Judas’ motivation for betraying Jesus


Scripture;  John 13: 1-8; 21-35 Nigel Bunce

 Judas’ motivation for betraying Jesus:  John gives a very different account of Judas’ decision to offer Jesus up to the authorities than Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   This suggests that Judas was much more than just a greedy man who betrayed his Teacher.   In addition, John’s Gospel gives us a very different account Jesus’ last meal with his disciples than Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It was not a Passover meal.  Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, but did not institute Holy Communion. 



John’s Gospel is strikingly different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke

Many of John’s stories about Jesus don’t appear anywhere else. Thus, relevant to us this evening, the ‘synoptics’ (Matthew Mark, and Luke) all place Jesus’ crucifixion on the day of Passover. But John records it the previous day.

The Last Supper took place on what we call the previous evening. In Judaism, the new day begins at sunset. So, for Jesus and his disciples, all Jews, it was their Passover meal. At the Last Supper, Jesus spoke the words, ‘This bread is my Body; this cup is my Blood.’

John’s early Christian community seem not to have known about any of this. John times the Crucifixion on the Day of Preparation, the day before Passover. He makes no significance about the bread and wine at that last meal Jesus ate with his disicples.

John describes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet

Any good host would arrange that. Because everyone wore sandals. Unpaved roads got feet dusty and dirty. But the host would n’t wash them himself. It would be a servant’s job. So Jesus took on the servant’s role.

 Judas’ motivation for betraying Jesus: why?

All four Gospels record Judas Iscariot’s role in the events that led up to Jesus’ Crucifixion. Therefore, we know him as a greedy man who betrayed Jesus. However, we rarely think about why he dd it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that Judas planned to betray Jesus. But not why.  What was Judas’ motivation?

Was it greed? Judas sold Jesus out to the Temple authorities for thirty pieces of silver. But later, he realized the enormity of what he had done. So, he went out and hanged himself. However, we don’t know what put the idea of betrayal into Judas’ head in the first place.

However, John’s Gospel is tellingly different

During supper, Jesus predicts his betrayal. Then he gives Judas the tainted piece of bread. Next, we read, “Satan entered into him. Jesus said, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ No-one at the table knew why he said this.”

This is very curious. If we knew only John’s Gospel, we might think that Jesus deliberately chose Judas to be his betrayer. Because, Satan didn’t “enter his heart” till after Judas received the tainted bread. In other words, Judas didn’t plan it.

However, Judas had been one of ‘the twelve’, Jesus’ closest disciples. Presumably, he had been with Jesus through his ministry. He had heard the teachings and parable; he had seen the miracles. Why would he suddenly decide to sell Jesus out?

Was Judas’ motivation impatience?

Some scholars, taking this point of view, suggest that Judas had become impatient with the slow progress of the coming Kingdom of God. Hadn’t Jesus prophesied a coming reign of God’s righteous justice? If Jesus really was “Son of Man” why had nothing happened?

In this explanation, Judas decided to hurry things along by going to the authorities to tell them where to find and arrest Jesus. Surely God would have to intervene and save him!! But things didn’t turn out that way.

Or, was Judas’ motivation to be Jesus’ helper?

A more extreme version of this idea came to light in 2006. With the discovery of a long-lost Gospel of Judas. This document probably originated about fifty years after John’s Gospel. However, the Church never accepted it into the New Testament.

The Gospel of Judas doesn’t represent Judas as Jesus’ failed disciple. Instead, as his trusted lieutenant, even ahead of Simon Peter. The manuscript includes Jesus saying these words to Judas. “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

This idea comes from Gnosticism, not conventional Christianity. It posits that the human body is merely clothing to the immortal soul. Which must escape its earthly bounds to return to eternity.

Hence, this Gnostic Gospel doesn’t describe Jesus’s death as a sacrifice for human sin. Instead, Judas’ motivation was to provide Jesus’ method for leaving the earthly realm and return to the spiritual realm.

So, according to this theology Judas helped Jesus. Jesus needed someone to free him from his human body. He wanted a friend to do this, not an enemy.

Maybe Judas wasn’t just a “bad guy”

These ideas have helped me to see Judas as more than just a cardboard figure of a “bad guy”. Although, we can never know what Judas’ motivations really were. However, John’s Gospel suggests that Judas didn’t plan to betray Jesus. Moreover, Jesus clearly knew his likely fate.

But what did they eat at John’s version of Jesus’ last supper? Tonight’s text tells us that it included bread. It probably included wine. But it wasn’t a Passover meal. And John – and his community – placed no special significance on the bread or the wine.

To sum up

What do I learn from all this? Several things.

First, that there are two strands of early Christian thought in the New Testament Gospels. The Synoptics and John. At this season, they differ importantly in the events at Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and the timing of the Crucifixion.

Second, other early Christian documents offer possible reasons for why Judas Iscariot might have arranged Jesus’ arrest.

Third, that Christianity chose one of the two strands (the Last Supper; big L, big S) for its most important sacrament, the Eucharist.

Fourth, it makes no sense for a Maundy Thursday service with foot washing followed by Eucharist. Because it combines two fundamentally different traditions.  Amen.