Love and envy: exploring the psychology of Judas

Judas betraying Jesus in The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

Both today and tomorrow, known as Spy Wednesday, the Gospel focuses on the figure of Judas, the man who is to betray Our Blessed Lord. Judas has perhaps been the centre of more speculation than any other figure of the New Testament. He is certainly the most famous of all the apostles, in a perverse sort of way. Everyone knows what the kiss of Judas, or to be a Judas, means. He has become a byword.

I was lucky enough when I was at school to know Fr AE (“Joe”) Basil, a scholarly priest who had some remarkably refreshing views, as well as a few that certainly made you think, if nothing else. He held that Judas was a saint. According to Fr Basil, Judas sinned, but then repented, confessed his sin to the High Priest, and then made restitution by handing back the 30 pieces of silver, and then hanging himself on a tree, which was suitable penance, as his actions had led to Jesus being hanged from a tree.

I do not think for a moment that Fr Basil was right about this, as the Gospel of today is quite explicit that Satan entered Judas, and the betrayal of Jesus was the work of the devil. But though the actions of Judas were unquestionably evil, and he was a bad man, an embezzler too, as Saint John tells us, the psychology of Judas remains an interesting piece of blank canvas that invites the curious reader to theorise.

One common explanation for Judas’s actions, that I was also taught at school, was that he wished to precipitate the coming of the Kingdom, and betrayed Jesus in order to force His hand. When he saw that Jesus’s Kingdom was not the sort of kingdom he was expecting, he hanged himself in shame, remorse and disappointment. This is a neat theory, and it has some theological cohesion, but there is nothing in the text of the Holy Scriptures that backs it up.

The nearest we get to a psychological explanation in the Scriptures, written of course in a pre-psychological age, is that Judas was driven by envy. Matthew 27:18 says Pilate knows that Jesus had been handed over out of envy: this applies to the Chief Priests, but by extension to Judas as well, perhaps. This provides much food for thought. If Judas envied Jesus, and envy drove him to a murderous hatred, this would remind us that hatred is a love that has gone wrong. Judas, in other words, provides us with a terrible warning.

This is perhaps why Judas remains such a popular figure, if that is the correct term for it. He represents the love that begins to sicken and decay; he stands for everyone who has once loved someone and then decided that they no longer do so. Love that turns to hate then makes but a small step to betrayal: perhaps Judas handed over Jesus with a kiss, because Jesus’ continued existence tormented him with guilt, and reminded him of his catastrophic failure to love.

People do sometimes hate God. Judas was perhaps the first to do so in terms we can understand.

In those far off schooldays, I learned another important thing: Judas had only to go to Jesus hanging on the Cross and say sorry, and he would have been forgiven. After all, Jesus forgave those who crucified Him, and He promised salvation to the Good Thief. But sorry is so often the hardest word, and for the want of it Judas was lost. In that too, he presents us with a terrible warning.