The Fall of Judas


Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray Him, being one of the twelve.

S. John vi. 70, 71.

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, 1871.

The one crime, which society judges hardly, for which it holds no penalty too severe, is treachery. Of other sins the world is a lenient critic. It deals very gently with the profligate; it is full of excuses for the self-willed and violent. It has a sympathy with passion—the passion of the sensualist, or the passion of the headstrong—which softens its judgment. But the traitor receives no mercy at the bar of public opinion. The instinct of self-preservation does not leave society a choice. It could not hold together, if perfidy were overlooked. The betrayal of a friend, the betrayal of a cause, the betrayal of one's country —these are unforgiven and unforgotten crimes. Even treachery to a treacherous cause is barely tolerated. The law employs it, and disguises it with a specious title. We call it 'turning Queen's evidence,' but still it is repulsive. We avail ourselves of the treachery, but we loathe the traitor. It is an ugly name and an ugly thing, to which no social or political necessity can altogether reconcile us.

And here in the text we are confronted with the arch-traitor himself—the one man, before whose one act the darkest treacheries recorded in the annals of crime seem pale and colouiless, whose name is handed down to all generations branded with the reproach of a never-dying infamy. For he betrayed the Friend, Who was the very impersonation of Love; he betrayed the cause, in which the eternal interests of mankind are bound up; he betrayed the country, of which we all are citizens, the kingdom of heaven, where we all aspire to dwell.

Is not the case of Judas, we are led to ask, so exceptional, that his temptation is not our temptation, that his crime cannot be our crime, and that therefore his fall has no lesson of warning for us? Nay, his sin seems so unnatural and monstrous, that we have some difficulty in even realising it. The contrast is too violent between the Apostle and the traitor—the intimate communion with the Holy One here, the vile perfidy to the Friend and Saviour there: the unique advantages here, the unparalleled baseness there. The perfect example of the Master, the elevating society of the fellow-disciples, the words of truth, the works of power, the grace, the purity, the holiness, the love—all these forgotten, spurned, trampled under foot, to gratify one miserable, greedy passion, if not the worst, at least the meanest, which can possess the heart of man. On this moral contrast our Lord lays special emphasis in the language of the text. 'Have I not chosen you, the twelve, chosen you out of the many thousands in Israel, in preference to the highborn and the powerful, in preference to the rabbi and the scribe and the priest, chosen you a mere handful of men to be My intimate friends, My special messengers now, to sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel hereafter; and yet one among you is not faithless only, not unworthy, not sinful only, but a very impersonation of the Accuser, the Arch-fiend himself.'

Our experiences may recall some faint type of such a contrast, where the circumstances of the criminal and the baseness of the crime seem to stand in no relation to each other. We may have seen some one member of a family, brought up under conditions the most favourable to his moral and religious development, watched over by parents whose devoted care was never at fault, growing up among brothers and sisters whose example suggested only innocence and truthfulness, breathing in short the very atmosphere of holiness and purity and love; and yet he has fallen—fallen we know not how, but fallen so low that even the world rejects him as an outcast. He is a traitor to the family name, he has dragged the family honour in the mire. And yet, until lately, he was, to all outward appearances, as one of the rest— sharing the same companionships, joining in the same amusements, learning the same lessons, nay, even wearing the same family features, speaking with his father's voice, or smiling with his mother's smile.

But, though such experiences may serve in some measure to account for the fall of Judas, yet we feel that much still remains unexplained. The exceptional circumstances have not yet been taken into our reckoning. There is a theological difficulty, and there is a moral difficulty. The theological difficulty relates to the part taken by our Lord Himself; the moral difficulty relates to the part taken by Judas.

I. There is the theological difficulty. If our Lord did indeed read men's hearts, if with Divine insight He could forecast the future, how did He admit into His little band one, in whom even then He saw the germs of a base passion, and whose fall hereafter He must have foreknown by His omnipresent intuition? There is something strangely contradictory, we are apt to think, between the selection to the Apostleship and the prescience of the betrayal.

