Spy Wednesday: Judas and the Monkey

[N.B.: A big change is coming to the Blog of the Courtier next week, stay tuned for details.]

Today is Spy Wednesday, when the Church recalls Judas Iscariot’s plot to betray Jesus. In continuing our reflection this Holy Week on St. Matthew’s Passion Narrative, it is worth considering a rather interesting question, unanswered by the Scriptures, and which perhaps has slipped our attention. Why did Judas hold on to the 30 pieces of silver?

St. Matthew tells us that two days before the Crucifixion:

[O]ne of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand Him over.

St. Matthew 26: 14-16

Of course we know what happens next. Judas plays his part perfectly, but he comes to abhor what he has done. St. Matthew writes:

Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.” Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.

St. Matthew 27:3-5

Notice that Judas is not giving the Temple any old money to try to bribe the officials into letting Jesus go. St. Matthew tells us that he “returned” what we are told are the 30 pieces of silver. It is the actual blood money that Judas gives back, and rather interestingly Judas defiles the Temple by throwing the coins into the Temple precincts. The real defilement of course, was that undertaken by the Temple authorities themselves, who in effect ordered a “hit” on Jesus.

So why does Judas still have this money with him, on the morning of Good Friday? One answer could be that he simply did not have time to spend it. Another answer is that his sudden wealth would have been conspicuous, and the Apostles would have suspected him of stealing (again) from the communal purse. Yet I think the answer can be found in a simple, but superb painting by the great early Italian Renaissance master Giotto: the bag containing the thirty pieces of silver became the monkey on Judas’ back.

The bargain to betray Jesus has not been treated as frequently in art as the kiss of Judas, but Giotto’s rendering of this infernal deal can be seen in the famous fresco cycle he completed before 1305 for the Arena Chapel in Padua. Judas is shown receiving the bag containing the 30 pieces of silver from one of the Temple officials, while two others discuss the exchange. Clasping onto Judas, like the proverbial monkey on the back, is a frightening black demon – not noticed by any of the participants in the scene – complete with claws, sharp teeth, and cloven hoof.

From this point forward, Judas becomes just as burdened with his demon, monkey, albatross, etc., as any substance abuser. He cannot spend the money, not only because it will draw attention and suspicion upon him, but because somewhere in his mind he knows that what he is doing is wrong. The money he carries around becomes the burden that will ultimately drag him down to hell. Even when he throws the monkey off his back by trying to return the money and undo his actions, the monkey jumps right back on again. For Judas doubts the power of God and His forgiveness, and instead chooses suicide as a punishment for his sins, no doubt goaded on by that monkey on his back.

The Church on earth, as I often have to remind others, is an institution populated entirely by sinners. Because this is the case, many of us have our own monkeys on our backs just like Judas, which we are carrying around and remain unwilling or unable to put down. They do not have to be tangible in the way that a bag full of coins is, in order for them to have a powerful pull on us. We can only be relieved of these heavy burdens through the Grace of God, and how fortunate we are to be able to seek and obtain that Grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Judas, of course, denied the power of Christ to forgive, and therefore could not rid himself of the monkey he had allowed to climb onto his back. For many, going to confession to seek forgiveness is viewed as an unpleasant experience, and it is therefore avoided. In my experience, the relative pleasantness of an action often has little to do with its efficacy. Much of life is not pleasant, but eternal damnation as a result of intentionally unrepented sin is, we are assured by Christ Himself, infinitely less pleasant.

Easter is only a few days away, but we do not have to follow Judas’ example and allow the monkey – or troop of monkeys – on our backs to continue to dictate how we are to act. Until we die, it is never too late to seek the Grace of God through the sacrament with a contrite heart. For those of my readers who have not been to confession for quite a long time, please think about whether it is time to ask God’s Grace to get that mangy old monkey off your back. I know that I will be doing the same for myself.

The Pact of Judas by Giotto (c. 1503)
Arena Chapel, Padua

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