Why did Judas betray Jesus?

Why did Judas betray Jesus?  I’d like to address that question as a way of returning to the series I began last year (it begins here), but had to leave unfinished until now, about whether Judas was ultimately lost, or whether he might have accepted the forgiveness that Jesus extended on the cross to everyone who’d put him there.  Here’s the concern I left off with in my last post in the series: Even if there isn’t a string of Scriptural fulfillments pointing to Judas personally as someone who was destined to betray Jesus, isn’t it clear that he didn’t repent sincerely afterwards, and that he was lost, from the way that Jesus calls him the “son of perdition,” using the language for “perishing” that is clearly contrasted with “eternal life” in the gospel of John?  Judas’s motive(s) for betraying Jesus shed light on this concern.

According to Mark and Matthew, Judas went to the chief priests and elders and offered to betray Jesus to them immediately after, and apparently in direct response to, the incident at Bethany (a town just outside Jerusalem where Jesus was staying on his final trip there) in which a woman poured “an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume” on Jesus’ head as he was reclining at the dinner table.

Poussin, “The Sacrament of Penance,” c. 1640

According to Matthew, “The disciples were indignant when they saw this.”  Mark says similarly, “Some of those at the table were indignant.”  (This presumably included some or all of the disciples.)

Why were they so upset?  Because this appeared to be one of the ostentatious displays by which the wealthy of the Roman Empire loved to show off their riches.  Cleopatra, for example, at a banquet with Mark Antony, is said to have dissolved a giant pearl of immeasurable worth in a goblet of wine, and then drunk the wine for good measure.  (An equivalent, though more modest, display today would be using a $100 bill to light a cigar.)  Jesus, by contrast, was supposed to have been an advocate for the poor and a champion of economic justice.  According to Luke, he once said, “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. . . . [But] what sorrow awaits you who are rich, for you have your only happiness now!”  Jesus told a young man whose wealth was standing in the way of his becoming a follower, “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.”

So it’s not surprising that the disciples, who thought they’d understood what Jesus believed and taught about wealth, were angry at the woman for apparently wasting this valuable perfume.  “It could have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor,” they protest.  Jesus explains that the gesture is actually appropriate in this specific and limited context, in light of an impending event that will be unique in world and redemptive history: “She has poured this perfume on me to prepare my body for burial.”  (He adds, “You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. But you will not always have me.”  By “the poor” he means not victims of structural injustice, something his followers are to oppose everywhere, but widows, orphans, and others who suffer from disasters and misfortunes.)

The fact that Judas went to the high priests right after this suggests at least one of his apparent motivations:  He was disillusioned.  He thought Jesus was taking the side of the rich at the expense of the poor, while he’d understood following Jesus to be about exactly the opposite.  But disillusionment is not sufficient to explain why Judas betrayed Jesus for a price.  So there’s at least one more motive, which we learn about in another gospel.

Luke describes Jesus being anointed with perfume earlier in his gospel, and the point he draws is about the woman’s act as a sign of genuine repentance on her part.  But John situates the event in Bethany near the end of Jesus’ life, as Matthew and Mark do, and he adds a significant detail.  He singles Judas out as the one who protests, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” and notes, “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” 

In other words, Judas was also motivated by greed.  If he had simply been disillusioned, he would have just walked away.  Instead, at some point (John doesn’t specify when), he violated the trust that had been placed in him as the group’s treasurer and began giving in to the temptation to embezzle funds.  But if Jesus was now going to let the big fish get away, so to speak, the gravy train had stopped running (pardon the mixed metaphor), and so Judas decided to cash in Jesus himself as a final payoff.  “How much will you pay me to betray Jesus to you?” he asks the chief priests.

This is despicable.  It’s no wonder that Jesus calls Judas a “son of perdition,” that is, someone whose actions and motivations reveal that he is choosing to live in ways contrary to the grace, mercy, and love of God—contrary to what John calls “eternal life.”

But I still see this term as descriptive rather than predictive.  It’s a snapshot of where Judas is spiritually at the moment when Jesus uses it.  It means that Judas has, as of this moment, wandered out of the flock that Jesus is able to protect and preserve, which, as earlier Scriptures assure us, no one can snatch out of his hand. (I explain this interpretation in my previous post). But the term does not mean, at least as I understand it, that Judas can never return, that he has committed a sin that is beyond the power and love of God to forgive.  I don’t believe there is any such thing, though I do acknowledge that if we persist in flaunting God’s mercy, we may harden ourselves to the point where we will not accept God’s forgiveness.

The only alternative, that the term “son of perdition” means instead that Judas was predestined, chosen before all time, to betray Jesus and then pay the price for this in hell forever, leads to a conclusion that I don’t think any of us would want to embrace.  If this is the case, then long before Judas ever betrayed Jesus, Jesus betrayed Judas.  I’ll explain what I mean by this next time.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Why did Judas betray Jesus?”

  1. Thank you for this good read, good points, good thoughts to open the mind.

    Something to clarify for my sometimes all-too-rigid mind, though: I don’t think I ‘caught’ your first part of the mixed metaphor, “But if Jesus was now going to let the big fish get away…”. What is the ‘big fish’? Are you suggesting that Jesus had let the cat out of the bag [sorry] that He would be betrayed and handed over to death (i.e. “…the day of my burial”)?

    Regarding the second part, am I correct to understand that the “gravy train” is Judas’ source of ‘pocket change’?

    (now, back to my tuna sandwich…)

    1. Thanks for your question, with its own metaphors and puns! By “big fish” I simply meant wealthy people. It appears that Judas wanted Jesus to join the others in rebuking and criticizing the woman who anointed him with perfume for “wasting” something valuable that could have been sold and given to the poor. Judas probably wished Jesus had made an object lesson of her and said, “Now you rich, no more of these flagrant displays of wealth, sell your goods and give the money to the poor—in care of our treasurer, Judas, here.” But Jesus instead praised the woman for doing a “beautiful thing.” Would this encourage similar displays by other “big fish” (wealthy people) whose money would no longer go into the group’s money bag where Judas could pilfer it? (Yes, this is what I meant by “gravy train.”) Judas wasn’t taking any chances. It was time to cash in Jesus himself.

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