Some of the best Shakespearean plays involve a pattern of betrayal which usually brings tragedy to one of the characters on stage. Macbeth betrays naïve King Duncan by enticing him to lodge at his castle, where the sovereign is callously murdered. Hamlet’s father is killed by his ambitious brother, which causes the young Danish prince to focus solely on revenge at the cost of betraying his true love, Ophelia. Othello’s uncontrolled jealousy culminates in the murder of his innocent wife Desdemona due to the treacherous words from his associate Iago. And Julius Caesar, who would not beware the Ides of March, is assassinated by a handful of rival conspirators, led by his friend Brutus, whose name becomes synonymous forevermore with the violent word ‘brutal.’
When we read the whole chapter of Matthew 26, it feels very much like a Shakespearean tragedy. The chief priests, envious of Christ’s popularity, conspire to kill Jesus but decide to put it off until after the immense crowds of Passover pilgrims have left Jerusalem. They don’t want to cause a riot by arresting Christ publicly because they fear a negative reaction from the people, as well as being charged by the Romans of causing a rebellion. They plot to eliminate Jesus, but their plans are frustrated by the fact that the timing is not convenient.
And then, in what appears to be an answer to their wicked prayers, an opportunity arises which they cannot turn down. One of Christ’s own followers, Judas Iscariot, approaches them with words which must have sounded like music to their ears: “What will you give me?” he asks, ‘if I deliver Jesus into your hands?”
Judas, as one of the Chosen Twelve, has been with Jesus for almost three years. He’s an insider who knows every move that Jesus will make. He was supposed to be a devoted disciple, but something has turned him into a treacherous traitor. He is ready to place Jesus into the hands of his enemies, but he wants to ensure that it will be both sanctioned by the priests and personally profitable to him. Instead of being a godly servant, Judas becomes a greedy sinner; rather than faithfully be with Christ to the end, he decides that Christ’s end has to finally be. All Judas needs is an assurance that he will be amply rewarded for this wicked act of betrayal. The religious authorities are willing to give him what he wants in order to get what they desire most: the end of Christ’s life and ministry.
Judas is fully committed to betraying Jesus. Even when Christ is eating with the twelve disciples in the upper room and tells them that one of their own is going to betray Him, Judas does not relent or repent. Even when Jesus expresses words of extreme caution against anyone who would deliver Him into His enemies’ hands, Judas has the audacity to look Christ in the eye and feign innocence by stating, “You don’t mean me, do You, Teacher?”
It’s all a convincing act, worthy of a performance in a Shakespearean drama. Judas is attempting to deceive Christ, even though he knows within his own treacherous heart and mind, that Jesus is perfectly aware of what he is about to do. In the end, the only one that Judas deceives is his very own self. He betrays his own soul and callously embraces the damnation that he is about to bring upon himself. In thirty life-changing seconds, Jesus has given his unfaithful disciple the opportunity to confess, but Judas rejects this final offer of grace and commits himself to greed, in order to receive thirty pieces of silver.
The final act of treachery takes place in a secluded garden under the cover of darkness. Jesus knows what is about to happen and is sweating blood, as He wrestles with God in prayer, seeking to find a last-minute reprieve from the ghastly fate that awaits Him. His three most trusted disciples, Peter, James, and John, are meant to be guarding Him, but they’ve all had too much to eat and drink, so they’re fast asleep when the armed and violent vigilante mob reaches Jesus.
At the forefront of the rabble is Judas and, in one despicable act of cowardice and betrayal, he greets Christ with a polite, salutary kiss, using it as a pre-arranged poisonous signal to point out which of the Galileans is the leader of the group. And to make certain that the mob knows that this is Jesus, the traitor speaks aloud the words: “Greetings, Rabbi!” All of which, in this case, actually means, “Here He is – this is the rebel you came to capture!”
Jesus, however, has the last word and what He says may surprise us. He could have defiantly shouted, “Do your worst, traitor!” or “God will punish you for this, betrayer!” or even, “You have just damned yourself for all of Eternity, my enemy!” Instead, even at the very end, Jesus responds to this audacious act of treachery with words that shows us and Judas how much He loves the sinner:
“Do what you came for – Friend.”