On the morning Jesus was condemned to die, Judas took his own life at the Field of Blood. His death makes me sad, since suicide always leaves a devastating wound among family and friends. Such a violent end for Judas is tragic, because good intentions may have motivated his decision to turn Jesus into the authorities. This disciple was a flawed character, even a thief (John 12:6)—but our Lord would have forgiven.
Not long ago I rose before dawn and ventured alone from Jaffa Gate in Old Jerusalem down into Hinnom Valley where, by tradition, Judas died. Hinnom Valley skirts western and southern sides of Old Jerusalem, and in these depths some people of Israel once practiced human sacrifice (2 Chron. 28:1–3). In Jesus’ day the valley was a city dump and paupers’ cemetery called Gehenna.
Orange-red light wrestled with morning fog as I descended into Gehenna. Today this valley is a conflict zone in the turf battle between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. I entered with trepidation, aware of both current hazards and the torment Judas must have suffered here.
Judas received thirty pieces of silver for guiding authorities to Jesus, but money hardly was his motive. Judas and Jesus apparently loved each other: Jesus made Judas one of the Twelve of his inner circle. Judas accompanied Jesus through years of ministry, and at Gethsemane greeted his Lord with a kiss—perhaps a sign of genuine affection.
Most revealing is the fact that when Judas “saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.” He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” Then, throwing down the silver in the temple, he went and hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5). Evidently Judas did not want Jesus to die and did not crave reward money. Could it be that Judas was trying to force a final apocalyptic confrontation between Jesus and the Jerusalem authorities—an eschatological battle Judas was certain Jesus would win?
Other first-century Jews—notably Essenes who withdrew to the desert at Qumran—had such expectations of an impending cosmic battle between powers of light and forces of darkness. On the Mount of Olives, just before the ascension of Jesus, the eleven disciples asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Perhaps like Judas, they too were eager to bring on their own concept of the kingdom of God.
That is a spiritual hazard to which followers of Jesus are vulnerable today when we try to manipulate the direction of the church or use raw power to control. Manipulation is evident in some Western theologies that actually celebrate conflict in the Middle East because of belief that approaching Armageddon will hasten the return of Christ.
Rather than joining the long litany of condemnation against Judas, perhaps we should grieve his misguided motives. We might recognize the bit of Judas in our own hearts—the lure of greed and control that draws us from the way of the cross, away from patient love, away from trusting that Christ will build the church.
It is right for the church to show compassion for persons taken by suicide, and to give tender support to survivors. Some individuals live in such pain, or act with such determination, that no amount of human caring can save their lives. Then we entrust them to the mercy of a loving Creator, and walk alongside family and friends in the hard task of living toward hope in the wake of tragedy.
© 2016 J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************
Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine in September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope