Judas is a character in the gospels who doesn’t get much attention—and perhaps rightly so.
We can empathize with Doubting Thomas. We can gain hope from Peter, who went so far as to deny Jesus and yet became the Rock of the Church. We can be inspired by the self-emptying humility and faith-filled examples of Mary and John the Baptist.
But Judas? He’s the pure antagonist in the plot, the apostle-turned-double agent, the one who betrayed Jesus. The evil of his betrayal is enhanced by the shallow motive and passionless disposition that define Judas. He receives little mention or attention in the gospels, apart from his treachery: there is no character development, no interior struggle, no drawn-out drama of sin and grace. Even his supposed motive for acting, a small sum of silver, is petty and unconvincing. His whole life seems to be a negation—a negation of God—and fittingly so, for evil is a kind of nothingness, a deprivation of some good, as Aquinas would put it.
So we don’t think we have much to learn from him, other than to shrink back from the unthinkable scandal of one who betrayed our Lord and Savior, despite having known Him, served as one of His chosen Twelve, and witnessed Him teach and perform miracles.
But the Church Fathers, in closely reading the gospels, saw more to the Judas story than at first meets the eye. In their scrutiny of the Scriptures, they took note that Judas’ treachery is first revealed—one might say even reinforced—in the Lord’s Supper.
For these ancient commentators, Judas’ betrayal is a cautionary tale against ‘unworthily’ eating and drinking of the Eucharist, against which St. Paul warned in 1 Corinthians 11:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. …For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus opens the Last Supper with a startling announcement: He would be betrayed and, what’s more, the perpetrator was in their midst. When pressed by some of the disciples, Jesus says the traitor is the person to whom he would hand a morsel of bread, after dipping it in wine. Judas—more often the would-be deceiver in the gospel accounts—here seems oblivious to his impending fate, and readily consumes the Eucharistic bread when Christ offers it to him.
What happens next is quite telling. The gospel writer reports that, “After he took the morsel, Satan entered him.”
The sinful inclination of his heart prior to the meal, coupled with his Satanic possession afterwards, led Church Fathers to infer a warning from Judas’ participation in the Eucharistic feast.
“But some will say, was his being given up to the devil the effect of his receiving the sop [the bread] from Christ?” St. Augustine wrote. “To whom we answer, that they may learn here the danger of receiving amiss what is in itself good. If he is reproved who does not discern, i.e. who does not distinguish, the Lord’s body from other food, how is he condemned who, feigning himself a friend, comes an enemy to the Lord’s table?”
Elsewhere, in his tracts on John, Augustine is more to the point: “Peter and Judas received of the same bread, but Peter to life, Judas to death.”
In the Scriptures, contact with God is an awesome and terrifying thing—it totally transforms the believer, but it can also destroy the unrepentant sinner. In the Old Testament, God appears to Moses as a burning bush and to the Israelites as a pillar of fire. In 2 Samuel 6, when an Israelite named Uzzah touches the Ark of the Covenant—an act of irreverence towards what was regarded as God’s footstool on earth—he died on the spot. When the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of God he sees a “great storm wind,” a cloud with lightning and a “bright glow all around it” while “something like polished metal gleamed at the center of the fire.”
These Old Testament accounts should give us pause: no one actually had direct contact with God Himself in these stories, yet in the Eucharist we encounter Christ in the fullness of His humanity and divinity. It almost becomes something of an understatement to point out that eating the Eucharist in an irreverent or unworthy manner necessarily entails serious risks. As Chrysostom warned, bringing the Eucharist into contact with an impure heart invites damnation:
“Let there not be therefore a Judas at the table of the Lord; this Sacrifice is spiritual food, for as bodily food, working on a belly filled with humours which are opposed to it, is hurtful, so this spiritual food if taken by one polluted with wickedness, rather brings him to perdition, not by its own nature, but through the fault of the recipient. Let therefore our mind be pure in all things, and our thought pure, for that Sacrifice is pure.”
Judas’ fate was not only sealed at the Last Supper, but he seems to have been accelerated on the downward path he had already charted for himself. In fact, Jesus even beckons him on immediately afterwards: “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Chrysostom says that Judas’ sin was “aggravated” while Origen says the encounter makes apparent “the more abundant and overflowing measure of this man’s wickedness.”
Judas’ unworthy participation also exposes the emptiness of his evil. As Catholics we understand the Eucharist to be a fulfillment of the promises implicit in Psalm 23: “You set a table before me in front of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” The Eucharist is truly the only meal that ever satisfies us—even with just a morsel of bread or a sip of wine—all the while leaving us hungering for more.
But it wasn’t so for Judas. As the ancient writer known to us as Pseudo-Jerome observed: “Judas therefore drinks and is not satisfied nor can he quench the thirst of the everlasting fire, because he unworthily partakes of the Mysteries of Christ.”
As any catechist will tell you, one ought not to receive the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin. The story of Judas serves as a reminder to make doubly sure we are prepared before Mass—to thoroughly examine our consciences before walking up to the altar, as Paul himself urges us to do in 1 Corinthians 11. Even Judas may have been offered this opportunity, according to some patristic writers, who have suggested that Jesus withheld the betrayer’s name in order to give him one last chance to repent.
In Philippians 2, Paul urges us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Perhaps some of us could use a healthy dose of “fear and trembling” next time we approach Holy Communion—lest we should become like Judas.