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I first got into researching Judas the disciple during my junior year’s fall musical production of Godspell. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the story of Jesus sharing his parables, and in the second act the story of His crucifixion, all with fun 70s music. Well, I was actually cast as Judas in our musical festival themed production, but my costume was reflective of punk/metal designs all while being referred to as the villain of the show. Now I was used to and loved playing the antagonists, especially with such a dark theme surrounding the character, but while I was researching my character I came to a realization.
Judas is not the villain of Jesus’s story.
Judas is today seen as a traitor and murderer. He is seen as the one true betrayer of Jesus who turned against his faith for his greed. In football, a “Judas Transfer” is when a player transfers from one team to their biggest rival. Bob Dylan was often called a “Judas” when he went from acoustic to electric. Nazis used images of Judas as anti-semitic propaganda. When having naturally red hair was seen as devilish, popular artists and writers, including Shakespeare, portrayed Judas with red hair or called people with red hair as having the “Judas color.” Even in more modern cultures, some more religious countries have ceremonies of burning Judas effigies. So, if Judas is so strongly argued as being a villain, why am I claiming that Judas was not a real antagonist?
Well, Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray Him, and gave Judas His consent to let him progress His fate. Jesus knew that Judas was stealing from the collective money bag and knew that he had thus opened the door for Satan to enter him. But Jesus knew His fate.
I remember reading an article that suggested Judas turned Jesus in as to force Jesus to do something grand. You have to remember that the Jewish faith still believes the Messiah will come in a grand display of power, not as a human. Because of this, Judas was looking for a God that would come and destroy the oppressive Roman government.
He turned Jesus in so that He would have to destroy them if He was to go free. Whether it is because of that or because of the greed that allowed Satan to enter and control him, Jesus still knew what was happening and Judas didn’t. That’s right; if Judas was controlled by Satan, then he was under the control of Hell. But, if it was fully Judas’s decision, then he believed that God would survive the challenge and help his people. His mortal self couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen, but Jesus still let Him do it as part of the plan to give us salvation.
But Judas felt remorse. He wanted forgiveness, showing how he didn’t want Jesus to die as a result of his actions. He threw the money back at the priests and leaders and then died before Jesus even did. Now, how he died is different in some of the gospels, but the most common interpretation is that he hung himself out of guilt.
It’s easy enough for us to push it off and make Judas the antagonist; based on the portrait the gospel writers give of Judas, we’ve traditionally interpreted him to be the villain to Christ’s hero. We tend to forget that Judas was still a follower of Him; he gave up everything to spend his life following Christ. We even forget that he was not the only disciple to go against Jesus. While not to the same extent, Peter did deny Jesus. But the real antagonists whom we tend to forget are ourselves. Every time we sin, we are the ones to nail Jesus to those planks of wood.
But we know that Jesus is merciful. I remember seeing an article online that said “Judas ate too.” Jesus knew what Judas was about to do to Him, and yet He still washed his feet and fed him. Jesus has such great Love that He fed the one who He knew would turn their back on Him. Jesus even cried to God to forgive those who put Him on the cross. While this is mainly interpreted to mean the guards and angry crowd, I see this cry as being for Judas and us as well. He is so merciful that in His final breaths, He asked Judas to be forgiven. Judas was still His friend and Jesus didn’t want him to suffer because of his mistakes.
One of my favorite stained glass pieces (shown below) was so controversial that it had to be removed from a Church, but it portrays Judas as he is dying. The silver is falling to the ground to become flowers. While many see this as a problematic issue, I actually love the light from the right top corner shining onto Judas. I see this as God reaching out to Judas because He still loves and cares for him, even after his betrayal. We can learn a lot from this moment as it not only shows His mercy, but also that even though we kill Jesus with each sin, He still loves us because He is Love.
It’s hard to say whether Judas was the antagonist or merely a victim, but it is much easier to say that he is like us and that gives us the greatest example of our God’s mercy and love.