The greatest tragedy of Judas is not that he betrayed Jesus, but that he committed suicide. Judas’ actions were no worse than Peter’s or the other disciples, yet Jesus forgave and restored all of them. I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Judas hadn’t killed himself. What would’ve happened if he had met the resurrected Jesus? Here’s my alternate historical take on the redemption of Judas:
The flickering torchlight revealed a handful of dark forms huddled on the beach. How many times had he seen them gathered like this in the hours before dawn? Nostalgia rose in his chest, summoned by the scene’s familiarity. But his stomach turned as he drew close enough to make out the men he had once called friends. Peter and Andrew, the sons of Thunder, Nathanael and Philip. And Thomas, which was a surprise. The men were making ready Peter and Andrew’s boat, which even after two seasons of disuse needed only minor repairs to render it seaworthy.
He slowed, realizing only now that he had not considered what would come next. At that moment, Philip saw him emerging from the darkness and called out.
And with that, Philip ran to him, embraced him. Kissed him.
The kiss. Of greeting. Of friendship. Of betrayal.
Judas shoved Philip away and staggered back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t… I… I am going.”
Philip grabbed his arm. “Judas! We’ve been worried sick about you. No one has seen you for weeks. Not since…” Now he trailed off. A dark cloud passed momentarily over his face, but was banished by the sun of his joy.
“But Judas, you’ve heard, haven’t you? Jesus is alive!”
What was this? Philip lived with his head in the clouds – how often had they all teased him and Andrew for that? But this was pure delusion.
Judas’ fingers went to his neck. The burns were long healed but he would always feel it there, choking him. The rope had snapped under his weight; he supposed in his grief he had not checked it. He had lain sobbing on the ground as the road filled with pilgrims entering the city for Passover.
He looked again at Philip. “Did… did you see him die?”
Philip looked away. “No. The Magdalene was there. And his mother and the Beloved. The rest of us…” he paused, then looked at Judas again. “The rest of us fled when he was arrested.”
A sword pierced Judas’ heart. “When I betrayed him.”
Philip looked as serious as Judas had ever seen him. “We all betrayed him, Judas. But he is no longer dead, and he has forgiven us all. He cannot wait to see you!”
“Philip!” Peter shouted across the beach. Judas saw him tying rigging, pulling the ropes harder, tighter than he needed to. Judas’ hand reached again toward his neck. He had seen Peter angry often enough to recognize it. Peter shouted again, “Philip! Let’s go. The boat is ready.”
Philip turned, “Come, Judas. We’re going to catch some breakfast.”
Without turning toward them, Peter called again, “The boat is full.”
The sword in Judas’ heart twisted. Philip, always the peacemaker, motioned Judas to follow him. “Come on. He’ll be fine.”
But Judas refused. “Go, Philip.”
Philip’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t leave us again, Judas.”
“I won’t. I’ll stay right here.”
Philip and the others pushed off from shore and sailed into the sea. Judas sat and pondered Philip’s words, “He is no longer dead, and he has forgiven us all.” What could he possibly mean?
Judas awoke to the smell of bread baking – he had not meant to doze off, but sleep had been elusive of late. His eyes followed his nose and in the pre-dawn light, he saw someone was making breakfast on the beach. Judas began to creep closer, but then the figure called out onto the lake, “Try casting on the other side!”
Judas froze. How many times at the fishermen brothers related this story – the story of when he first called them? The voice called out again, “The other side! Try casting your nets on the other side of the boat! There’re more fish over there!” And Judas knew. Philip’s promise rang in his ear: He is no longer dead.
A great splash followed by the laughter of the others in the boat signaled Peter had thrown himself into the water. In moments he was on the shore, and rushed to embrace Jesus. The others beached the boat close behind him and Jesus greeted them all with an embrace. With a kiss of welcome.
Judas turned, intending to slip away, when Philip called out: “Lord, Judas has found us!”
“Judas.” Jesus’ voice froze him in place. That voice that had cast out demons, that had stilled storms. That voice that had commanded the dead to wake. That voice that had known his plans and had told him to go and do it quickly. Judas searched the sound of his name on Jesus’ lips for anger, for betrayal. But he found only welcome and friendship.
He turned back and Jesus was staring at him, kind but insistent. Now he smiled and reached out a hand. “Hello, Judas.” Judas flinched as the sleeve of Jesus’ robe slid up his arm, revealing what could only be a nail hole. But it was Jesus, standing before him as the world around them became lighter, the sun creeping over the horizon to bear witness.
“Rabbi.” His voice trembled, terror, awe, shame and hope battling in his throat.
“Lord, he betrayed you! He betrayed us!” Peter had been smoldering behind Jesus, and now erupted with righteous fury. “How do we know he has not led more soldiers here?” Peter spat venom. He made a show of looking behind Judas, but without real concern; he aimed only to wound.
Jesus turned to Peter. “Peter, do you love me?”
Without breaking eye contact with Judas, Peter said, “Yes, Lord. You know I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep, Peter.”
“Yes, Lord. But what of this one?”
Jesus said again, “Peter. Do you love me?”
Now Peter looked at Jesus, confused. “Yes, Lord. You know I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep, Peter.”
Jesus did not look away from Peter, so Peter was trapped in his gaze. Jesus asked a third time, “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter looked down now. His shoulders fell and his bravado was washed away by the shame that flooded out of the crack Jesus had created. Jesus place a hand on his shoulder, and Peter looked up, his cheeks wet. “Yes, Lord,” he managed. “You know I love you.”
His words were a confession, and Jesus drew him again into an embrace. “I know you do, Peter. So feed my lambs.”
Judas was so captivated by Jesus’ kindness in the moment he forgot his own shame. Until Peter turned toward him again and asked, more softly now, “What of him?”
Jesus walked toward him and Judas’ heart raced, a chariot fleeing a massacre. He could not move as Jesus embraced him.
He could not move as Jesus kissed him.
A kiss of friendship. A kiss of welcome.
Now, a kiss of forgiveness.
Jesus whispered, “Look, Judas: I am making all things new.”
Judas stood with Jesus, in the midst of the disciples. The sun shone brightly on the beach, chasing away the shadows and flooding them with the light of a new day.
James said, “Hey, is the food ready yet?” They all laughed and turned to eat together. It would be a long day. They were going to need their strength.
Read more about Judas in my book, Empathy for the Devil.
Empathy for the Devil releases on November 7. You can preorder it here.
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