From Rev Dr John Squires
Presbytery Minister - Wellbeing
Every year, at Easter time, people of faith recount the story of the earth and resurrection of Jesus. The days of the Easter weekend are constructed so that we focus, step by step, on the main elements in the story: the poignant last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (Thursday evening), the tragedy of trials and committal to crucifixion and death (Friday morning); the waiting in the quiet (Saturday, the sabbath day); the sombre early morning visit to the tomb, found to be empty (Sunday morning); and the joyous stories of encountering the risen Jesus (Sunday evening).
So many parts to the familiar story; so many opportunities to recall, retell, and reflect on these seminal events, the centre of our Christian faith. And we recall and repeat elements of that story on many, if not all, of the other Sunday’s during the year.
And yet: there are other parts of the story which do not often (if at all) take their place in this retelling of the story. Other parts, which may surprise, confront, or challenge, if we hear them, explore them, and ponder their significance for us. One of these is the fate of the tragic figure of Judas: apostle, betrayer, sinner, apostate.
The last part of the story of Judas is told in the final reading from Acts that we are offered in the sequence that has been provided for this season of Easter. (The season runs from 4 April, Easter Sunday, to 23 May, the Day of Pentecost. Acts replaces the Hebrew Scripture passages throughout this season.) The fate of Judas is recounted during the narrative about the choice of the twelfth disciple to replace Judas (Acts 1:15–26).
It seems that, according to this narrative, Judas deliberately and carefully planned his death after he had betrayed Jesus. With the money he had been given for this act of betrayal, he looked for and then purchased a field. He then organised what was needed to hang himself. It was a deliberate, planned response, to the tragedy that he saw unfolding before his eyes—because of his simple act of betrayal.
There are three versions of how Judas died. This account in Acts reports that Judas bought a field and hanged himself there. This part of the passage is actually omitted by the lectionary, but you can read it in Acts 1:18–20. It tells us that Judas deliberately and carefully planned his death after he had betrayed Jesus. With the money he had been given for this act of betrayal, he looked for and then purchased a field.
Judas then organised what was needed to hang himself. It was a deliberate, planned response, to the tragedy that he saw unfolding before his eyes—because of his simple act of betrayal. Why did he commit suicide? Acts doesn’t reveal his motives.
A second account of the death of Judas is attributed to Papias of Hierapolis, a second century bishop whose works are no longer extant—but who is quoted in the writings of later church leaders. His account of Judas is reported by Apollinaris of Laodicea, a fourth century bishop, who gives us a detailed and incredibly gory version of how Judas died. It’s not in our New Testament, for all sorts of reasons!
Matthew provides the third account of the death of Judas. This account differs from Luke and Papias. There is no field that was purchased. There is no planning or scheming in order to obtain the field. There is no time-lag between the day of betrayal and the moment of his death. Rather, there is an immediate, apparently hotheaded, spur-of-the-moment, decision to end his life. He threw down the pieces of silver, rushed out, and committed suicide. It is a dramatic and tragic ending to the life of Judas.
In the immediate aftermath of the sequence of events that unfolded from that potent kiss in the garden (Matt 26:37–40), Matthew asserts that “when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders” (Matt 27:3).
Judas had a change of mind about what he had done. The description is clear: Judas changed his mind. The Greek word used can also be translated as showing that Judas had regret about what he did, or even that he repented of what he had done.
And, in fact, Matthew grounds this in the words that Judas spoke to the chief priests and elders: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matt 27:4).
That is a clear confession of sinfulness, which—we are assured elsewhere in scripture—will evoke a response of forgiveness (1 John 1:9)—a claim that carries over into traditional Christian liturgy even to this day. Why is Judas thus not forgiven? He has confessed and repented. Does he not deserve God’s grace and forgiveness??
What do you make of the figure of Judas?
(if you want to read more about how Judas is seen, including t he gory details in the account by Papias, you can read my blog at https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/12/judas-reconsidering-his-part-in-the-easter-story-acts-1-easter-7b/
Rev Dr John Squires
Canberra Region Presbytery
Uniting Church in Australia
0408 024 642
blogs on ‘An Informed Faith’