But is it really so? If, when Judas was chosen to his high office, his heart had been already cankered with avarice, and his character debased, then indeed the difficulty would be great; then indeed his selection would have been (we cannot think the thought without irreverence) a solemn unreality, a mere dramatic display. But we have no reason to suppose this. When he was chosen, he was worthy of the choice; he was not a bad man; he had, we must suppose, no common capacities for good; there was in him perhaps the making of a S. Peter or a S. John. His whole history points to this view of his character. Can we suppose that he alone had made no sacrifices, suffered no privations, met with no reproaches, during those three years, in which through good and evil report he followed that Master, Who was despised and rejected of men, Who had not where to lay His head? Can we imagine that he alone had given no pledges of his earnestness, that he alone escaped the bitter consequences of discipleship, that from him alone Christ's unpopularity glanced off without leaving a bruise or a scar behind? And does not his terrible end read the same lesson? The sudden revulsion of feeling, the bitter remorse, the crushing despair, so fatal in its result, serves but to show what he might have been, if one vile passion had not been cherished in him till it had eaten out all his better nature. And so it was, that throughout the Lord's ministry, even to the last fatal moment, he seems to have been unsuspected by his brother Apostles, moving about with them, trusted by them, appearing outwardly as one of them. On that night when the Master announces the approaching treachery, each asks sorrowfully,' Is it I?'—not enduring to entertain the thought of himself, and yet not daring to suspect the evil in another. All this while Judas was on his trial, as we are on our trial. He was selected for the Apostleship, as we are called into Church-membership. But, like us, he was allowed the exercise of his human free-will; he was not compelled by an irresistible fate to act worthily of his calling; he was free to make his election between good and evil; he rejected the good, and he chose the evil.

And therefore the theological difficulty no longer remains. We cannot say how God's foreknowledge and our free-will should coexist. The prescience of Christ is as the prescience of God. It is subject to the same conditions, is attended with the same difficulties. His little company was not intended to be perfect. Otherwise it would have conveyed no lessons to us. It had its coward in Peter; its sceptic in Thomas; and it had also its traitor in Judas.

2. But the second difficulty, the moral difficulty, still remains. Granted that there is nothing inconsistent with God's known dealings elsewhere in our Lord's selection of Judas to the Apostleship, yet how are we to explain the conduct of Judas himself? With these advantages, amidst these associations, before this Presence, how could he so fall? Have we not here a moral impossibility?

Had he not, day after day, and month after month, and year after year, listened to the voice of Him, Who spake as never man spake, Whose single utterances have had power to turn from evil to good and to change at once the whole tenour of a life, Whose words ringing through all the ages now after the lapse of eighteen centuries speak to the hearts of every man and every nation with a force and a distinctness and a penetration peculiarly their own? Had he not heard Him, as He denounced the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches; as He declared the impossibility of a divided worship between God and Mammon? Amidst all distractions, through every discouragement, Judas had remained, had persevered, had listened; listened to all that He had uttered from that first conscience-stirring sermon on the Galilean Mount to these last solemn discourses on Olivet and in Jerusalem; and yet he was a traitor.

And had he not also witnessed those mighty works—works which no man could do, except God were with him, which were the very credentials of His Messianic claims? Had he not been present when those five thousand were fed on the few loaves in Galilee, and those four thousand in Decapolis? Had he not seen the lame walk, and the dumb speak, and the lepers cleansed, by that voice and under that touch? Had he not witnessed the very devils unwillingly confessing His name? Nay, had he not, only a short time ago, not far from this very spot, seen the crowning miracle of all, when the friend, who had been dead already four days, was restored to life again, and seated at table with his Master; and yet he was a traitor.

I know that some have sought an escape from this difficulty by supposing that the motives of Judas were not so very bad after all. He was very wrong, no doubt, they would say; but his fault was quite as much an error of judgment as an obliquity of moral principle. He did not intend his Master to be put to death. He believed in His Messianic claims. He knew that He was the predicted King of Israel. But he was impatient that Jesus did not declare Himself. He was dissatisfied that so many golden opportunities had been lost, that year after year had passed and nothing was done. And so he would put an end to s. P. s. 5

this long suspense; he would compel his Master to assert His sovereignty; he would concentrate upon Him the antagonism of the rulers in such a way that He must declare Himself, must confound His enemies by the exercise of His supernatural powers, and stand forth confessed the Anointed, the Chosen One, the King of Israel.

To this there is one decisive answer. The Gospel narrative gives no intimation that this, or anything like this, was his motive. On the contrary, they suggest a very different view of Judas's character. 'This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare (or purloined) what was put therein.' He had misappropriated the general funds, as we should say, in delicate modern phrase; the Evangelist knows nothing of delicate modern phrases, and calls it thieving. He had allowed one vile passion to grow unchecked in his heart. His office, as treasurer of the little company, had given him opportunities of indulging this passion. He had yielded, and so fell.

