Updated: Mar 19, 2019
Why did Judas betray Jesus? What was his motivation? I have long assumed that Judas betrayed Jesus for money. After all, Luke tells us that Judas betrayed Jesus for money (Luke 22:5) and John tell us in his gospel that Judas used to steal from the communal funds out of which Jesus and his disciples lived (John 12:6). Obviously, technically speaking, Judas did betray Jesus for money - but I don’t think that was his main motivation. Thirty denarii is only about a month’s pay for a soldier at the time of Jesus. Who wouldn’t want a month’s wages given to them...but would you risk your life for it? Didn’t Judas fear the repercussions of the other disciples, especially Peter who is described as a “zealot”? Being a zealot did not mean that Peter shared his faith in the break room at work. It meant that Peter was ready to take up arms and participate in a violent revolution against Rome. Wouldn’t Judas fear Peter’s wrath for his betrayal? Wouldn’t Judas demand more than a month’s wages for such a risky venture? I would think so. But He doesn’t. Judas betrayed for a pretty inexpensive price. It was Judas, not the chief priests who broached the subject of betrayal. According to Luke, Judas went to the chief priests with his desire to relinquish Jesus to them and only after his proposal did they agree to give him money. Judas went into their closed door meeting with his cards facing up. So, I think it is very plausible that Judas had a different motivation for his betrayal. (Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, a Jewish Biblical Scholar of the Israel Study Center, has a similar notion about Judas’ betrayal to which I owe a great deal. You can listen to an interview with Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg on the Jewish Gospel of John here.)
I want to suggest that the rest of the disciples were not as upset with Judas as we might think, mainly because they were almost in agreement with him. As I have been meditating on Luke’s account of this incident, one feature of the story jumped out at me. When Judas betrays Jesus in the garden, Luke tells us that the disciples asked if they should “go in with swords” and “one of them” pulled out his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave, presumably in an attempt to decapitate him. Unsurprisingly, John identifies this particular disciple as Peter (John 18:10). What is remarkable about this incident is the fact that nobody attacked Judas. Wouldn’t Judas be the first person to receive the wrath of the loyal disciples? But Peter, who has just claimed that he would rather die with Jesus than betray Him, doesn’t aim his blow at the traitor Judas but at the high priest’s slave. Is this just coincidence and convenience? Did Peter just take a hack at the person closest to him? Obviously, at this point, I am offering more or less speculation because we are not given the kind of information that might be necessary to prove this hypothesis. I think this is due to the fact that Luke assumes his readers will have a more intuitive understanding of the mindset of the disciples. I doubt Luke ever imagined that he was writing something that would be read by billions of people world-wide for thousands of years. Luke wrote for the local and regional community. For us to understand what Luke understands, we must work at learning to think like a first century Jew living in Palestine. That is easier said than done. But I think the speculation I am offering does have a witness in the scriptures. I suggest that Peter didn’t take a hack at Judas because Peter understood what Judas was trying to do and he was cooperating with his scheme at that point.
The reason I suggest that Judas betrayed Jesus was for the purpose of forcing Jesus to play out His role as Messiah on Judas’ own terms. And the other disciples were sympathetic with this desire. They may not have given their approval to Judas’ plan, and they probably would not have advised him to go forward had they known his plot (though, in a strange passage in John’s gospel, Jesus almost seems to do this. John 13:27) but they were sympathetic with Judas’ ambition. The disciples came to Jerusalem at Passover with a man whom they believed was anointed by God for the purpose of bringing about deliverance for Israel. Jesus had shown great power in his healings and exorcisms. Jesus had claimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Now they were in Jerusalem at the symbolically appropriate time for launching a liberation movement. Just as God delivered Israel from Pharaoh in the first Passover, so the disciples believed God would do again - only this time for good - through the Messiah at Passover. The disciples were trigger-happy, waiting for the signal they had been expecting all along. They had snuck into the city and had a secret Passover celebration so as not to alert the authorities of their intentions but Jesus still hadn’t sprung the trap. The disciples may very well have wondered if He ever was going to give the signal especially when Jesus kept making statements that seemed to suggest that He was not interested in armed revolt. Judas, I propose, more than the rest of the disciples, grew impatient and doubtful that Jesus would ever pull the trigger and so he concocted a scheme by which he would attempt to force Jesus to spring the trap. I have often mused on the statement in John’s gospel that says that when Jesus said “here I am” in response to the soldiers’ inquiries, the soldiers then “fell to the ground”. It is often assumed that this was a spiritual event. But I am suggesting that it may very well have been because the soldiers were expecting an ambush, but didn’t get it. They were there, after all, to arrest a supposed Messianic figure who had condemned the temple system as being corrupt and had announced that God was becoming King through His own movement. Wouldn’t Jesus also respond violently to temple officials sent arrest Him? But everyone underestimated Jesus. I think this is what Jesus meant when He said to Judas: “The son of man is indeed going as it has been determined (i.e. you are springing the trap that will set God’s will in motion) but woe betide that man by whom he is betrayed!” (i.e. but it is wicked of you to try to force God’s hand to do it your way.) This would explain why Judas betrayed for so little and why Peter did not strike Judas down, and why Judas was full of remorse when He saw that Jesus was condemned and did not resist (Matthew 27:4-5). Judas tried to force Jesus’ hand and it backfired on him. This was the real sin of Judas.
Are we not also guilty of the sin of Judas? Have we not believed at times that we know how God could do His job better? Have we not resisted the Holy Spirit and even thwarted and subverted the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and communities at many points by taking things into our own hands rather than trusting God’s ways and timing? I know that I have, even though I may have had the best intentions. We should give thanks to God that He uses even our rebellious, traitorous acts for His redemptive purposes if we will let Him. I think the most grievous part of Judas’ story is that he killed himself (Matthew 27:4-5). The patriarch, Joseph, was also betrayed by his own brothers into the hands of enemies and he still declared to his brothers, “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Genesis 45:5. And I am sure that Jesus would have said the same thing to Judas, had Judas been around to hear it. And there may be hope for Judas yet who did grieve over his sin in the end. And there is hope for each one of us who have been Judas at multiple times in our lives - trying to force God to conform to our image instead of allowing God to conform us into His. This is the day of salvation. Let us not throw our lives away in shame and despair. Instead, let us throw ourselves upon the mercy of God to forgive us and His power to redeem even our worst sins.