The Frightful Path of Judas

I recall the first time the phrase, “On the night in which He was betrayed,” struck my heart. I was attending the evening service of Maundy Thursday at my Episcopal parish when I was a student in college. There was communion, followed by the “stripping of the altar” that symbolized the arrest and scourging of Christ. But the phrase, “On the night in which He was betrayed,” haunted me through the rest of the night. (We joined friends that evening for a meal, but I found myself so captivated by the reality of that phrase that I was, doubtless, bad company).

It strikes me as singularly instructive that St. Paul, when handing down the oral tradition of the Eucharist, recited the words that had been given to him:

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”” (1 Corinthians 11:23–25)

Scholars believe that this tradition was given to St. Paul within the first few years following the events it describes. It predates the same words in the written gospels by some decades. It tells us that the earliest Christians specifically recalled that the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the context of betrayal.

That reality carries over into present-day Eucharistic devotions. We pray:

Of Thy mystical supper accept me today as a communicant. I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies, nor will I betray Thee with a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief will I confess Thee: ‘Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”

There is an abiding remembrance that the frightful path of Judas remains an option in our lives.

What is the nature of the temptation to betrayal? I often think that we imagine ourselves within the ranks of the disciples and fail to find anything attractive about Judas’ actions. We feel “safe.” Perhaps, like Peter, we deny Christ. But, of course, that still worked out ok for Peter.

I think it is when we expand our understanding, by way of Matthew 25, that we begin to see the temptation of Judas at work. There, Christ tells us of His radical identification (even union), with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner. I daresay, we betray Him under this guise quite frequently.

In particular (as an example), I think of the naked. Nothing is more naked or vulnerable, than another human being who has been seen in their shame (they abound, both among those who are near at hand, as well as many in the public sphere). Rather than covering them (as did the Sons of Noah, or Christ in His treatment of the woman taken in adultery), we often hand them over for far less than 30 pieces of silver (sometimes just to save ourselves from a bit of bother or embarrassment). The point is that we do not stand so far off from Judas.

The Church’s prayer juxtaposes Judas with the thief on the Cross. The “wise” thief, as he is called, represents a sort of minimal salvation – a prayer at the last minute of desperation (where there is only “today,” this moment). There is in that story the reminder of the radical generosity and hospitality of Christ. Naked, exposed, guilty-as-charged, we find ourselves hanging before Christ. A simple word, a single moment, and the Kingdom is ours.

We are Judas and we are the Thief. If Holy Week and Pascha teach us anything, it is to measure and view the world and ourselves in the framework of the story of Christ’s Pascha. As His death and resurrection were rushing to their fulfillment, so everything in all the world, at all time throughout the ages was rushing to that single moment as well. In Christ, on the Cross, the entirety of creation was present. The Creator has united the creation to Himself, carrying it into His death, and re-creating it in His resurrection. We can see elements of this in creation’s reactions: the sun was hidden, the earth shook, etc.

This is to say that the truth of our own existence lies hidden in that single holy moment. If our life is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), then it is hidden precisely in the context of His death and resurrection. Indeed, the prelude of our hidden life is, “For you are dead…and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

The highlight of the Church’s life is embedded in the events of Holy Week and Pascha. Every week is a “little Holy Week.” Every Sunday is a “little Pascha.” Indeed, in many languages, the name for Sunday is simply “Resurrection” (cf. Russian, etc.). We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, bringing the betrayal of Judas (Wednesday) and the Crucifixion of Christ (Friday) into every week. In those actions we allow ourselves to be gathered into that moment. What we fail to understand, I think, is that Holy Week and Pascha are being lived (or denied) within us at all times. We imagine that there is some other form of life when there was never any form other than a Paschal form.

It is through the lens of Pascha that we see the world rightly. Only in that manner do we know good from evil and everything in its purpose. St. Maximos said, “He who understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.”

Dearest Jesus, having betrayed You and denied You repeatedly, we stand before your Cross with naked souls, hungry and thirsty for love and the grace that heals all things. Leave us not as strangers to your mercy, but in your goodness, visit us in the prisons where we languish, and remember us in Your Kingdom. Amen.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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26 responses to “The Frightful Path of Judas”

  1. Hal Freeman Avatar
    Hal Freeman

    Sobering and humbling thoughts for this week and every week.

  2. Laurie Avatar

    Hi Fr. As I have gotten older I have thought about Judas more. Jesus said it would have been better to not be born. But yet Jesus chose him as well. Is there some sort of eventual redemption? I too think we are foolish if we imagine we do not have the ability to be a Judas.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve wondered, fairly often, whether Christ’s statement viz. Judas “better to not be born,” is hyperbole or not. It’s certainly not a statement that I would ever take as a starting point for theological speculation. I think that Judas’ story is not fully known to us – and that we have to be satisfied with that. If, however, Judas enters hell with his suicide, we do well to remember that Christ follows him into hell just a day or so later. What takes place in that is unknown to us – though the rescue of Adam and Eve (the “harrowing of hell”) is an iconic representation of that reality.

  4. Joyce Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

    Since our culture has lost the Ancient Faith and consequently the means whereby guilt and shame are ‘metabolized’, I think we will begin to hear and read more and more about people who have been ‘scapegoated’ by their family or community.

    A person who has been scapegoated by their family of origin experiences profound trauma – confusion, a loss of identity even. In my own case, CPTSD.

    The path towards healing, for me, necessitated a discernment of where the shame ‘belonged’. A necessary ‘sorting’ through ‘what shame belonged to me’ as the consequence of my own actions, and what shame did not belong to me, but rather had been put on me by those who couldn’t bear their own. In order to be pulled out of the resultant chaos, shame had to be uncovered.

    In recent years, however, (this has been a 10+ year journey so far) I have noticed an increasing unwillingness to ‘uncover the shame’ of those who scapegoated me. I take this hesitancy as a gift of a sign of my own journey towards healing along with the gift of increasing awareness and repentance of my own daily betrayals of Christ.

    I am learning to give thanks to God for all things.

    Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!

  5. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    I believe it is only the heart that recognizes and accepts (not denies its reality) their Judas within, who might truly have hope to embrace Jesus. Such is difficult for most of us to do, but the embrace of Christ is so profound and so worth the inward journey and accompanying tears.

    Thank you for these words.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Is there any other salvation but in the moment of death?

  7. sgage Avatar

    Michael, you say the darndest things! 🙂 You always make me think.
    I would ask, rather, is there any other salvation except for in every moment?

  8. Eric Kyte Avatar
    Eric Kyte

    If we’re truly living then we are dying every moment, no?

  9. Lisa Avatar

    Are we not all on a frightful path? When I hear Jesus refer to Judas as better if he hadn’t been born, I wonder to whom would it be better? It seems he was an important player in the story so I wouldn’t think it would be for Jesus or mankind……We believe that no one took Jesus’ life but that he gave it up willing……Perhaps this betterment was for Judas alone. I wonder if he couldn’t forgive himself and that he would go on forever torturing himself over his guilt and shame. We all can put ourselves in a living hell if we are unwilling to accept forgiveness. We all have betrayed in some way whether it be your parents, a friend or even your beloved at some point in our lives and we too have betrayed others. We have all sinned and we all have been sinned against; we all have been hurt and we have all hurt someone else………….Is this not what saves us that the Lord reveals us our true situation so that we can live a life in truth and love……… to forgive others and ourselves because we see ourselves in them.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    sgage, thank you. I was thinking of a saying I think I heard many years ago about true confession being a “little death”. It gets complicated after that.

  11. Gregory B. Avatar
    Gregory B.

    Surely the fact that Judas wasn’t just content with his thirty pieces of silver but was driven to suicide, presumably by the burden of guilt, remorse and anguish he experienced, tells us something. Better he hadn’t been born, perhaps, for the living purgatory he would have to endure in his final days but perhaps the forgiveness he couldn’t accept in this life (unlike Peter after his triple denials of Christ, restored by the lake shore) awaited him in the next.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Gregory, Lisa, et al
    I don’t think we’re given to know the final end of Judas. We may see in him, that he came to a bad end in this life. Beyond that is speculation. In this life we’re not given knowledge of all things – something we find hard to bear.

  13. Simon Avatar

    There are many things I have come to appreciate so much about the Orthodox faith. Two things related to this particular thread is (1) a healthy shame (respect for the boundary) regarding our ignorance of the end of things and (2) the freedom to lean into all the things that are made possible by God’s boundless Goodness.

    I have also come to appreciate the assurance given by my priest and other wise men that it is best to protect the peace of hearts. That means if some expression or saying like “better not to have not been born” is creating conflict within me, then I leave that one on the bone pile.

  14. Gregory B. Avatar
    Gregory B.

    Admittedly, we’re not given to know the final end of Judas, Fr. Stephen, or indeed anything not revealed in Scripture, but I would just humbly suggest that given our understanding of the infinite mercy of God, we might be permitted to hope for an ultimately benevolent end, not least given the Judas in each one of us, with Solzhenitsyn’s dividing line between good and evil in every single human being (even the whimsical angel and demon on our shoulders!) Also, as I understand one strand of Orthodox theology, in the end all shall be saved (albeit sometimes through cleansing fire), as David Bentley Hart masterfully expounds in his book ‘That All Shall Be Saved’, which I read recently. In any event, we have faith and hope that God’s love will prevail over all in the end.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I believe it is a good path – one that directs the heart well.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The late Met. Kallistos Ware, of blessed memory, famously wrote that “we may dare hope” with regard to the salvation of all. That hope is founded in the goodness and mercy of God. And I think it is both well-stated, and stated well within the boundaries of Orthodox dogmatic teaching. Hart is an interesting and brilliant writer. I do not, however, see that he has ever had much regard for boundaries if his though led him in a particular direction.

    I don’t argue against the direction – I simply (myself) live within the boundaries that have set in authoritative teaching of the Church, in that I write as a priest with precisely such a boundary given to me by my bishop.

    My first confessor in the Orthodox Church, on the matter of the salvation of all (when I asked him), said, “The affirm it outright goes beyond the boundaries that we have received. But to not hope for it is evidence of a bad heart.” Or words to that effect.

    It’s my heart I want to preserve. I didn’t mean to shut down the reasonable hope that we have in Christ. My only intention was to keep the conversation back within the limits of what we know rather than a speculative discussion of how we think things might have turned out. I am utterly certain of the love of God and His mercy and that there are no obstacles between us and such goodness. I am simply not certain about Judas (or myself, often enough).

    One of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.” Most everything else is as well.

    Be well!

  17. Lewis Avatar

    Father Stephen, You do keep such good company. As I have said before, your blogs come with two streams of education — your thinking and the responses of others.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Gregory B.
    I would say it is difficult for human beings to abide in mystery. Kinda what got us in trouble in the first place. Reading the lives of the saints (those who met Him face to face) there is still a great mystery.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “Prayer is a struggle to our dying breath.” Amen, Amen, Amen!
    I would add only that no one struggles alone except by one’s own will. The Gospel account makes it seem to me as if Judas was alone, or felt himself to be. Dangerous.

  20. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Gregory, I was relieved when I first learned of the Orthodox teaching of salvation. Since the alternative teachings from other confessions are so loud, dire, and disrespectful of God’s love and ever focusing on an angry god, my first and earliest cognisant response to Christianity was to reject it. I remained a lover of God, but not the one that many Protestants and some Catholics (and unfortunately, some Orthodox) adhere to. I have appreciated Hart’s voice in the past because it has a very insistent tone, much like the alternative confessions that stress their promotion of their angry god. His objective pulls strongly in the opposite direction as a counterpoint to the alternative argument.

    But I also know these things. Boundaries are indeed important. A few of my students once told me another scientist said he “knows me.” I told my students that he indeed does not know me. This isn’t just about personal matters. This is about the hubris of an entire culture that claims knowledge that it does not have. Or it sets a contest: who wins and who loses. Or it argues who goes to heaven and who does not. Or it argues who sits on the right hand of Christ and who on the left. I believe that Fr Stephen describes the boundaries that are set through the humility of being Christ’s loving servant and asking oneself how this relationship with Christ is expressed in various contexts. Such an approach gives a humble answer to a question posed–not to start a campaign of an argument (much like the reformation itself). In fact, Christ’s response to those who would accuse an adulterous woman was to squat and write into the dirt at his feet. When he got up and spoke, he did not pose an argument. But He did say this: he who has not sinned among you, let him throw the first stone.

    One of the many problems of the other confessions is their seemingly unconscious position of self-righteousness. They sincerely think it’s a good way to be. Making confessions of the sort seen in Orthodox life is, more often than not, off the table and unnecessary. So is any of the other sacramental acts observed in the Orthodox life. I know it is best not to draw broad strokes of Protestant and Catholic religiosity. However, suppose one argues against a theology that is tantamount to belonging to them. In that case, it seems to be engaging in behavior that will likely entrench such erroneous thinking, not dissolve it. One is not modeling an alternative, humble stance to God behaviorally.

    The right approach (that of humility) to Christ is important. Persuasion of the legalist, logical sort, is not the way to the Orthodox (right worshiping) heart. In fact, strict adherence to the path that insists on the logical inevitably will miss the path of the ineffable Way of Christ.

    Please forgive me for my own hubris in entering this conversation. My main point is to say how much I have benefited from attempting not to argue– even internally with myself. Rather, I plead for Christ’s help in distress of uncertainty or self-condemnation amid self-induced arguments. With Him, all things are possible.

  21. M E Emberson Avatar
    M E Emberson

    Judas betrayed because he thought he was right to do so . He judged himself to be superior . He was entirely taken up in his own opinions . Pride and self righteousness won in the end. He had followed John to begin with to be on the winning side. and then Jesus, who would bring in the kingdom, he thought , and now it was all over. He chose freely to end it and blamed others for paying him the money. Bitter and twisted , self absorbed , he flung himslf into hell as he was free to do. We can all refuse God’s mercy. We have that freedom.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but you make a number of assertions that you simply have no way of knowing to actually be the case. I understand your assessment to be what you think to be the case.

    The Church sets Judas before our eyes (particularly in many of the texts of the Bridegroom Matins) as a lens into our own hearts. We hear, “Judas loves money with his mind…” as a refrain on one of the evenings. I’m not sure what the inner workings of Judas’ heart were – how he came to be where he was when it was all said and done. What I am certain about, however, is that his path is likely followed by us in various ways from time to time – so we should speak with fear and trembling.

    Even the statement, “He flung himself into hell as he was free to do,” says something that is an imponderable mystery. How does anyone choose the evil instead of the good? How do we, in our own lives, make that very same choice?

    Mostly, as we ponder such things, I believe that we do great harm when we externalize our thoughts – making Judas “the other.” Our communion prayer, “I will not betray Thee with a kiss as did Judas,” reveals that such a kiss was(is) always a present possibility. Whatever the outcome of the historical Judas – is known to God alone (the texts do not say, “And he burned forever in hell”). Indeed, such knowledge would be of little use to us. It is not the historical Judas that is of concern – it is the Judas within us that matters.

    “We have that freedom.” Apparently. But we do well to consider the mystery within our freedom and the layers upon layers of confusion and distortion that darken our hearts. In the end, we come to Christ crying, “Lord, have mercy! Save me from the darkness within my own heart!”

    God give us grace during these coming days of Holy Week.

  23. Pantelis Karamolegkos Avatar
    Pantelis Karamolegkos

    The question that has me haunting is the following: Had Jesus NOT elected Judas as a desciple, would he have been condemned (not sure is this is the most appropriate english verb here, trying to translate “κολαστεί, from the verb κολάζομαι) so harshly?
    If the question is YES given that Judas’ soul and and inner heart (καρδία) is the critical factor, then this goes against the teaching that (I believe) runs the Orthodox tradition that the act of sin (έργω) are worse than the thoughts/intentions (λόγω/διανοία). What are your thoughts on this father?

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Again, I think there is much we cannot know or judge about this (because the Scripture/Tradition does not tell us). Nonetheless, Judas is not “elected” to betray Christ (foreordained, predestined, etc.). God does not do that to human beings.

    I think it is good to say less.

  25. Lisa Avatar

    Forgive me for even entering the conversation. I come from a tradition that very much condemned Judas which always seemed off. I did not intend to infer that Judas was willed by God to betray our Lord. Rather that we all are in need of God’s mercy. Not that it matters but I agree with you that perhaps the less said the better. May God surprise us with the depths of his love.

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