But after all does this painful history really contradict our experience? Experience may not carry us to the extreme point where Judas's transgression lies; but, so far as it goes, it only confirms this strange contradiction. For it teaches that the moral character by no means keeps pace with the moral opportunities; nay, it shows that, when a man, placed in a position eminently favourable to the development of his higher self, does nevertheless give the rein to some vicious tendency within, his vice seems to gain strength by this very fact. It can only be indulged by resistance to the good influences about him, and resistance always gives compactness and force, always braces the capacity, whether for good or for evil. Moreover, such a man gets to isolate his vicious passion from the surrounding circumstances, even from the better impulses within himself. If he did not, his relations with those about him would be intolerable; the conflict in his own heart would be too agonizing. But when, gradually and half-unconsciously, he has got to treat his special temptation as something apart, to concede to it a special privilege, to regard it as a law to itself; then the moral checks are removed; then it thrives, uninterrupted and almost unnoticed; until at length it casts away its disguises, it throws off all control, and reveals itself in all its vile deformity.

This then is the first stage in the traitor's fall. It is the often-told tale of a single sin springing up and luxuriating in secret, till in its rank growth it has twined itself around all the fibres of the heart, and choked and killed with its poisonous embrace whatever there was of pure and noble and good in that soul. The process had been a gradual process. It is an old and a true saying, that no man ever became utterly base at once. Utter baseness requires a long education; but it is carried on in secret, and so we do not notice it. The heinous, shocking crime first startles us, but it is only the end of a long series. It was so no doubt with Judas. He had had, as every man, whether good or bad, has in some form or other, an evil tendency in his heart. Here was his trial; here might have been his moral education. But he made it his master, and it plunged him in headlong ruin. There was, first of all, the pleasure of fingering the coin; then there was the desire of accumulating; then there was the reluctant hand and the grudging heart in distributing alms; then there was the silent appropriation of some trifling sum, as indemnification for a real or imagined personal loss; then there was the first unmistakeable act of petty fraud—and so it went on and on, until the disciple became the thief, the trusted became the traitor, the Apostle of Christ the Son of Perdition. For there was no external check upon him. The moral checks—the influences, the companionships, the Divine Presence, ought to have been more than a compensation for the absence of material checks. This was his spiritual probation. The incomings and the outgoings of the common purse were alike precarious. There was no balancing of ledgers, no auditing of accounts in the little company. No one knew what was received and what was spent. Each trusted, and each was trusted by, the other.

Up to the time of his fall Judas had been avaricious, miserly, fraudulent. Let us use the plain language of the Evangelist, he had been a thief. But a traitor, an arch-traitor—this was far from his thoughts. To betray, to ruin, to kill the Master Whom he respected and feared, Whom perhaps after his poor fashion he loved, Whose fortunes he had followed so long, Who (he must have felt it in his heart of hearts) was the destined deliverer, the anointed King of Israel—this was too terrible, too shocking, even for the imagination to entertain.

Let us follow this history now through its second stage—the temptation and the struggle. The opportunity came. The match was put to the train, which long inveterate habit had laid. And could the result be otherwise?

The opportunity came. I do not doubt that he reasoned about it. There was much to be said for his yielding; there always is much to be said for yielding, when a temptation courts acquiescence. He might argue thus. Either Jesus is the Christ, or He is not. If He is the Christ, my act will do no harm— nay, it will be a positive good. It will be the means of eliciting the truth. He will be confronted with His opponents; He will wrest Himself from their grasp; He will crush them by His divine power; He will ride triumphant over His foes, and seat Himself on the throne of Israel. If He is the Messiah, no act of mine can touch Him.

But what if he is not the Messiah? What if those works of power, which I have witnessed, were wrought, as the priests and Pharisees have said, not by the finger of God, but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils? What if He is a mere pretender, a rank impostor? Then there can be no doubt about the wisdom, the propriety of this course. By exposing this gigantic imposture, by terminating these blasphemous assumptions, I shall confer a substantial benefit on my generation and my country.

