We continue our reading notes on Matthew’s Passion narrative, in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Today we look at the story of Judas’ remorse and suicide. This isn’t found in Mark’s Gospel, but Matthew adds it here probably to contrast it with Peter’s remorse – one leads to despair, the other to true repentance. It also makes the picture of the Jewish leadership blacker still, showing how their failure to lead and serve the people led to Judas’ terrible destiny.
Matt 27:1-21 Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. 2 So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.
The first part of Jesus’ trial successfully arrested him and found him guilty in the Jewish courts, on charges of blasphemy. This second phase now moves to obtain the death penalty for him. Because the Romans reserved the right to inflict the death penalty, the next step was to persuade Pilate that this was necessary.
Matt 27:3-53 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” 5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
Inserting the story of Judas at this point may imply that in Matthew’s eyes, the trial before the Sanhedrin is the real trial of Jesus: it’s more significant than the trial before Pilate, Jesus already being “condemned” after the first trial.
Matthew describes Judas as being “seized with remorse,” translating the Greek word metamelomai. This is not the more common word for repentance in the NT, metanoeo. Matthew may be carefully avoiding using the common word for repentance used in Christian vocabulary (which leads to forgiveness) in order to show that Judas’ response was more a despairing remorse.
He does acknowledge his own wrongdoing, and that Jesus is innocent, but at no point does it seem to drive him toward the mercy of God. In fact, his actions in verse 5 suggest he’s trying to atone for his own sin (See Witherington, Matthew, 504):
- The penalty for bearing false testimony is that you are to be given the penalty given to the one about whom you falsely testified (Deut 19:16-21).
- Ahitophel hanged himself after he betrayed King David (2 Sam 7:22-23); Judas also betrayed a king from David’s line. The same Greek word (translated “hanged”) is used in the Greek translation of the OT and in Matthew.
Although some try to argue the case that Judas’ “repentance” and suicide may suggest that he dies forgiven and reconciled with God, there is little support for this interpretation within Matthew and less in the rest of the NT (e.g. John 17:12, Acts 1:16-20).
Some note the apparent discrepancy with Acts 1:18 where hanging isn’t mentioned. However, the Greek word translated “hanged” can sometimes refer to suicide generally (e.g. in the Greek translation of Nah 2:13 it means strangled).
The chief priests’ response paints them in an even worse light than Judas. Their attempt to evade responsibility anticipates Pilate’s words to them in 27:24. There is deep irony in the fact that, having abandoned Jesus, the only place Judas can go to with his sin is the priesthood: the very people to whom he had betrayed Jesus in the first place. They have no interest at all in helping him to repent and find God’s forgiveness. Judas’ suicide is a sharp indictment on their failure to be true priests.
Matt 27:6-106 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
The chief priests’ scrupulous concerns about the ritual impurity of blood money stands in contrast with their willingness to shed the blood that defiled the money in the first place (cf. 23:27-28).
The fulfilment quotation of verses 9-10 attributes the quote to Jeremiah. It is in fact a quote from Zech 11:13 perhaps with the addition of some words from Jeremiah about the potters and the purchase of a field (cf. Jer 18:2-3, 19:1-13, 32:6-15). It’s probably because Matthew views this as a composite quote (for another famous example, see Mark 1:2-3, which Mark says is from Isaiah, but also includes material from Malachi). When citing composite quotations, it was considered sufficient to mention the most important author, and Jeremiah outranks Zechariah in Jewish thought. The original context of Jeremiah’s words may also be more in mind, since in those chapters he is speaking about the destruction (Jer 18-19) and restoration (Jer 32) of Jerusalem.
Potter or treasury? In the original context of the quote in Zech 11, it’s not clear whether the text refers to the money being put into the treasury (NRSV) or thrown to the potter (NIV). Why? The Hebrew word for potter in Zech 11, is yoser. But due to the way Hebrew deals with vowels, it could also be read as oser (the word for treasury). Complicating the matter is the fact that there is both a potter and the treasury mentioned in the story, which leads some to think that Matthew has both in mind – an ancient play-on-words: “We can’t put this money into the oser (treasury), so let’s put it into the yoser (potter[‘s field]).”
In Zech 11, Zechariah takes on the role of a good shepherd (i.e. doing God’s job), getting rid of the evil, false shepherds who were slaughtering the flock. These false shepherds symbolise the Jewish leaders in Zechariah’s day. But the flock rejects him as their shepherd, and so Zechariah resigns his position, symbolically breaking the covenant between God and Israel. The leaders of Israel pay him off with 30 pieces of silver, a small sum that was probably an insult, and he throws it to the potter in disgust. The similarity Matthew sees in these two stories (Zechariah and Jesus) is a good shepherd rejected and devalued by his sheep.
To think about
What’s the difference between Judas’ repentance and Peter’s? How have you seen cases of both in your own experience?
Although our contemporary world isn’t the first century people of God, contemplate the parallels: Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep is often rejected, and treated with mocking contempt.