Forgiveness: If Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, why did he keep him in the circle of his close companions until the end?

Among the many disciples who followed him, Jesus designated twelve to be closest to him, to share and continue his mission. He took very seriously the formation of this group of twelve apostles, praying an entire night beforehand.

But at a certain moment, Jesus realized that one of the twelve, Judas, had changed his attitude. Jesus understood that Judas was becoming distant from him, and even saw that he was going to “hand him over,” as the gospels put it. According to John’s gospel, Jesus understood what was happening already in Galilee, long before the events in Jerusalem that would bring him to the cross (John 6:70-71). Why then did he not send Judas away? Why did he keep him close to him until the end?

One of the words used by Jesus to speak of the creation of the group of the twelve apostles gives us a clue. “Did not I choose you, the Twelve?” (John 6:70; see also 13:18.) The verb to choose is a key word in Bible history. God chose Abraham, and then chose Israel to become the chosen people. It is God’s choice or election that forms God’s people, the people of the covenant. What makes the covenant unbreakable is that God chooses to love Abraham and his descendants for ever. The apostle Paul would comment on this: “God’s gifts and call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

Because Jesus chose the twelve just as God chose his people, he could not send Judas away even when he realized that he was going to betray him. He knew that he had to love him to the end, to show that God’s choice was irrevocable. The prophets, Hosea and Jeremiah in particular, spoke in the name of a God wounded and humiliated by the betrayals of his people, but who nevertheless never stopped loving them with eternity’s love. Jesus did not wish to do less, nor could he do so: humiliated by the treason of one of his closest companions, he kept on showing him his love. By lowering himself before his disciples to wash their feet, he made himself the servant of all, Judas included. And it was particularly with Judas that he shared a peace of bread, a fragment of burning love that the disciple took away with him into his night (John 13:21-30).

If he wanted to be faithful to his Father – to the God who chose Abraham and Israel, to the God of the prophets – Jesus could do nothing else but keep Judas close to him until the end. He loved Judas even when Judas was enshrouded by darkness. “The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). The gospel says that Jesus “was glorified” at the moment he gave his love to Judas, when he loved him without gaining anything by it and beyond all measure (John 13:31). In the darkest night of resentment and hatred, Jesus manifested the unbelievable radiance of God’s love.

Why are the gospels so discreet concerning Judas’ motives?

It is astonishing that the first Christians did not keep silent about the fact that one of the twelve apostles handed Jesus over to the hostile authorities. This fact casts doubt on the character of Jesus himself: did he make a mistake in choosing one of his companions? But it is equally astonishing that the gospels say almost nothing about the motives of Judas. Was he disappointed when he realized that Jesus was not a Messiah with a program of political liberation? Did he think he was acting in the best interests of his people by bringing Jesus’ career to an end? Some have supposed that he was motivated by the lure of a reward; others that he acted out of love, to help Jesus to give his life….

In the gospels there are only two indications concerning the reasons for what Judas did. One is the mention of the devil. “The devil placed in Judas’ heart the intention to hand him over” (John 13:2). But this only deepens the mystery. The devil, or Satan, is the one who opposes, criticizes or slanders. Jesus sensed the resentment that had come to birth in Judas’ heart and that was rooted there to the point of no return. But about why it existed, not a word, not even an allusion.

The other indication is the reference to the Holy Scriptures. Regarding Judas’ betrayal of him, Jesus said, “so that the words of Scripture will be fulfilled: The one who eats my bread turned his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9, quoted in John 13:18). It is important to understand correctly the meaning of this reference to the Scriptures in the gospels. They are not a kind of script where the role of each actor is written down in advance. Everyone who reads the Bible carefully knows well to what extent it offers choices and sets everyone before their responsibilities.

Quoting the verse of the psalm “The one who eats my bread turned his heel against me” (Psalm 41:10), Jesus does not mean to state that Judas could not have acted differently, but rather that God remains the principal actor in what is being played out. There is the drama of the betrayal, and at the same time God is the one at work. For if through Judas the Scriptures are being fulfilled, that means that, in a mysterious way, God’s intentions are being carried out. God is causing his words to come about (Isaiah 55:10-11). The reference to Scripture enables us to believe in God even during the night, even when what happens is incomprehensible.

If Judas’ resentment and hatred remain incomprehensible, Jesus’ love “to the very end” is still more beyond all understanding. The gospels are so discreet concerning Judas’ motives because they do not want to satisfy our curiosity, but rather to lead us to faith. They do not clarify the abyss of darkness of the drama of Judas; they reveal the unfathomable and incomprehensible depth of God’s love.

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