If you enjoy biographies and memoirs, one of the most harrowing books you will ever read is Elie Wiesel’s Night. His account of life in the Nazi prison camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald is not merely about physical but spiritual darkness and death — the death of faith and hope, the death of a soul.
And I’m reminded of Wiesel when I read John’s account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
We know precious little about Judas from the gospels, but what we know isn’t pretty. Mostly, he is what literary theorists would call a “flat” character, one known for a specific all-defining and stereotypic quality (e.g., the sleazy lawyer, the overbearing matriarch, the megalomaniacal madman bent on world domination, the bad girl with a good heart, etc.). Such characters usually lack the nuances of personality we want from our favorite heroes and heroines, and serve merely to move the plot along.
Judas is a bit like that. Understandably, the gospels portray him as a traitor and not much else. John adds that he was a hypocrite and a thief (John 12:4-6). Matthew reports that Judas sold Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14-16), but doesn’t say why. Later, a guilt-ridden Judas hanged himself (Matt 27:3-5). Here might be the stuff of Greek tragedy, but Matthew again declines to say more. Judas is not the main character here. Jesus is.
John, though, gives us a bit more color. It’s the Last Supper. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet and explained the purpose and meaning of his act. Then he makes clear what he has been hinting at all along: one of the Twelve will betray him.
The disciples are confused. Here, no doubt, a movie director would pan across their bewildered expressions, lingering a moment on the face of Judas. But John leaves us to imagine that for ourselves. Instead, he introduces us for the first time to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Traditionally, he’s understood to be John himself, the son of Zebedee, but this is far from certain. It’s as if the anonymous description is used to contrast this man with Judas, highlighting the astonishing, unspeakable nature of his betrayal.
The men are reclining at table together, enjoying their fellowship. One in particular is close enough to Jesus to exchange whispers. When Jesus makes his startling announcement, Peter prompts the beloved disciple to secretly ask who the betrayer is. And Jesus complies: “It’s the one to whom I will give this piece of bread once I have dipped into the bowl” (John 13:26, CEB). There is nothing particularly unusual about the act, save that it’s (ironically) a sign of friendship. But by that gesture, Jesus both marks his betrayer and justifies his earlier quotation of Psalm 41:9: “The one who eats my bread has turned against me” (John 13:18).
Satan enters Judas, and the traitor rises to leave. Jesus tells him to take care of business, and quickly. John notes that no one understands the exchange. No one suspects what is about to happen — despite the fact that Jesus has just identified Judas as the betrayer. Would we not at least expect Peter to confront the man? Pick up a sword and lop off an ear? Or were the remaining disciples too unbelieving, too dumbfounded, too much in denial to do anything?
Judas scurries out, and John says, “It was night” (vs. 30). That’s not merely a way of saying, “And oh, by the way, the sun had already set, so it was dark outside when Judas left.” The clash of light and darkness has already figured prominently in John’s tale of Jesus, the True Light, the light of the world.
Judas, in other words, disappears into the darkness in more ways than one. There is more at stake than the disciples realize; the story in which they find themselves caught up is bigger than they imagined.
Are our own imaginations up to the task?