Why did Judas betray Jesus? (Part 2)

In my previous post, I introduced the question “Why did Judas betray Jesus?” If you did some digging to try to find the answer, you might have read John 17, where Jesus is praying to God for his disciples shortly before he is arrested–and after Judas left to betray him.

“I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. John 17:1-12

A possible response to this would be “here’s the answer! Judas betrayed Jesus because he had to! Jesus says it right here. Judas was doomed to do it.” This verse plunges us headfirst into a discussion of predestination and free will: did Judas choose to betray Jesus, or did God make him do it? And while we’re at it, if God made Judas do it, do any of us actually have the choice to follow God (or not)? Do we have free will?

This is a deep question, and it’s one that I don’t have space to adequately cover in this particular post. I intend to write on this at some point, but suffice it to say for now that almost every page of the Bible screams in support of our free will. Why? Because God is constantly asking us and commanding us to make choices. For example:

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Deuteronomy 30:19-20

And in the New Testament:

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” John 7:16-17

Every command that we’re given presupposes our ability to choose to obey God. So, without making a formal argument in support of Judas’ free will, let’s continue with the understanding (or assumption, if you prefer) that he did make choices that led to his betraying Jesus—while at the same time acknowledging that he was in a real sense “doomed to destruction.”

Thoroughly confused yet? Sweet. That was the hardest part. Let’s keep on moving.

Actually answering the question

This is probably a good time to talk a little about how you’d approach a question like the one we’re asking. If I want to know why Judas betrayed Jesus, how would I find out? To learn more about a specific person, a good first step is to go to a Bible search tool like BibleGateway and search for “Judas”. When I do that, I get 31 search results. A few of those are the scriptures we looked at previously, where Judas is listed along with the other apostles. Several refer to other people named Judas rather than our Judas Iscariot. Spending 15 minutes or so looking at these results, you’ll find that we don’t have a whole lot of detail about Judas’ life.

But we do have something. Let’s look at John 12, one of our search results.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. John 12:1-6

From this passage, we learn a few things about Judas. First, we see that he was Jesus’ banker and accountant. He took care of the financial matters for their group. Second, we learn that he would steal money from the group and use it for himself. Third, we learn that he is feigning innocence, pretending to be concerned about the poor when he doesn’t really care about them.

OK, great. Let’s now turn to Matthew 26, another search result. Matthew is recounting the same incident in Bethany. However, here we get a little bit more information about what Judas did after.

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then one of the Twelve–the one called Judas Iscariot–went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

This was the turning point for Judas. After Jesus defends the woman’s actions, something in Judas snapped, and he decided to betray Jesus. It’s a seemingly strange moment to do so–but we get a big clue as to why when we see the specific question Judas asks the chief priests. He goes up to them and asks: “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?”

It is here, I believe, that Judas reveals his motives. Judas cares more about wealth than about righteousness. In a word, he is greedy. Although he’s been following Jesus around for three years, it’s been because he thought that “godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). I’m hypothesizing here, but maybe something about that day in Bethany made him think that following Jesus wasn’t the money-maker he thought it was. If Jesus wasn’t going to enable him to be wealthy, he’d have to pursue other routes.

Is greed such a bad thing?

The baby's on fire because of greed

It may seem strange that greed could be Judas’ downfall. But greed–and more broadly, how we are to handle our money–is spoken about frequently and strongly, both by Jesus and by his apostles. The entire chapter of Luke 12 is relevant reading here, as is Matthew 6, Mark 7:20-22, and Luke 6:27-36. But Luke 12:13-15 captures much of the spirit of what is discussed throughout these other passages:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

This person in the crowd is coming to Jesus for money. The firstborn son received the bulk of the inheritance in Jewish society, and so this (younger) son may have heard Jesus’ earlier teachings on generosity (c.f. Matthew 5:42, Luke 6:27-36) and thought that Jesus would tell his brother to give him a larger slice of the pie. But Jesus says (paraphrasing slightly) “Why you coming and talking to me about these worthless things? You’re looking for life in the wrong places.”

In the Christian circles that I’m a part of, it’s generally acknowledged that sexual sin is capital-B Bad. Yet in Scripture, in so many of the places where sexual immorality is spoken against, greed is mentioned in the same breath. By way of example:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. Ephesians 4:19

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Ephesians 5:3

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Colossians 3:5

They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. 2 Peter 2:13-16

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” Hebrews 13:4-6

Seeing sexual immorality and greed paired like this made me start to question the way I viewed greed itself. At the same time, I started noticing how difficult, even impossible it is, to follow Jesus’ commandments while loving money. Jesus’ command to love our enemies is intimately bound up with generosity, even to those who hate us (Luke 6:27-36 [I’ve referenced this one three times: go and read it!!]). Jesus’ command to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven, not on earth, becomes quite difficult to obey if our thoughts are consumed with the next thing we want to buy or the nest egg we’re saving up for our retirement. I’m not saying that buying things is wrong, or that saving is wrong, necessarily. But I am saying that much of what Jesus commands makes zero sense if we approach it with a heart that loves money. One attitude we can have when we read those commands is to think “there’s no way he meant that.” Another attitude we can have is “that seems crazy: what would it look like for me to put this into practice in my own life?”

What next?

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, and though we may not have a definitive answer to our original question of why Judas betrayed Jesus, we have seen that greed was a key issue highlighted in Judas’ life. We’ve also taken a brief tour of what the scriptures say about greed in general. If you’re interested in taking a closer look at what Jesus commanded us about our use of and attitude towards money, I’d recommend a little book called “Through the Eye of a Needle: The Doctrine of Nonaccumulation” by Robert Hertzler. While I’m not sold on all of his conclusions, his book has forced me to go back to the scriptures and grapple with what Jesus teaches in a manner that has felt equally challenging, productive, and exciting.

Let’s end it here with a scripture that I think is SUPER INSPIRING.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. 1 Timothy 6:17-19