among us.
And yet there is a way in which Judas seems sympathetic to some. He seems destined (if such a thing existed) to commit his infamous crime, set up by the evangelists as Christ’s antagonist who without which, the ultimate goal of our salvation through Christ’s sacrifice would be unobtainable. To those who see him as a sympathetic character, he performs his own kind of sacrifice, damning himself so that the rest of humanity might be saved (see Matthew 27:3–10).
His is a solemn duty, one which no man would undertake. It is so terrible that both the evangelists Matthew and Mark quote Jesus as saying “it would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Matthew 26:24; see Mark 14:21).
There’s one problem with both of these conceptions, however. Those who see Judas as a sympathetic lost cause or as an incarnation of evil itself both forget something immensely important about the man.
This is of course that he was precisely that: a man.
It is rather interesting that in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus foretells that he will be betrayed on the evening of the Last Supper, Judas asks, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” (Matthew 26:25). Shortly thereafter, upon learning that Jesus had been condemned and fearful that he would be handed to the Romans and possibly executed, we see Judas regretful over what he has done and return his payment for betraying the troublesome rabbi (see Matthew 27:3–4).
We can never know exactly what was going through Judas’ mind on the night he betrayed Jesus. It might have been that Judas thought the Jewish authorities would give Jesus a lecture about preaching in the city and then let him go, appeasing the Jewish authorities while not doing anything too severe.
Perhaps Judas thought he, Jesus and the other disciples would be kicked out of the city, and therefore safely in the countryside instead of in an area where both Jewish and Roman power was most concentrated and therefore most threatening. Regardless, Judas nonetheless shows regret for what he has done and, according to Matthew, hangs himself in shame (see Matthew 27:5).
If Judas were a villain, Christ’s true antagonist on Earth, then we would expect him to gloat in his moment of triumph. Yet no self-respecting villain takes their own life in the hour of victory.
We should look at Judas not as some Saturday-morning cartoon villain twirling his mustache as he plots the death of Christ. He was a conflicted individual who ended up doing something immensely horrible even if it had not been his first intention. He betrayed God, but not for reasons of hatred. He was a man too overwhelmed by the world around him to make sense of what to do and erred as a result.
Can we really say he is so different from the rest of us then? We are all quick to point at Judas or anyone else who better deserves the moniker of “villain” and point to them as all that is wrong with the world. We do this not only to give ourselves examples of what is wrong, but also because it deflects the blame from us.
We are all want to say “surely it is not I, Lord” (Matthew 26:22) when we are confronted with evil in our midst. Shirking our own failings, intent to cast down the few we call villains, we refuse to answer one of Christ’s most vexing questions. “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3).
We cannot ignore the reality that we, fallen creatures that we are, will fail God throughout our lives. We will turn our back on his grace, reject his love, and despise our fellow man and the image of him reflected in us all.
Judas betrayed God in perhaps the most literal iteration, but can we say that we, a world filled with hatred, abuse, manipulation, and any number of little betrayals every day are somehow inherently superior to anyone else? Have we not all at some point betrayed God in our lives?
Indeed, the betrayal of Judas should speak not to us because it was an egregious sin, for then we would have the hubris to say that we are somehow free of the same failings which he had.
The example of Judas should speak to our common humanity, in the ways we have failed God no matter how close we might at some point be to him. Being human, we must look to both ourselves and to each other and recognize the different ways in which we have betrayed God in our lives, and in doing so improve ourselves so that we may stray no more.