The most hated man in all of literature is likely Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed his friend and teacher with a kiss, and betrayed him to a gruesome death. Jesus says of him, “It would be better for him if he had not been born.”1 He is reviled in all the gospels, but St. John has a particular disdain for him, calling him a thief as well as a traitor.2 The Gospel of Matthew depicts Judas as regretting the betrayal, flinging the 30 pieces of silver into the Temple treasury and hanging himself.3 Acts depicts him as using the money to buy a field, falling in it, and bursting open, all his guts spilling out.4 Papias, a bishop of the early second century says that “Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out”. What all the accounts agree on is that he was an evil man who met an evil end. And for later generations, the attitude of Dante is typical, who places him in the fourth course of the ninth circle of hell, where Satan, frozen in ice, perpetually chews on his head.
It would seem to be a pointless, even offensive task to provide an apologia for such a traitor, the ultimate traitor, and especially offensive to do so on the pages of a Christian publication. But the mistake that Judas made was the same one made by all the other disciples. Moreover, it is the mistake we all make, or at least I do, and are making today, especially during the silly season, the Presidential election season, which lasts for far too many seasons.
And the mistake is simply this: to confuse the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of men. Jesus spoke at length about the “Kingdom of God,” but when the disciples heard this phrase, they thought in terms of the “Kingdom of David,” whose restoration the prophets had promised. This would be a great empire, from the great river to the sea, north to Lebanon and south to the border of Egypt. And all the nations of the earth would bring tribute. This is what the Jews were waiting for; a Messiah would give the goyim the comeuppance they clearly deserved and make Judah great again.
It was a natural enough mistake; all the prophets spoke of this restoration, and the angel tells Mary that her child will be given “the throne of David his father….”5 So we are not surprised that the Sons of Zebedee, James and John, ask of Jesus, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left”.6 This is the equivalent of asking for the positions of secretary of state and secretary of war in the new Imperial Cabinet. And even at the very last moment, after they had shared his journeys for three years, been shattered by the Crucifixion and overjoyed at the Resurrection, still they ask him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”7
As we are subjected to this temptation, so was Jesus. In the desert, the devil gives Jesus three challenges. “If you are the son of God,” he says, then: Turn these stones into bread, and thereby become a Bread Messiah, a sort of divine welfare state; Throw yourself down from the temple, to become a Messiah of the Miracles, forever holding the loyalty of the people through signs and wonders. And finally, after showing him all the kingdoms of the world, Satan says, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”8; that is, to become a political Messiah, a Lord of power and might, albeit earthly power and a subordinated might. This last might have had some attraction for Jesus, might have been a real temptation. Part of his mission was to bring all kingdoms under the rule of God, and here was Satan offering to accomplish this at a single stroke. No wandering around the countryside in the company of a group of particularly thick Palestinian peasants; no pointless arguments with Sadducees and Pharisees; no demanding crowds pressing in on him; and especially no gruesome, lingering and humiliating death.
But had he accepted the Devil’s terms, he would not have been able to turn the kingdom over to the Father, for he would already have a master. And this is the problem with every political “messiah”; he can accomplish his goals only by being in thrall to the Prince of This World.
The apostles would not understand what Jesus was talking about until the Pentecost, until they were given understanding and wisdom by the Holy Spirit. It was the curse of Judas to be smarter than his fellow apostles, to be cleverer. He realized, much earlier than the others, that Jesus was not going to restore the kingdom, as they understood the term; hence, they were not going to be kingpins in an earthly empire. Judas had understanding, but he had no faith; he was clever, but he was not wise, and could not wait upon wisdom.
So who was this clever but faithless apostle? One tradition holds that Judas was a revolutionary, and one interpretation of Iscariot is that he had been a member of the sicarii, a sect of revolutionaries and terrorists. They hoped to do to the Romans what Judas Maccabee (“The Hammer”) had done to the Syrians 200 years earlier. They would get their wish for war in 68, but the results were something less than they hoped for and nothing less than the destruction of the Temple and the disappearance of Israel; Judah would not be great again by these means.
Jesus, Judas realized, would not lead the revolution, and like a disappointed lover, he sought a new alliance. But he could not have had any inkling that he was betraying Jesus to his death; the Sanhedrin simply did not have that power, and the idea that the priests could have coerced the Procurator into a show trial and a judicial murder of the most popular man in Palestine was inconceivable. Likely, he thought that Jesus would get a flogging, be publically humiliated, and that would be the end of the affair and the movement. Judas would move on, 30 pieces of silver ahead of the game, and join a new party, maybe even found one himself. Perhaps he himself was the new Maccabee. It was smart politics. The crucifixion was an unintended consequence of that most common of all political maneuvers: betraying one’s friends and making a profit. Doing it with a kiss was Judas’s own personal touch.
So why should we have some sympathy with Judas? Why make an apology for him? Because we are all guilty of the same thing: hoping for a political messiah who will bring hope and change; will make America great again, will restore our former glory, a glory that glows more brightly in the imagination than it ever did in reality. He really is our brother. This silly season, we will all put forth some passion campaigning for our favorite princes and princesses. We may even pay attention to what they say. But that is a fruitless effort since what they say has little bearing on what they do. They will say what they need to get elected, and do what they need to stay in power, and those two things address two different constituencies.
But this silly season holds the promise of turning deadly serious, and for the same reasons: We are looking for candidates to restore American greatness by political means—that is, by means of power—alone. And there are many willing to fulfill this role. They have, nearly all of them, doubled down on the medicine that made us ill: Imperial over-reach; adulation of the rich; disdain for real work (and for the worker); a lust for instant but usurious wealth; economic liberalism; and a religion of ego, self-fulfillment and individual gain rather than of sacrifice and the common good.
The world as we know it, I am convinced, will shortly be ending, and will have to be rebuilt. Many will try to rebuild it through politics and power, but this will end in madness; indeed, it seems to be beginning there. That is not the distributist way. Rather the world will have to be rebuilt block by block, farm by farm, workshop by workshop, one family and one community at a time. It will be a work that requires courage and dedication. And no one can foresee how things will turn; there is no clear path through the wilderness. Rather, we will have to build the road as we travel. But what we cannot do is look to a new messiah to save us; we will have to rely on the one we already have.