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The Night On Which He Was Betrayed: A Psychological Interpretation

With Holy Week now upon us, I suspect at least a few theology teachers across the country are taking a break from their regular schedules for an investigation of the Gospel’s account of those days leading up to the Crucifixion.

When I have come to these passages in the past, often I succumb to the temptation to race to the moments of highest drama, like the Crucifixion itself, or the so-called cry of dereliction. In the last several years, though, the “night on which Christ was betrayed” has seemed ever more strange to me, and a character study of even greater psychological complexity than might be found in, say, a Bergman film or a Dostoyevsky novella. Holy Week weighs heavily on the structure of the Church day, the Church week, and the Church calendar as a whole. Entering deeply into the labyrinth of Holy Week allows us a space in which to contemplate the ways in which we are all the Judas who betrays, the Peter who lies and curses and weeps, the John who stays close until the bitter end.

On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, while the apostles ate the Last Supper, Judas departed, however, the reason why Judas departed was likely known only by Jesus and Judas. In John 13, we read, ’What you are about to do, do it quickly’ Jesus told [Judas], but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor.

Judas probably sought a plausible reason for leaving the supper. Jesus’ words to Judas probably seemed a godsend to him, a convenient and believable reason to leave the others. Thus, none of the apostles knew why Judas was gone, and in Judas’ own self-deception he may have believed that not even Jesus knew what he had gone to do. When Peter hears the Lord say, while at the Supper, that “one of you will betray me,” Peter certainly thinks of himself. While all the apostles ask Christ, “Is it I?” Peter has already been told privately by Christ that he is the betrayer. There is, perhaps, something in him which wants to call out, “No one need inquire further. It is I.” That Christ tells Peter privately that he is the traitor seems likely given that Judas is told privately that he is the traitor. While John’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel confirm that Christ told Judas it was he, Judas, who would betray Him, the apostles are under the impression Judas leaves to go buy bread.

“Surely not I, Rabbi?” says Judas, and while Christ says, “Yes, it is you,” we have no reason to believe Judas consents to Jesus’ prophesy; earlier, Peter did not consent to the Lord’s prophesy that the he would betray Him. When Christ says, “Yes, it is you,” Judas likely responded with greater pride than Peter and thought, “Not possible. Not me.” While Christ tells both Peter and Judas alike, both refuse to admit as much. We are embarrassed at Christ’s knowledge that we are subject to carnal lusts, no less pride (as is the case with Peter) than money (as is the case with Judas). Our betrayal of God is known by God, described to us by God, and yet we must act as though God is merely speculating, offering a pessimistic hypothesis. We are ashamed that we are weak. We are ashamed that our sin is known, not only by us, but by others. We are terrified that others have seen through our façade of power and confidence. We are horrified that our subtlety be revealed, that our craft be revealed as self-interest. Like the Pharisees, who desperately wanted to make a name for themselves and to protect their interests and fortify their autonomy, we seek a life outside the scope of God’s critique; we acknowledge our faults that we might briefly excuse them. We vocally recognize our imperfections that we might judge ourselves lightly, lest anyone else take our sin seriously.

The Last Supper was eaten in Jerusalem late in the evening, but during Holy Week, Jesus had not slept once in the city. Instead, while Jesus spent His days with the apostles in the Holy City, He spent His nights in Bethany at the home of Lazarus. Bethany and Bethphage were two small towns which likely grew up around the olive oil trade; both towns were nestled at the base of Mt Olive, two miles away from Jerusalem. Olives harvested from Mt Olive were brought to the base, where they were pressed in Gethsemene (which means “oil press”) and sold in Jerusalem, where olive oil was necessary not only for the Temple cult, but for common usage in cooking (it was likely the only kind of oil available; antiquity knew no “vegetable oil”), as well as in lighting lamps and fuel of other kinds. An olive press is a massive contraption, perhaps even larger in antiquity than today; it may have been that Gethsemene was a garden, but also something of an industrial “factory” wherein oil was weighed and bottled before being priced and sold in Jerusalem. In lectures on ancient Greek history, Yale professor Donald Kagen suggests that olive oil was also used for perfume and soap; however, olive oil is no aromatic substance in and of itself (Kagen claims it stinks, unmixed) and must be mixed with spices for hygienic and cosmetic purposes. It may have been that Gethsemene was a garden insomuch as it was an herb garden, where sage and rosemary and the like were grown and mixed with olive oil that it might be sold as perfume. After eating the Last Supper, Jesus and the apostles repair back to the small towns at the base of Mt Olive, where the apostles may have expected they would all go to sleep; however, instead of going to sleep, Jesus leads them to the garden.

Prior to showing up in Gethsemene, Jesus has prophesied the horrible nature of the night; He says, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me,” and “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me,” and “This very night you will all fall away on account of me…” The apostles are aware that the betrayer of Christ is at hand, that the demons are converging on the place of Christ, that the powers of darkness are closing in on Christ. In His generosity, Christ warns His apostles to be on guard time and again; when He departs to pray, He tells them to “Watch and pray.” The betrayer is at hand, he is coming, and the apostles must stay awake and arm themselves with prayer. The dynamic of the situation seem dangerously pragmatic; were the words of Christ reduced to mere plot, He seems to plead, “Would you guys stay awake and keep watch, and when you see the betrayer come, yell for me? Warn me. Sound the alarm. Be on guard. They come to kill.” The situation is dire, and there is every reason to believe that the apostles are on edge, especially after returning from His first trip to pray with Peter, James and John. Do Peter, James and John go with Christ on each of His three forays into the garden to pray? They do not. In Mathew’s Gospel, we read that Jesus takes the three apart from the others and says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” But then Jesus “[goes] a little farther” and prays, which likely means beyond even the three. After Jesus prays in total isolation, He “returned to the disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Could you men not keep watch with me one hour?’ he asked Peter.” Later, Jesus returns to the rest of the disciples (Mt. 26: 45-46) and they are also found “sleeping and resting.”

The weakness of the apostles is confirmed in that the betrayer of Christ was known to be “one of you.” Thus, if the apostles fall asleep, they have every reason to believe that Christ will be attacked by the one who has stayed awake. It is not that the betrayer is coming, but that the betrayer is in their midst, as far as they know. If one of the apostles falls asleep, the betrayer can more easily overtake Christ. The apostles all suspect one another, as Christ has informed them in advance that one of them is guilty; He might even keep a knowledge of who the guilty party is from them so that they might all be more vigilant in prayer.

Separated from a theological context for just a moment, the scene could scarcely be more depressing, more tragic. God Himself is on the verge of being delivered into the hands of monsters, and He has asked His best friends to stay awake and keep watch for Him, to pray and to warn Him when the betrayer is nearing. Jesus disappointment in His friends’ ability to overcome their own carnal needs is horrific, sad. “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” says Christ as Judas draws near. While the theologian knows this was the inevitable conclusion of Christ’s life, the ghastly nature of human frailty is brought out in Jesus’ vexation and sadness that not even His closest friends could forestall sleep for even a few minutes to save His life; as Jesus chides the apostles for falling asleep, He breaks off the thought to gesture toward Judas and say, as it were, “See, this is what happens when you fall asleep on the job. I asked you to stay awake and pray so you could warn me when the betrayer was at hand, but now I’m the one who is warning you. Look, there he is.” The Gospel brings out the horror, even the atheism, in falling prey to the needs of the body, the human things, the carnal things, the passing things, the things of this world, the things of the body, while the spirit languishes and starves and turns towards nothingness and death and corruption. Men are weak. Profoundly weak. Not even God’s own closest friends could be troubled to stay awake for a few minutes to warn God when the Devil was drawing near to destroy; the need for food and sleep and sex invade the spirit, nullify the appetite for the bread of angels. The temptation to seek rest outside of Christ is the Satanic temptation; in the wilderness, Satan tempted Christ to take refuge in worldly things, like power and health and food.

