i have kissed you so many times,
in betrayal and denial
that my lips hurt.

what kind of love is this
that still dares to call me
friend?

Judas came straight to Jesus. “Greetings, Teacher!” he exclaimed and gave him the kiss.
—Matthew’s eyewitness account of Judas betraying Jesus
(Matthew 26:49)

Sometimes when I read about what Jesus said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do, I remind myself that everything in his life was motivated solely by love. Everything he did was totally in sync with the Spirit and in step with the Father. That means that in every situation, the way Jesus responded was the most loving way anyone could ever respond.

When I look at things this way, I often discover that love looks different than I expect it to.

For example, when a wealthy young man decided not to follow Jesus because it would have meant leaving his wealth behind, Jesus let him go. I probably would have handed the guy a tract or something. But Jesus didn’t, because he knew what real love looks like. This man wasn’t ready yet for the disciple life, so Jesus let him walk away (see Mark 10:21-22).

And when Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites, blind guides, fools, show-offs, posers, sons of hell, and snakes who are filthy, greedy, self-indulgent, and bound for hell (see Matthew 23), those were the most loving things anyone could have possibly told them at the time. Being politically correct was not one of Jesus’s strong suits. Loving people enough to tell them what they needed to hear was.

When Judas kissed Jesus, here’s how Jesus responded: “Jesus said, ‘My friend, go ahead and do what you have come for.’ Then the others grabbed Jesus and arrested him” (Matthew 26:50). Jesus’s words weren’t soaked in sarcasm but in love. When he called Judas friend, I think he was saying the most loving thing in the world.

I’ve tried to picture that night in the Garden of Gethsemane. I’ve tried to hear the night sounds in the shadows and see the mists floating ghostlike through the trees. Over there is Jesus, a man scorched by prayer. Here are his friends fast asleep. Snaking toward us through the darkness is a torch-bearing crowd. Swords and spears glint in the moonlight.

I’ve tried to see the look in the eyes of those who’ve come to arrest Jesus. I think some of them are angry, but I’ll bet most of them are scared because they’ve heard about Jesus. They don’t want to fight a man who has the power to control hurricanes, knows the words to raise the dead, and has the courage to single-handedly clear the temple courtyard with a homemade whip.

They approach the olive grove where Jesus is talking to his friends. Then, a moment later, Judas strides toward Jesus, leans over, and kisses him on the cheek.

And then Jesus looks Judas in the eye and calls him friend. Jesus even asks him, “How can you betray me with a kiss? Of all the ways, Judas, how could you do it with a kiss?”

This was the most intimate of betrayals.

i have played the chameleon.

i have changed colors as i sit on this leafy fern and blend in so easily with the deep, ancient greens all around me. and i have fit in with the sandy, dun-colored soil and the patchy gray of the rotting tree.

every time i move around i watch my skin change color.

sometimes i try to be two colors at once or i forget what color i’m
supposed
to be
right now.

when that happens and someone notices she shouts, “look! what is that guy?! a lizard or a chameleon? he doesn’t even fit in!”

“i’m a chameleon,” i say, and quickly change my color so i look just like them.

once again.

Jesus didn’t use the word friend very often. I know. I looked it up. A few times, in a general sense, he referred to his followers as his friends. The only other people he called his friends were (1) a paralyzed man whom he healed, (2) his buddy Lazarus whom he awakened from the dead, and, according to some translations, (3) a guy who wanted him to arbitrate his father’s estate.

Judas was the only disciple we know of whom Jesus individually, specifically called his friend.

What kind of a man looks into the eyes of the one who is betraying him, who is unjustly handing him over to die, and still calls him friend? What kind of man does that?

A man of uncompromising, unfailing, indecipherable love.

Jesus the Nazarene.

For a while I used to wonder why Jesus didn’t cast Satan out of Judas. After all, he’d sent demons out of people before. He could have saved Judas, right? Set him free from the devil? Why didn’t he? I thought I finally had a question that cornered God.

But then I remembered that everything Jesus did was guided by perfect love. Judas had chosen his own path and priorities, just like that rich young man whom Jesus let walk away. Judas didn’t want to be saved. Jesus had to let him go because Judas wasn’t ready to be a follower. Love has to let the beloved choose. Judas had made his choice. Jesus had to let Judas walk away because he wasn’t ready to embrace the kingdom life. He’d never been ready. The lover gives the beloved a chance to say yes before stepping over the threshold. For three years Judas had said no.

In fact, earlier that night Jesus had told his disciples that it would not bode well for his betrayer: “Here at this table, sitting among us as a friend, is the man who will betray me. For I, the Son of Man, must die since it is part of God’s plan. But how terrible it will be for my betrayer!” (Luke 22:21-22). Judas even ignored this warning and went ahead with his plan.

Judas’s life had been an open invitation to Satan for a long time. Finally, the tempter just came in and shut the door behind him.

After the soldiers arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and all his disciples ran off into the night, the soldiers tied him up and led him to the high priest’s home. “Inside, the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find witnesses who would lie about Jesus, so they could put him to death” (Matthew 26:59).

Jesus was put on trial, but the verdict had already been decided: guilty. Even though the governor couldn’t find anything wrong with Jesus, the religious establishment persuaded him to give Jesus a death sentence. And he did.

And only after the deed was done did Judas begin to realize who Jesus really was.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, realized that Jesus had been condemned to die, he was filled with remorse. So he took the thirty pieces of silver back to the leading priests and other leaders. “I have sinned,” he declared, “for I have betrayed an innocent man.” “What do we care?” they retorted. “That’s your problem.”
Matthew 27:3-4

When the priests refused to accept his change of heart, Judas spiraled into despair. He forgot who his truest friend was, and instead of turning to God for help or forgiveness, he chose to take his own life.

I know some people wonder if maybe Judas went to heaven because he felt guilty after his betrayal. But guilt doesn’t save anyone. Faith does. And we have no evidence Judas had faith in Jesus. Gripped with guilt, Judas committed suicide even as Jesus was being led away to die for Judas’s sins.

But couldn’t Jesus have done anything more to help his friend?

Jesus was already doing everything he could. For three years Jesus had treated Judas in the most loving manner possible, offering him the kingdom of heaven repeatedly. But Judas walked away.

After the trials and beatings, Jesus was condemned to death: “When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified”
(Mark 15:20).

If only Judas would have stayed around to see the rest of the story unfold, he might have seen his friend once again.

touching the unseen

judas betrayed you for thirty pieces of silver.
forgive me for all the times i’ve done it
for free.
yet you’ve chosen to call me friend.

help me to live like it.
i’m both captured and set free by
the mystery of your love.

enigma.