Thursday, April 1, 2010

Two Betrayals; One Forgiveness

During the week leading up to Easter, Wednesday has traditionally been the day where we remember the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. Judas was one of the twelve main disciples (Matt 10:4; Mark 3:19; Luke 6:16; John 6:71) who was in charge of the group's money box, from which he regularly stole money for himself (John 12:6). His love of money grew so large that when the Pharisees asked for information on when Christ could be far away from the crowds (John 11:57) and the disciples had arrived in Gethsemane, Judas went immediately to the Pharisees and received a payment in thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14-15). He therefore became a perfect embodiment of the warning from Christ which said: "You cannot serve both God and money" (Matt 6:24).

Of course, as is often the case in addiction, Judas feels guilt after seeing the results of his deed, and it leads ultimately to his suicide, which is referred to in Matthew's gospel:
Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” And they said, “What is that to us? You see to it!” Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself. [Matthew 27:3-5]
However, Judas was not the only one to betray Christ, for Peter also denied Christ three times at the trial. Christ had predicted Peter's denial in the garden (Matt 26:34; Mark 14:30; Luke 22:34; John 13:38), and it came to fruition (Matt 26:69-74; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-61; John 18:15-17, 25-26). Luke even records in his gospel that "the Lord turned and looked at Peter" (22:61) signifying that, in addition to the omnipotence of His deity, Christ was within hearing space of Peter's denial, and the disciple was well aware of it.

Here we have two situations during the Passion of our Lord in which He is betrayed by close disciples. Yet, what makes them different? The biggest reason is that Peter, unlike Judas, truly felt repentant. It is interesting to note that while there is no record of Judas crying over his deed, all three of the Synoptic writers record that immediately after betraying Christ, Peter went out and wept (Matt 26:75; Mark 14:72; Luke 22:62). Although John does not record Peter's lamenting, he goes on to narrate Christ's own forgiveness of Peter by a thrice confession (John 21:15-19), emphasizing Peter's redemption in another fashion.

The tears shed by Peter were known by many Church Fathers as a "baptism of tears" - not because the tears served the same purpose as our baptism, but that they were a sign of true repentance. Our sins were forgiven because our repentance was sincere - not an empty "I'm sorry" that so many say when they get in trouble, but a true sign that the person had realized what they had done. Sin separates a man from God, and in that separation we become subject to the wrath spoken of so much. As David famously wrote:
Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight — that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge. [Psalm 51:4]
The man of God (the man who knows in his heart what this means) feels truly remorseful at the realization of his sin, and it brings him to tears. Peter was a true man of God - indeed, he was the first one to fully identify Christ for who He was (Matt 16:16; John 6:69) - and upon realizing that he had betrayed his Lord and Master, he is moved to tears. Nothing, in his mind, could have been worse than what he had just done.

Judas, on the other hand, was far from a man of God. He was regularly engaging in sin, and in the end allowed the sin to overcome him. When Luke states "Satan entered Judas" (Luke 22:3), he did not speak of a possession, as if Judas was no longer in control of his actions, but rather that Judas had fully embraced the sin he was to commit. John clarifies in his gospel that "the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him" (John 13:2), signifying that Satan had laid the temptation; later on John repeats the words of Luke, stating "Satan entered him" (13:27), signifying Judas had decided to do this sin. It is only then that Christ says, in the same verse, "What you do, do quickly." Sin is not hidden from God, for "the LORD searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts" (1 Chr 28:9). Christ knew that the heart of Judas had been resolved to evil, and He permitted him the will to bring about his self-destruction.

Later on, when Judas realizes his error, he does the most incorrect thing for a sinner to do: he does not turn to God. He tries to fix the error his own way, by giving the money back to the Sanhedrin. This of course fails, so what is he left with? Fulton Sheen, on his television show Life is Worth Living, once discussed the loneliness of a person who only focuses on themselves. They are drawn deeper and deeper into their psyche, until all that is left is their ego crammed into a tiny space. When this fails, they are desperate. There is nothing left. All is lost. Therefore, they take their own life. This is what Judas does. He has sinned, and knows there is no turning back.

How foolish it was for him, and how great a crime his suicide was. I say crime because in his suicide he denied the very thing left for him: the love of God. Imagine if Judas had turned and gone to Christ and begged forgiveness. Imagine how the Passion story would be if, along with the epiphany of doubting Thomas, there was the redemption of Judas. There is no doubt that our Lord would have forgiven Judas, if he had sincerely sought forgiveness. Regarding this, some compassion can be shown towards Judas; on the other hand, we must remember it was all by his action and his decision-making alone. Although Christ knew that Judas would betray Him (John 13:11), our Lord did not compel Judas to do it.

Therefore, Judas and Peter became two great lessons regarding repentance: Judas the error; Peter the righteousness, and the strength of Peter as an apostle was from this experience. Christ had told him that fateful night, "I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:32). The apostle did indeed become a great brother at Pentecost and beyond, living the words of the previously quoted David: "Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You" (Psalm 51:12-13).

We all make mistakes. There "is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins" (Ecc 7:20), and that is simply the result of the sinful nature we are conceived in (Psalm 51:5). However, just as "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," so have many been "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom 3:23-24) The apostle James wrote of this in his epistle:
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. [James 4:7-10]
The apostle John wrote, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

It might be noted, however, that it is not merely the act of confession and forgiveness through which we are cleansed of our sins, but of our faith in Him who forgives. Regarding confession, the apostle James wrote that "the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16; emphasis mine). The apostle Paul similarly wrote: "To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Rom 4:5). This righteousness is "of God," and "through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe" (Rom 3:22).

It is quite often that we forget that when, when our Lord says, "every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matt 7:17), that it is not the fruits that make a good tree but the good tree that makes good fruits. Peter and Judas were examples of this. They both fell into error, but: because Peter was a man of faith in his God, he knew what consequences he faced and presented a sincere repentance; because Judas was a man of no faith and only cared for himself, he first presents a false repentance (through returning the money) and ultimately dies in his sin.

Let us use this as a lesson from these two events in the Passion of our Lord. Let us remember what he said through the prophet Amos to Israel, "Seek Me and live" (Amos 5:4), as well as the prophet Isaiah, "Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near" (Isa 55:6), and the Psalmist, "Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found" (Psalm 32:6). Let us turn to him with a repentant heart before we expect forgiveness, for if we "walk in the light as He is in the light," then "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). He is a God of love, and "by this we know love, because He laid down His life for us" (1 John 3:16). This was the love that would be discovered on Good Friday and realized on Easter Sunday. It would be the forgiveness Peter sought and Judas rejected. It would be the forgiveness God offers to us now, through the love of His Son to us.