Looking for Judas

Holding a morsel of the bread that Jesus had given him, Judas exited into the darkness. Is it the same bread Jesus used that evening to initiate the Lord’s Supper? The Gospel of John’s account of Maundy Thursday does not include Jesus transforming the Passover feast into the Christian sacrament. But could we use the other gospel accounts to infer that it was the same, [Eucharistic] bread? If so, what would it mean for our view of Judas?

Judas is the arch-villain of the Bible, the one who betrayed Jesus. The Gospel of John tells us that Satan entered into Judas. Elsewhere he is described as a “son of perdition,” one for whom it “would have been better not to be born.” In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is one of three people in the lowest level of hell. Yet scripture also tells us that Judas was a disciple, one of the twelve, chosen by Jesus. At times one gets the impression that while Judas may be “guilty,” he really is more of a tragic figure, a pathetic pawn who had an unfortunate but necessary task to do. A bit like all of us, Judas makes wrong choices for which he bears personal responsibility, while at the same time he is caught up in something so much bigger than individual choice. Forty years ago, an acerbic young Bob Dylan probably put too fine a point on the paradox of Judas when he asked:

In many a dark hour, I’ve been

thinkin’ about this–

That Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss.

Now I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide

Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.

After Judas departed into the night, Jesus spoke to the disciples about his “glorification” and then gave them the “New Commandment” (mandatum novum) from which Maundy Thursday takes its name. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love another,” Jesus said (13:34). Love and glorification are among the fourth Gospel’s favorite words. Many scholars have noted how both these words carry incongruous, almost sardonic meanings for John. Love is roughly equivalent to sacrifice, and glorification implies suffering, especially the cross. And this sacrificial suffering is radically inclusive: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32).

Drawing on John’s redefinition of love and glorification, Frederick Niedner has provocatively wondered whether what Jesus was really insinuating in the new commandment is “Go look for Judas.” This is love–to go search for the betrayer. Look for the one who has left. Love him and invite him back. Don’t condemn him to the lowest rung of hell. Don’t write him off. Don’t scapegoat him for your own failings. The new commandment is to love with the kind of love that will go look for Judas.

Did the other disciples ever go look for Judas? Did they ever find him? It’s a question with more than a bit of poetic license, to be sure. But in one way or another, isn’t Judas still walking around out in the night, feeling unforgiven, condemned, alone and unloved? I like to imagine him still holding the morsel of Passover bread Jesus gave him, wondering if he’ll ever be invited back to the table. Will Judas ever be found and welcomed back? Perhaps someday when we gather around the table for the great feast in glory, we’ll find Judas there among us. I don’t want to be dreamy-eyed about it, but the love of Jesus, love which John reminds us is self-giving and costly, gives me reason to hope.

Steven Mathonnet-Vander Well is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, and adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa.