Few hurts are more personal than that of betrayal. With betrayal, you not only experience the harm of insult or injury, but also the trauma of broken trust within a relationship. The emotional and psychological toll from the violation of confidence is often far greater than the damage inflicted by the immediate wrongdoing. Perhaps the personal violative nature of betrayal is why famous betrayers are so frequently and infamously recognized throughout history, cinema, and literature. One needs only to mention the name “Benedict Arnold”, “Lando Calrissan”, or “Brutus” to conjure up images of backstabbing. These famous traitors are remembered not merely for their deeds, but mainly for the way in which they abused that most foundational resource of all relationships – trust – for personal gain. No wonder then, after being stabbed by his closest ally, Caesar’s famous last words (in Shakespeare’s play) were of shock and disbelief: “Et tu, Brute?”
Indeed, one man stands alone in history as the archetypal betrayer: Judas Iscariot. Held captive by love of money, this disciple turned Jesus over to the chief priests to be killed, in exchange for a payment of silver pieces. We read in the Gospel of John, chapter 13, that the devil placed this scheme in the heart of Judas even before the Last Supper, and yet Judas had the temerity to partake of this final Passover celebration with Jesus. However, more shocking than the betrayal in this case (which is consistent with sinful human nature) is the grace which our Lord showed to his betrayer that evening.
In the passage from John 13, Jesus put on the servant’s towel and with it began to wash the disciples’ feet (see John 13:4-5). After finishing the task and putting his outer garments back on, Jesus explained to the disciples, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15). The disciples had no place sharing the Gospel unless they became servants themselves. And in setting this example, Jesus without hesitation washed the feet of Judas, who was to betray him.
After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus transformed the Passover meal into the institution of the Lord’s Supper by his Body and Blood, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) and “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Yet only after the institution (in Luke’s narrative) does Jesus point out, “But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table” (Luke 22:21). While not explicitly stated across the Gospel narratives, in Luke’s account Judas partakes of the Lord’s Supper with Jesus Christ.
Touching Jesus’ divinity, he knew God’s plan for his Passion which was to take place the next day: his arrest, his interrogation, his torture, and his ultimate sacrificial death on the cross – all precipitated by Judas’ betrayal. But knowing all this, Jesus joyfully went about the work set before him that evening, having “earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). Jesus could have denied these acts of grace to Judas. He could have outed Judas as a betrayer before the Passover Feast, using his divine foreknowledge even to avoid the Passion set before him. But Jesus chose not to. In so doing, he proved the radical nature of sacrificial love and unimaginable grace set forth in his command – his mandatum – that Maundy Thursday: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). That same love which Jesus demonstrated in his grace shown to Judas on Maundy Thursday empowered him to lay down his life on the cross for us.
Jesus loved his betrayer radically and sacrificially, with full knowledge of the evil that would befall him. Given every opportunity for righteous indignation, Jesus chose to love sacrificially rather than seek his own self-interests. The grace which Jesus extended to Judas on Maundy Thursday was the same grace offered to all on the cross – for just as Jesus knew Judas would betray him, so too did he know all of the sins which he would forgive by his death on the cross. This unthinkable grace is also preserved for us in the Sacraments: for do we not also betray Jesus every week by our sins, and yet freely receive his mercy every week by his most precious Body and Blood?
Brothers and sisters, we all know the hurt of betrayal. Perhaps you have been betrayed by a friend, a spouse, your place of work, or your government. Nevertheless, we are freed by Christ from the bitter poison of resentment and commanded to love others as he first loved us. Let us then ponder how we can better forgive, love, and serve others, even those who have done us wrong.
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail