[“Judas” by James Tissot]
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses some strong words when speaking about Judas. He calls Judas the “son of destruction.” St. Peter also refers to Judas in the First Reading, telling the small congregation that he is preaching to that Judas had “turned away to go to his own place.” These phrases call to mind the whole tragedy of his demise. Judas abandoned his God-given mission, and then went one step further by purposely betraying the Lord. Afterwards, St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, Judas fell into despair and took his own life, thus concluding a tragic story of evil and destruction.
However, in today’s Second Reading, we find a phrase that does not seem to fit very well with this tragedy. St. John tells us that “God is love.” If God is love, how could He let one of His children, Judas, commit such a horrendous crime and come to such a tragic end? We do not know where Judas will spend eternity — the Church has never declared that he is in hell, nor has the Church declared that he is in heaven. Judgment belongs to God, yet the suffering that his sin caused even in this life, to himself, Jesus, and to the other Apostles, was horrendous. If God is really love, why didn’t He prevent it? The answer sounds strange, but it is very true.
It is precisely because God is love that He did not force Judas to be faithful, because love always respects the freedom of the one who is loved. Since God loves us, He respects our freedom, even when we abuse that freedom to rebel against Him and cause destruction to ourselves and those around us. In other words, God permits sin because He loves us too much to force us into His friendship.
One of the reasons that this answer sounds strange is because we often misunderstand the idea of freedom. In general, the popular mindset that most of us have today, equates freedom with doing whatever you feel like, whatever you want to do. As a result of this misconception, even people who are intelligent and well-educated become confused on moral issues. For example, they start thinking that a person should have the right to do whatever they want, even if it means killing another human being through abortion or embryonic stem-cell research. Or they want to create laws that make no distinction between homosexual unions and real marriage.
However, freedom does not mean doing whatever we feel like. Rather, as one contemporary Catholic writer puts it, freedom is “the strength of character to do what is right in each situation.” Freedom is always connected to truth and responsibility, and not just to feelings and instincts which are blind and can betray us. Freedom means governing our feelings and instincts in harmony with the true purpose of our lives, which is to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ.
Imagine if an oak tree were given the gift of moral freedom. What would happen if that oak tree, feeling constrained by its roots, decided to cut them off? It would destroy itself. An oak tree is meant to have roots. Its health, growth and glory depend on being true to its nature, which involves being rooted in the earth. Just so, we human beings are meant to be rooted in friendship with God and moral truth. When we cut ourselves off from God and moral truth, which is what Judas did, we are cutting off our spiritual roots, and this is a sure path to self-destruction.
God has given us the precious gift of freedom, the capacity to follow Him out of love, and not just automatically. Today, He is reminding us to use this gift well.
Because God respects our freedom, we have a responsibility to use our freedom well. This means that we have to exercise our freedom. Freedom is the capacity for making self-conscious choices, instead of just acting by instinct all the time, as plants and animals do. When we exercise that capacity, it gets stronger, like a muscle.
One of the devil’s tricks is to make us passive. If he can lull us into just going with the flow, just doing what everyone else around us is doing, then our freedom will get flabby. And when that happens, we become more vulnerable to temptation. We may even fall back into spiritual slavery, becoming trapped in our instincts or selfish tendencies.
The passive, go-with-the-flow, enervating approach to life can be obviously destructive, as when we just follow fashions and fads, trying to fit in with popular culture. However, it can also be more subtle. We can passively go along with a church-centered lifestyle: coming to Mass and being involved in the parish not out of deep interior conviction, but just because that is what we have always done.
In either case, the antidote to spiritual passivity is constantly deepening our personal friendship with Jesus Christ. That takes daily prayer, studying the faith, and reading the Scriptures. When our faith-life is based on a living, personal relationship with God, then we are much less likely to just go through the motions. Our daily decisions about how to respond to temptation, how to treat others, and how to use our time, become real choices, real expressions of our self-conscious option to follow Jesus Christ, no matter the cost.
Today, as during this Mass we thank God for respecting our freedom, let us renew this personal friendship with Christ, so that we will never find ourselves following in the footsteps of Judas.