Thus he might argue. Whatever of belief there was in him, and whatever of scepticism there was in him, pointed in the same way. With the evil-hearted all things turn to evil. The argument was without a flaw. It had only one fault: it was wholly beside the question. It did not touch the motive of the act, and therefore did not touch the character of the act. Believe me, if there is one maxim more sound, more saving, more universal in its application than another, it is this—never to reason, never to argue, in the face of temptation; but to spurn it from your presence, if you are strong enough; if not, to flee from its presence. Of all cases this is the one where to argue, and so to hesitate (for if you argue you must hesitate), is to be lost. Logic and argument have their high and noble functions; but this is not their place. Here we want not reasoning; we want love and conscience—conscience which directs, and love which inspires. Love is better than reason. If you would realise the contrast between the two, recall the scene in Simon's house at Bethany six days before. There too Judas reasons, while Mary loves. 'Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?' Here also the reasoning is faultless; it has been repeated again and again in diverse forms, when an excuse is sought for niggardliness. But it was said without love, and it is repeated without love. Better, a thousand times better, the unreasoning devotion, the uncalculating abandonment of love in Mary, than the prudential logic, the strong practical common-sense of Judas. Of her it is said, 'Wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this be told for a memorial of her.' Of him, 'Woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed; it had been good for that man if he had not been born.'

And so Judas fell. Love might have saved him: reason killed him. He fell; and the heinousness of his crime, the greatness of his fall, lay in this, that he sinned against light. He, whose feet this very night the Master had washed as an example to His disciples, he, who this very night had partaken of the sacramental bread and wine, went out and forthwith betrayed his Lord. This violent contrast is ever present in the narratives of the Evangelists. 'Judas, which betrayed Him, being one of the twelve,' says S. John. 'He was numbered with us, and obtained part of this ministry,' says S. Peter. And all the incidents connected with his fatal act are symbolical of the contrast—the favours, the privileges, the light, vouchsafed on the one side: the meanness, the ingratitude, the blackness of the treachery on the other. 'He it is, to whom I shall give the sop, when I have dipped it.' And the transition is as sudden as the contrast is violent. 'And after the sop Satan entered into him. He then having received the sop immediately went out: and it was night.'

'It was night.' In the full presence of the glorious Sunlight it was night to that traitorous, fallen man. With darkness overhead, and deeper darkness still within, he did the deed of eternal, irretrievable infamy.

The deed is done ;. the Master is condemned; the reward is secured. And then the revulsion comes. What is now the value of those few paltry coins? What is now the use of that persuasive, flawless logic? Is there any one here in this congregation, who has passed through any similar experience; who has sacrificed his probity and honour, the pillar of his inward self-respect, to the temptation of some sordid gain; who has bartered his purity—the royal robe of his Christian birthright—for the gratification of some hasty passion, and found out, then when it is too late, in the bitterness of remorse, that the bright, tempting, full-ripe fruit was turned to rottenness in his grasp— loathsome to the eye and poisonous to the taste? If so, he may realise, faintly realise, the despair of Judas, when he awoke from his moral trance. It was night, when the deed was done; now there is light—only too much light—striking in upon his soul, and piercing its darkest and most dreaded recesses with a painful glare.

The end we know. He flung back the accursed coin, the seal of his guilt, to those who had tempted to the fatal act. He could not bear the light, could not bear life, could not bear himself.

An ancient writer, impressed by the bitterness of his grief and the sincerity of his confession, 'I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood,' would interpret his suicide favourably. In the agony of his condition he could not bear to wait; his Master was doomed, and he would anticipate Him; would rush at once into the world of the unseen, seek His presence there, and confess the heinousness of his guilt, and throw himself on His infinite compassion— 'with his bare soul.' It is a striking thought. 'With his bare soul'—stripped of those hands which sealed the fatal compact by their grasp, of those eyes which gloated over the accursed gain, of those lips which gave the final, fatal, treacherous kiss. And yet this, we feel, is not the Judas of the Evangelists, the Son of Perdition. 'With his bare soul' It had been bare enough throughout in the sight of God, with all its dark windings, all its treacherous subterfuges—bare with that blackened guilt, which a long life of penitence were too little to wipe out, and which a suicidal death could only fix there the more indelibly.

'He went to his own place'—this is S. Peter's simple phrase. The veil is drawn over his fate. We dare not, cannot lift it. There let us leave him; there to the mercy of the Righteous Judge, and the justice of a merciful God; there 'with his bare soul,' in the presence of the Christ, Whom he betrayed and crucified. It is not ours to judge. Only his history remains; not as a discouragement, for that it cannot be, but as a warning to us, how the greatest spiritual privileges may be neutralised by the indulgence of one illicit passion, and the life, which is lived in the face of the unclouded sun, may set at last in the night of despair.