Judas Kisses Jesus (Sagrada Familia)Sculpture of Judas kissing Jesus outside the Sagrada Familia. (Photo by Elias Rovielo / Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)

Of all the tales told in the gospels, Good Friday has to be the most perplexing. What’s good, after all, about the day when Jesus is tortured and executed, when his leading disciple perjures himself, when Roman authority gives its power up to the mob?

Hearse for Tenebrae
The 15 candles pictured above in the triangular holder (called a "hearse") are central to the Tenebrae ceremony. The candles are blown out one by one as selections of readings and psalms are chanted or recited. At the end of the service one candle remains to symbolize the return of Jesus by resurrection. (Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)

My church honors Good Friday with a Tenebrae service that links the Bible story to our contemporary mourning for a wounded world, and to our work for its recovery. The darkness of Friday exists alongside the surety that it will be dispersed on Sunday morning. My own love of Good Friday centers on the apostle who didn’t live to see that dawn.

In Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell describes Judas as “the midwife of salvation.” Using the Gospel of John as his text, Mr. Campbell asks:

“When Christ takes the bread, dips it into the dish, and says, ‘He to whom I hand the sop will betray me,’ is that a prophecy or an assignment? I think it is an assignment.”

From Mr. Campbell’s perspective, Judas is chosen, and chosen because he’s the one who can get the job done.

As always, interpretations break down when we start to compare gospels. The Gospel of Matthew also uses bread and wine to indicate who will betray Jesus, but adds a darker element. Jesus declares, “Woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed!” His declaration is followed by Judas’s heartbreaking, “Master, is it I?”

The most telling moment comes when Judas stands before Jesus in Gethsemane, his work complete. The Gospel of Mark, characteristically terse, has Judas kiss Jesus to indicate who the soldiers should arrest. The Gospel of Luke tells a similar tale, but adds that Jesus responds, “Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?” In John, Judas merely stands among the crowd.

It’s Matthew who puts the good in Good Friday. He tells of Judas leading the soldiers to Gethsemane, and even gives him a snippet of dialogue:

“Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.”

And at that kiss, the world shifts, for Jesus replies, “Friend, wherefore art thou come?”

Hours earlier, Jesus warned that it would be better that Judas had not been born. Indeed, the man will be vilified for two thousand years and more. But here, in the garden, Jesus calls him friend and asks his purpose, knowing full-well the answer.

I imagine the two men looking into each other’s eyes, understanding the other’s sacrifice as no other being ever will. It’s a moment of forgiveness, accomplishment, and farewell. If we were to pick a line from the New Testament upon which to build a religion, surely this is it: “Friend, wherefore art thou come?”


Norman AllenNorman Allen is a member of All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC. An award-winning playwright, he has explored issues of religion and spirituality in The House Halfway and In the Garden, and through his work for young audiences, including Jenny Saint Joan and On The Eve of Friday Morning.


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Reflections

I've taught biblical exegesis, and read this account in all four of the gospels. That said, Norman Allen's interpretation of the exchange between Jesus and Judas is refreshing and divinely inspired.

If we can forgive Judas, we can forgive anyone, how many of us have thought of forgiving him?

This was wonderful to read. I was not familiar with the Campbell quote but I have also felt sympathy and sorrow for Judas. I have a hard time believing, since God needed someone to do this, that it wasn't more of a sacrifice for him as well. Thanks for giving me comfort in my Good Friday reflections today.

What a beautiful reflection. I, too, wondered how Jesus could have appointed Judas this most ghastly of tragic
roles without fully knowing and loving him, too. Another paradox for consideration. Thanks for sharing this today.

I've been thinking this week of Judas as a good friend to Jesus, perhaps someone who wanted him to do more faster better larger quicker--and in his longing desperation seized upon this "betrayal" to force Jesus' hand as it were, to make him be to the whole world whom in his heart to be. Possibiy it never occurred to him that Jesus would not act along the lines Judas had in mind--and his heart was broken both for what would happen to Jedus and for having to face that he had so little understanding of the one he had love with all his heart. I think we make Judas a despicable and unique "other" at our peril. Who knows what God's loving has done with him? Perhaps he has become that chastened and compassionate person who does good wherever he goes yet always carries an air of sadness.

Exactly. Thanks :)

This is very much similar to the way Nikos Kasinzakis wrote about Judas in The last temptation of Christ. Very powerful thoughts. thanks Eclipse Neilson

Good thoughts, good intent, and maybe a good topic for discussion. But when Jesus said that, Judas had already made his deal with the high priest, had the 30 pieces of silver in his purse, and he had been regularly taking money from the moneybag he carried for the 12. Maby Jesus chose him becaus he was corruptable? Isn't that an even more awsome thing to think about?

Allen's piece reminded me of these words of St. Thomas More: Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodness, but also those of ill-will..do not only remember the suffering they inflicted on us, remember the fruits we bought thanks to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.

I appreciate the unimaginable magnanimity of Christ's love offered in the story of Judas. He offers the last supper to Judas, though he could have sent him off before the meal. But do we need this "reinterpretation" of Judas that disregards the most common reading, rips it out of its literary context, and is frankly uncreative?

I understand that there is the danger of making Judas a ruthless traitor, which he is not. The scripture is clear that he felt remorse afterwards. What is surprising is that the gospels are sparing in its portrayal of Judas. They don't just dash him in dark colors.

So there is much space for us reflect on the humanity of Judas, and our semblance to him, and Christ's endless offer of love for him. But depicting Judas as the one bold enough to do his part of the redemption story knowing how he will be vilified through the ages is a creative retelling, and not an interpretation. To make a virtue out of his weakness is as equally essentializing and unhelpful as making him a child of Satan. To build a religion on the line "Friend, wherefore art thou come?" where Judas's vice is brushed away is to ironically do the very opposite such religion intends, not a religion for faulty humans but a religion for the angels who can do no wrong.

Give me Judas with his calculating betrayal, his heavy remorse, and his rabbi offering redemption even to the final kiss; that is a religion for a man like me, one whose heart wavers.

You raise some fascinating issues here. I think the possibilities I presented about Judas are anchored securely in the text, but I also think you've got some interesting points about how my interpretation (and Joseph Campbell's) actually make the story less complex rather than more so. My purpose in writing an essay like this is never to "disregard the most common reading" but to challenge it, to suggest an alternative view. You, in turn, have challenged me - which I greatly appreciate. I was especially moved by your final sentence, which implies that we should not vilify Judas, but perhaps recognize ourselves in him. It looks like we're in agreement on one core issue - that redemption and forgiveness are at the center of the story.

apples