I have always felt that Judas got a bum rap.
Our tradition has not treated him well. Yes, he was the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a kiss in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. And, yes, he committed suicide. But little or no attention has been paid to the small detail of Judas’s repentance or the depth of the sorrow and his despair that led to his suicide.
Matthew’s Judas is repentant. Listen again to our passage:
In the first light of dawn, all the high priests and religious leaders met and put the finishing touches on their plot to kill Jesus. Then they tied him up and paraded him to Pilate, the governor.
Judas, the one who betrayed him, realized that Jesus was doomed. Overcome with remorse, he gave back the thirty silver coins to the high priests, saying, “I’ve sinned. I’ve betrayed an innocent man.”
They said, “What do we care? That’s your problem!”
Judas’s suicide, like most if not all suicides, stemmed from issues deep, deep despair; he had changed his mind and had tried to turn back, but the die had already been cast. The dice had already been thrown, and they would be thrown again by the soldiers, rolling the dice over who would get to keep Jesus’ clothing. Not even throwing down the silver pieces at the feet of the religious authorities could change the course of events his betrayal had set in motion.
Some believe that Judas’s dealing with the religious authorities was a crap shoot in the first place. He had gambled that leading Jesus’ opponents to the secret place where he gathered with his apostles would force Jesus to be the kind of messiah he had wrongly supposed or hoped him to be. By arranging a face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and the Temple police, he imagined he could force Jesus’ hand toward a violent revolution, and it appears he was not alone in that expectation.
For after Judas had led the police to him, the gospel of John records that Peter drew his sword and cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus’ rebuke the way of violence with an order to put away the sword and then the gospel of Luke reports that Jesus, “touched his ear and healed him.”
The scene, as recorded in Matthew ends with “all the disciples fleeing and abandoning Jesus.” No one remains to stand with him as a witness to a different way than the way of violence and terror. By the time we see Judas throwing down the silver at the feet of the temple authorities his head was spinning. His expectation of a grand seizure of power – a kind of coup d’état that would overthrow the Roman authorities – had crashed.
What does one do when one’s great dream dies? What does one do when a grandiose scheme crumbles, never to return? You either revise the dream or you fall hopelessly into despair. We might wonder whether perhaps Judas’s biggest mistake was not the betrayal, but that he did not trust a divine providence greater than his sin of betrayal.
After all Peter denied that he knew Jesus and that was one of his followers and he did so three times. Mark said that once the cock crowed Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times. And he broke down and wept.”
Neither denials nor betrayals are the worst sin against Jesus or God. The worst sin is despair – a loss of faith that repentance will always, always obtain forgiveness.
Had Judas broken down, wept, and repented, he too would have been forgiven. But Judas was filled with an overwhelming sense of guilt and despair that he threw down what Matthew calls “blood money” toward the Most Holy Place – that is, the Holy of Holies, the most sacred of all places – then he went out and hanged himself.
But the “blood money” never went back into the temple treasury. It was too dirty for the temple treasury. So instead, the chief priests and the elders whose thirty pieces of silver had secured Judas’s cooperation in the plot against Jesus, they used that blood money to buy “the potter’s field” to bury strangers in.
Strangely, we never hear again about the potter’s field. So we ask, what is a potter’s field?
Although the Book of Zechariah speaks of the Potter’s Field, the text here, which Matthew mistakenly attributes to Jeremiah, never explains why it is called a potter’s field. The answer perhaps lies in Matthew’s confusion of Zechariah’s potter’s field and Jeremiah understanding of God as the Potter, but a potter’s field is a term for a place of burial of the unknown or indigent people.
Those who eventually are buried in the Potter’s Field, belong to the Potter every bit as much as those who are regarded as worthy of burial in a more distinguished cemetery of a more sacred place.
So there is a great irony here in Matthew’s telling of the story:
Judas returns the holy money taken from the temple treasury, throwing it at the Most Holy Place where only the high priests were permitted to enter – and that, that “dirty” money buys the Potter’s Field for the burial of the less than holy. One has to wonder if, perhaps, Judas was Potter’s Field’s first resident.
In NYC there is a cemetery called the “Potter’s Field.” It’s the place where the indigent are buried. It’s the place where the homeless and the unidentified, the John and the Jane Doe’s are buried. According to the NY Department of Corrections:
“Those primarily interred on Hart Island are not vagrants and alcoholics from Skid Row, as hearsay has it, but people who worked hard during their lifetimes just to “keep their heads above water,” and could not afford the expenses of private funerals.”
In 1948 the inmates of the prison next door to the Potter’s Field on Hart Island, many of whom were without friends and families, appealed to the warden and offered to build a monument to the un-befriended dead. In cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross, on the other is the word ‘Peace.’”
In my mind, Judas is buried there – on the ground sanctified by the outcasts for whom Christ lived and died. He’s buried in some Potter’s Field where the Potter in his mercy welcomes the broken pieces of the pottery that he has made, gathers up the remains of that brokenness, and takes whatever is left to make something altogether beautiful.
On this Good Friday we remember that Christ’s first words from the cross were:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”
Those words seem to be a plea for his beloved betraying friend, Judas, as well as a plea for every other Judas that has come down the road of life through all the centuries since; and by God’s providence alone the 30 silver pieces, the “blood money” that Judas threw back down at the Most Holy Place became the unsuspecting source of the place of God’s unconditional mercy and love, the place called the “Potter’s Field.”
We began our service tonight by singing: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” We then shared a the litany for Good Friday, and we extinguished a candle after each one of Christ’s seven last words from the cross; and we conclude our service by singing, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
And tonight let each one of us ask God to
“Make me Thine forever; and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.”