In today’s Gospel text for the Revised Common Lectionary – a three-year cycle that keeps Christians of many denominations on the same page, so to speak – Jesus sends Judas out to betray him. (John 13:21-32)
This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Who orders his own betrayal? And when doing so, why do it in a way that looks for all the world like the same physical act of communion that is otherwise oddly absent in John’s Gospel:
Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (12:26-27)
Other than the mention of Satan, this moment looks, for all the world, like an anointing to carry out some key task. And indeed it was a key task:
Jesus was already well past the point of no return. He’d waltzed into Jerusalem at Passover (a very loaded time, when the Romans would beef up security to deal with frequent disturbances). He shouted to the crowds that they should listen to him rather than the quisling sellouts that were in bed with the Romans:
For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say. (12:49-50)
Essentially he was claiming to speak for God, which meant that anyone up to the high priest who contradicted him was therefore not speaking for God. These were fighting words that put Jesus and his followers on a collision course with the establishment.
Jesus knew his martyrdom would come soon. Deputizing Judas to rat him out was an effort to face the Romans on his own terms, at the time of his choosing.
Here’s why: Passover was a time when the city swelled greatly to accommodate a crush of pilgrims. Once the festival ended, Jerusalem would empty back out as they headed home. It was time to act, and Judas was up for the task.
Peter, on the other hand, took the easy way out. Immediately after Jesus dispatched Judas, Peter tried to show off his loyalty:
“Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times! (13:37-38)
Jesus didn’t buy it, and he was right. After Judas loyally carried out his “betrayal,” Peter followed Jesus into captivity, always falling just short of engaging the enemy. He made it to the very gates of the high priest’s courtyard – a pretty spectacular spot for some suicidal preaching – if he were so inclined. Several people even asked him to tell them about Jesus. (18:12-27)
Peter had the invitation to jump up on the metaphorical tank, to give a rip-roaring sermon that could easily have set off a disturbance among the working people who were in closest proximity to the high priest’s elite world, who knew first hand how this captor of a true prophet lived.
And Peter blew it.
Saint Peter went on to have a pretty successful career, moving to Rome and becoming the head of a more inclusive and cosmopolitan movement than the uprising he’d left behind. He was later (posthumously) made the “first Pope” of the Roman Catholic Church, which became the dominant strain of the developing religion once the more radical true believers back in Jerusalem (led by Jesus’ brother James the Just) participated in the city’s eventual liberation from the Romans in 66 C.E., and then were wiped out along with the rest of the city during the reconquest a few years later.
Judas, like Jesus, became a martyr.