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HOME > Sermons & Exhortations > Judas Iscariot (Matthew 10:4): Thoughts About the Character of Persons (excerpt from "Be Strong: Lessons for Young Lives" by J. E. C. Welldon, 1907 Edition, The Religious Tract Society)
Judas Iscariot (Matthew 10:4)
Excerpt from the book:
by J. E. C. Welldon
Doctor of Divinity, Dean of Manchester, Bishop of Calcutta,
"And Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him." - Matthew 10:4
You will, I think, remember my telling you that it would be my wish on certain Sundays of this Term to lay before you some few thoughts affecting the characters of the persons who may be said to play the principal parts in the Divine Tragedy. Holy Scripture is rich in characters, some good, some evil; and nowhere are the characters more striking than in the narrative of the Passion. In looking at them, we shall perhaps be able to learn some lessons for our own warning and instruction in life. We will not shrink from asking ourselves, Who were these persons? and why did they act so? and must we altogether condemn them for their action?
And if I take the name of the traitor Judas first, it is because his part - the betrayal of our Lord - is a prelude to the Passion, and without him, as it seems, the Passion would not have happened as it did.
One thing, I am sure, must impress your minds, and that is that the Evangelists, although they tell the tale of Judas' treachery with awful directness, pass over the traitor himself without any bitter word. It is the most remarkable instance of that self-repression which marks the Gospels from the first page to the last. We can hardly think of him without a curse - the poet Dante places him alone in the ninth circle of Hell - but the Evangelists in speaking of him say only, 'And Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed' Jesus. It is so during his life; it is so when he 'went and hanged himself' in remorse.
Our Lord Himself, who 'knew what was in man,' read the heart of Judas; it is clear that He did not trust him; but He never addressed one unkind word to him. He only gave him the sop at the Last Supper, saying, 'That thou doest, do quickly.' Nay, if I may use the language of a living poet, He washed -
'the feet of all the twelve - even his
If there was any feeling in the traitor at all, he must have felt the silence of Christ.
But what name is there in all the world so black and base as 'traitor'? Some of us could bear to be called many bad names, I think, but not that. If any one were to use that name of us, we would give him the lie. We could commit - we are only too likely to commit - many offences; but we know in our hearts that we would not and could not betray our country or our cause. At Venice, in the palace where the portraits of the Doges - the representatives, as they were the authors, of the city's greatness - hang in a stately series, one space is empty, and in lieu of a portrait there is only the semblance of a black curtain that meets the eye.
But never is treachery so black a thing as when the traitor has been the friend of him whom he betrays, and has received benefits, and those of the highest nature, from him, and has used the confidence reposed in him to achieve the traitorous deed. The words of the Psalmist, to which our Lord referred at the Last Supper, emphasise this fact. 'Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of My bread, hath lifted up his heel against Me.' The form of the betrayal - its secrecy, its hypocrisy, the profanation of the right of friendship - is as horrible as the traitor's act itself: 'Forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, Master, and kissed Him.'
There is not a boy who does not entirely loathe the Iscariot. And yet I wonder how many boys have ever asked themselves, What was his motive in betraying our Lord to death? He did it: he has earned himself eternal infamy by doing it; but why did he betray Him?
In my opinion, the character of Judas, or, as I will put it, the motive of Judas in betraying our Lord is one of the most difficult questions in all the strange and pathetic story of the Passion. It is so difficult that some high authorities, of whom I will mention Archbishop Whately as the most conspicuous, have held that Judas did not intend to commit any very wicked action at all. But surely this view runs counter to the whole tone and tenour of the Sacred Story. Judas Iscariot stands out, not in the Creed of the Church only, but in the Gospels, as the arch-sinner, the very type and consummation of human wickedness. Of him our Lord employed those awful words which have never been used, nor ever may be used, of any one else: 'The Son of Man goeth as it is written of Him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It had been good for that man if he had not been born.' Is it conceivable that such words could apply to one who was not at heart a deep-dyed sinner, who was trying to do what he thought right, and only made a mistake as regards the time or manner of doing it, and who, as soon as he discovered his mistake, was overwhelmed with remorse for having made it? I cannot think so; I put the idea aside as incredible; I am convinced that he who betrayed the world's Saviour deserved the full measure of the condemnation passed upon him.
But let it be granted that the motive of Judas Iscariot in the betrayal of our Lord was, and could not but be, vile; it still remains to ask what that motive was, and how it can be explained by the record of the Divine Life in the Gospels.
So far as I know, the motive of Judas in betraying our Lord has been generally interpreted by those who take a sinister view of it in one of two ways. It is sometimes said that he was ambitious, and that his ambition had been disappointed by the Person and Life of Christ. He had joined Him, believing that He would set up an earthly kingdom; he had hoped, when that kingdom was set up, to be one of its princes, and he was enraged by the thought that his portion in life was humility, poverty, contempt. It may have been so; he may have acted in revenge, but I will own I can hardly bring myself to believe that Judas, in becoming a disciple of the lowly Galilean Teacher, can have looked for a great position among men.
More often it is said that the cause of his treachery was avarice. I will admit that I think that is a truer view. I do not wish at all to put it aside. There are not wanting in the Gospels indications that the soul of Judas was cankered by that love of money which has been said to be, as indeed it is, 'a root of all evil.' And may I pause here to say to you solemnly that, as I grow older, and as I see more of human beings, I feel ever more keenly the terribly demoralising power of avarice? I beg you, I beg you to right against it when you possess property; and believe me that riches, unless you are watchful and conscientious in the use of them, tend infallibly to narrow and close the doors of the soul.
