Arguments for Easter: Was Judas a traitor - or was he simply 'one of us '?

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Our response to child abuse reveals our collective terror in the face of betrayal. But is there an alternative, asks Margaret Atkins, to the risky business of trust?

FOR Dante, treachery was the worst sin of all: he imagined Judas Iscariot, along with Brutus and Cassius, being crunched in the devil's jaws in the lowest point of hell. Today, on the Wednesday of Holy Week, the Gospel reading tells the story of Judas's betrayal of Jesus. The friendship between the two is poignantly emphasised in the narrative. Judas dips his bread into the dish with Jesus while they eat supper together. They are companions in the strongest sense of the word, those who share bread (in Latin, panis) with one another. Worse still, the very act of betrayal perverts a deep symbol of friendship; for Judas identifies Jesus to his enemies by greeting him with a kiss. Jesus's response reveals his conflicting emotions of tenderness and hurt: "Friend, do the thing for which you have come."

It is not surprising that Judas became a figure of hate, for we are all afraid of being betrayed. Our ancestors portrayed him in yellow clothing to symbolise his Jewishness, since the Jews, despised and mistrusted in medieval Europe, were seen as the enemy within. One popular legend related that the devil had marked Judas out from before his birth, and told how he had killed his father and married his mother. We recognise the distant echoes of such hostile fantasies at Auschwitz, but still we find it reassuring to paint a traitor in the blackest possible colours. Today it is the killers and abusers of children who have become the focus of our collective terror of the betrayal of trust. By demonising the guilty parties, we can pretend that they are not of our own kind.

In the gospels, however, it is clear that Judas was not an outsider, but a full member of the chosen twelve. He was there with Jesus and the others from the start, hearing his teaching and seeing the signs he worked, trusted even to look after the common purse. Even after his death, he is remembered by Peter as an apostle: "He was numbered among us and received his share in this ministry." The real Judas didn't wear an evil face, or striking yellow robes; he wasn't an enemy from the beginning. Judas was one of us.

And Judas's choice was the choice that we ourselves might make. When Jesus predicted that one of the disciples would betray him, they were all bewildered. "Do you mean me?" they each asked, and even Judas was not certain whom he meant. It could have been any one of them. The point is reinforced by the intertwining of the stories of Judas and Peter. Between Judas's departure from supper and Jesus's arrest, Peter, impetuous as ever, declares that he will never forsake Jesus. By dawn the next day, Jesus has been handed over for questioning, and Peter, not once but three times, has denied any acquaintance with him. Disloyalty is not the exception, but the rule.

Judas and Peter shared so much; at the time, perhaps none of their friends could have guessed which of them would actually give Jesus away. Yet their subsequent careers could not differ more sharply: Peter repentant, forgiven and restored to the glorious leadership of the apostolic mission; Judas the broken and despairing suicide. Even here, though, the contrast can be overdrawn. Peter wept bitterly for his sin; but Judas too (in one version of the story at least) is said to have confessed his guilt and returned his blood- money before he hanged himself.

Is it certain that Judas's repentance was worthless? Or might he, despite everything, still have been forgiven and saved? The gospels do not force us to answer the question either way. Historically, the official line has been to condemn Judas unequivocally to eternal punishment; indeed, one popular medieval saint was charged with heresy simply for preaching that Jesus had forgiven his treacherous friend.

In our own century, by contrast, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth argued that the mercy of God was overwhelming, all-encompassing and irresistible: despite himself, even Judas would be swept up into God's plan of salvation. At the very least we can say this: if Judas finally lost the friendship of God, it was not because God abandoned him, but because he himself rejected the offer of lasting forgiveness.

Jesus knew that friendship was a risky business. Yet he also understood the dynamics of forgiveness, which could restore even the most disloyal of traitors to friendship. In the events of the first Easter this forgiveness has been offered to each one of us, however trivial or however terrible our own acts of infidelity. For God's mercy cannot be constrained by the categories that we impose; even the depth of hell is not beyond its reach.