The quickness with which the apostles seem to succumb to the desire for sleep is embarrassing, and one which Christ points out to them. They could not keep watch “an hour,” which might very well be a euphemism in the same way “a second” is in our day (“Just give me a second”). Given the brevity of Christ’s prayer, it seems difficult to believe He was gone for more than a moment, and yet a moment was sufficient to betray His Truth and cave to the desire for safety, for health, for rest. God’s own friends put up no struggle against sin; there is no evidence of an austere wrestling of sin, a combating of sin. Rather, temptation arose for an instant, and man simply laid down like an obedient dog. Nothing gallant. Nothing honorable. No tragedy long in arriving, but rather uncomplicated moral sloth. “A man is only as faithful as his options,” saith Chris Rock, and as soon as the option of sleep apart from any immediate embarrassment presented itself, all caved, even Peter, James and John, who had every reason to believe they were on the verge of seeing something spectacular, as they were previously called apart from the rest to see Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration.

Some vertigo-inducing truth of human weakness opens beneath the reader as they come to understand the dynamics of the story; humans cannot be trusted to not fail, cannot be trusted to not become absolutely gutless in the face of any adversity whatsoever, even if that adversity is but a few minutes of watchful duty that the life of God might be preserved. In Till We Have Faces, Lewis suggests by way of Orual that, “[The heart of a man] is never so wholly given to any matter but that some trifle of a meal, or a drink, or a joke, or a girl, may come in between them and it, and then (even if you are a queen) you’ll get no more good out of them until they’ve had their way.” The line plays off comically in isolation, sadly in context of the book, and morosely when understood as true outside the book; all the causes a man might commit himself to, no matter how beautiful, are inevitably subjected to the desire for pleasure and the titillation of the body. Given the apostles, we might nearly be brought to believe that a hero is a human being who does nothing more than not screw up just once when it counts. We resolve to be good, we swear we will be good, even while we think, “When I’ve got half a chance to split, I’m out.” We say “I will not do it. I will not do it again. I will never do it, no matter what it costs me. I have steeled my very being against the possibility of doing something so ugly and so heinous-” and at the same time we think, “Oh, I’ll totally do it again. Obviously. What? Like I’m not going to do it? Right.”

When Judas approaches Jesus, he likely approaches him alone; the band of soldiers waits in the wings, out of sight. This seems obvious given the story and the setting. It is dark, and only a friend of Jesus would be able to discern Him from the rest of the apostles. Judas knows that Jesus has returned to Bethany to sleep. He might have even led the band of soldiers to the house of Lazarus and found Jesus’ bed empty. In the house of Lazarus, it would likely have been easier to direct the soldiers to Jesus’ bed without the aid of a guide. When the soldiers turn the sheets over in Jesus’ bed, they would have found nothing and returned angry to Judas complaining He was not where Judas’ had promised He would be. In the dark of Gethsemene, the soldiers’ need someone to draw near the group of apostles and perform some sign, visible from afar, that would identify Jesus. We can, perhaps, hear the plan of Judas: “If you soldiers come near to the group, they will all flee, and Jesus will, too. You won’t be able to catch Him. What we need is a sign so that you can identify Him from afar, draw a bead on Him, and then follow Him when He runs. If twelve men all run away in the dark, they might go in different directions, then it will be hard to catch Him. Your attention will be diverted, trying to catch all the twelve and Jesus might go free.” The assumption that Jesus will flee if the soldiers draw near is both founded and unfounded; Christ had previously evaded those who came to attack Him, even while He sometimes stayed and challenged His attackers with words. At the same time, Jesus mocks those who have come with clubs to arrest Him, as though He were some kind of “robber” who would fight back.

The embarrassment of Judas over betraying Christ rings painfully true; Judas sells the Son of Glory for a few dollars, but lacks confidence to execute His plan forthrightly. Instead, Judas orchestrates the situation such that he has plausible deniability. In John 26: 56, we read that after Jesus is arrested “all the disciples deserted him,” and we have no reason to believe that Judas did not flee as well to keep up the appearance that he was innocent. We cannot assume that Judas did not desert Jesus on the grounds that Judas was not faithful, for none of the disciples was faithful and yet they fled. It may have been that Judas assumed he could (if his plan was executed perfectly) simply rejoin the apostles, who would be none the wiser of his actions, given that his plan was executed stealthily. It makes no sense, neither in terms of the narrative nor theologically, to assume that Judas “betrayed” Jesus with a kiss while the soldiers were right behind him in plain sight. When Judas sees Jesus, he says, “Greetings, Rabbi!” When the soldiers come out from behind him a moment later, Judas might have been relying on being able to tell the other apostles later, “The soldiers secretly followed me! I can’t believe it!” So, too, we crave a plausible excuse to do evil in front of all and not be held accountable. We blame our evil on someone else, the soldiers or the government, even while we secretly gain from it. We sigh and weep while we line our pockets, stoke our convenience, keep confrontation at bay, close ourselves off. Men want an excuse, and we delight in a reasonable story which accounts for our evil.

At the same time, we want to remain close to Jesus. Both Judas and Peter follow Jesus secretly after his arrest. Judas is present to see Pilate condemn Jesus (Mt. 27: 2) and Peter follows at a distance, keeping abreast of the results of the arrest, even while he does not want to be made alloy with Jesus’ cause. At Caiaphas’ home, Peter remains in the courtyard waiting to hear news from inside, where Jesus is being tried. Peter is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all; Peter wants to be near Christ, but he is terrified to accept the fate which comes with it. Peter wants to love Christ, even as he fails to do so. Peter wants to be a safe distance from Christ, close enough that he might mourn when Christ is executed, but far away enough that he might escape execution himself. Every man is Peter. We have all sworn our fidelity to Christ, broken our oath, and huddle far enough away from Christ that we will not be held accountable for His actions and words.

That it is possible for a man to overcome temptation is obvious from Scripture; that overcoming temptation is a divine work and not human seems equally obvious. We don’t much like to treat sin in this way, though. The sins of others are an annoyance, and so they need not be covered over in love, but sermon. A lecture. A stern talk. “Sinner, stop sinning! The Bible tells you not to sin, so stop!” An unfortunate quantity of modern pastoral work is simply this, which passes for piety simply because the Bible is referenced as a sound reason to quit sinning. We do not want to lead the heart and imagination into the goodness of God, because we would rather (by fiat, as though we were God Himself) speak good people into existence. When good people fail to materialize after we have spoken them into existence, we blame them for not existing instead of calling our own power into question.

The denial of Christ is both the betrayal of God and the betrayal of ourselves to the Devil. The sin of denial runs deep in man; not only do we deny God, we deny the truth. We are angered by the truth, embarrassed by the truth, ashamed of the truth. The truth reveals our own limitations, the shallowness of our perception, the vexation that we are unsure of many of the things of which we claim to be most sure.

At any moment, any man might be on the verge of submitting to a thousand truths, but the denial of these truths is ultimately the denial of God’s own self. We deny these truths, especially the truths of our sinfulness and scheming and desire to be respected and admired even while we acknowledge our unworthiness. We would not look Christ in the face because our own sinfulness would become apparent to us as it is to Christ Himself.

If we would be saved, we must say:

“I believe, help Thou my unbelief.”

“I do not deny You, help thou my denial of You.”

“I live in You, help thou my slaughter of You.”

The constancy of sin opens up but one chance for us: a lifetime of repentance. If a man can truly repent, he might know that for at least an instant, he was not betraying God.

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