But to come back to Judas. It is curious to reflect what his thoughts must have been when he listened to our Lord's great words about the love of money. 'Ye cannot serve God and mammon.' 'The care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches.' 'How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!' How these sayings must have burnt themselves into his dark soul! You will remember, too, the scene at Bethany, when Mary poured the box of ointment of spikenard upon Jesus' feet and Judas objected to the waste of it in the words: 'Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?' and St. John's comment that he so said, 'not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein'; you cannot help feeling that his lust of money had made him a hypocrite and a thief. And, after all, did he not sell his Master for thirty pieces of silver, thirty shekels, less than £4? I do not deny that the soul of Judas was cankered with avarice. I only say that that is not in my opinion the full explanation of his treachery. I will try to set before you what I think it is. Only you will understand that I do not speak of it dogmatically; I do not wish you to take what I say without any question; I would much rather that you should read the story of the Gospels anew and judge it for yourselves.
I start with the assumption that Judas Iscariot was a very bad man. It seems impossible, in the face of the story, to make any other assumption than that. I do not deny that he may have experienced at some time, especially in his earlier life, visions of better things. It may have been so when he was called to be a disciple, and obeyed the call. But the vision, if it came to him at all, was not for long.
As a disciple, he lived every day in the society of One who was the revelation of Holiness and Love. He - the wicked man - was thrown into contact with Perfect Virtue. What was the effect upon his character? I put it to myself in this way.
It is sometimes assumed that virtue is always attractive everywhere. But is it so? Are there not minds so dark, so foul, that when they see goodness, they try to defile it, and, if they cannot succeed in defiling it, hate and persecute it? Does he love virtue - the boy, if such there were, who would deliberately set himself to corrupt boys younger and more innocent than himself? Does he love virtue - the man who makes his boast of betraying and ruining and consigning to destruction the pure souls and bodies of the maidens who trusted him? Nay, to him virtue is not lovely, it is a reproach and an offence to him, he delights in violating its sanctity.
Now look with me for a moment at the case of Judas Iscariot. I believe that from the time when he entered the society of the Lord's disciples he began to hate Him for His holiness. The divine words which awoke the consciences of others stirred in him only bitter malignant feelings. He could not bear to look upon His deeds of mercy. He could not sit by and see Him honoured by the loving gratitude of the souls which He had saved. He felt for the Saviour that very loathing which none can feel but such as have seen the vision of purity, and have turned their backs upon it and have committed that 'sin against the Holy Ghost' which, if it be anything, can be nothing else than the hatred of goodness just because it is so good. If this is a right view of Judas' character, then it is easy to understand what is told about him in the Gospels. Thus it was not, I think, only avarice - it was wicked hate - that made him complain so fiercely of the offering which Mary at Bethany lavished on her Lord. It was the infinite condescension of Christ in washing the disciples' feet and Judas' own, especially when it led up to the words: 'Ye are not all clean,' that goaded him to fury; and when he saw the loved disciple leaning on Jesus' breast, then 'Satan entered into him,' and after receiving the sop he 'went immediately out: and it was night.' Nor is there any other manner, so simple, of explaining the utter malice of the form by which he betrayed his Master; for it is clear that all he needed to do was to point Him out, he had no occasion to offer Him an embrace, and yet 'he came to Jesus,' as you all know, 'and said, Hail Master, and kissed Him.'
For you must remember, in elucidation of Judas' action, that not only was he faithless to Christ from the first, but Christ penetrated the secret of his infidelity. St. John says expressly that 'Jesus knew from the beginning who should betray Him,' Nobody else, perhaps, understood the words: 'Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?'; but Judas understood them. Nobody else knew the meaning of the words, 'That thou doest, do quickly;' but he knew. Month after month the traitor moved in the presence of One who was kind to him and gracious, and whom he purposed to betray, and he felt in his soul that all his thoughts were open to the All-searching Eye which looked upon him with such an infinite pathos of pity.
That is the view which I take of the traitor and of his treachery. There are no words for it better than these: 'Satan entered into him.' And I believe that, when his awful work had been done, the revelation of his sin, his shame and his failure, flashed upon his soul, and he 'departed and went and hanged himself.'
Has this black story no solemn lesson for us? It is the story of a traitor's doom. It fills the spirit of every one of us with a passionate loathing of treachery.
I will not say that any boy is a traitor. I will not suppose that any boy is a traitor. But this I will say, that, if a boy should ever live constantly and consciously a double life, if he should pretend to be one thing and in heart should be another, if he should hide a guilty soul behind a virtuous face, if he should associate with his companions here and betray their confidences, if he should accept from masters and boys praises, honours, thanks, which, if they knew the truth about him, would be turned into reproaches and rebukes, then that boy, whoever he may be, would in his measure be imitating the example of him who betrayed the Lord of Mercy to His death.
And that boy, whoever he may be, will in the sad Scriptural words, 'go to his own place.' He will injure the school, but from that injury the school will recover. But he will not recover. His name will be blotted out of the book of remembrance. Another shall do what he might have done. Another shall be what he ought to have been. And though he repent, he shall be impotent to undo the evil of a fatal treacherous life. He shall fall by his transgression. He shall forfeit his high privilege. Another - a better boy - shall succeed to it. 'And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven Apostles.'
1. The lines are those of Sir E. Arnold.
"Put away evil from your flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity. Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth." Ecclesiastes 11:10; 12:1