The Tears of Peter and the Despair of Judas

After he was called to be an Apostle of Jesus Christ, Judas betrayed his friend, Lord and Savior. But truth be told, this is not Judas’ ultimate downfall.

The real tragedy of his life is not his betrayal, but his ending in despair — his hopelessness that led him to see himself as beyond the realm of God’s mercy and forgiveness, as truly abandoned and forsaken and buried in shame.

It is in this light that Pope Benedict XVI contrasted the mourning of Peter and that of Judas (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. 86). The latter, as we have said, culminates in despair.

For Peter, on the other hand, there is true mourning and sorrow, as Peter’s eyes meet our Lord’s after denying even knowing Jesus three times. Peter — who was full of brash confidence — has now come face to face with his own weakness and inconstancy. And this confrontation with the truth hurts.

But Peter’s mourning — while painful — brings him to the truth and ultimately repentance. For Pope Benedict, the key difference between Peter and Judas here is that Peter’s mourning includes a glimmer of hope and a sense of God’s infinite mercy. And this gives Peter the chance to start over; moved by God’s grace and having come face to face with his own weakness, now he is ready to let God work through him in an even more powerful way.

Pope Benedict writes: “Struck by the Lord’s gaze, he bursts into healing tears that plow up the soil of his soul. He begins anew and is himself renewed” (ibid.).

This is the way of the spiritual life and the path to sanctity as taught — in one way or another — by countless saints: to recognize (1) our brokenness and (2) God’s infinite mercy. If we only think about the latter, we may end in presumption; if we only think of the former, we’ll end in despair.

But Christian hope mediates between the two — recognizing on the one hand our true brokenness, that we are nothing without God; but also on the other hand, never losing sight of the infinite and inexhaustible richness of God’s mercy. This is the way God sees us: as broken and wounded, and so he longs to heal and transform us; but it is only when we are “poor in spirit” — when we recognize our brokenness in true humility — that we can allow God to engage, heal, and transform us at the very deepest levels of our being.

When we think we can “do it ourselves,” we hinder God’s work in our lives; in God’s providence, sometimes our failures are there to teach us that very lesson.

Even the etymology of the Hebrew word “Satan” may reveal this very lesson. “Satan” means “to accuse” (see Zech 3:1-5 and John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, ch. 5). In temptation, Satan is our buddy, coaxing us along. But as soon as we fall, he becomes the “accuser,” the one whispering in our ear that we are now beyond the reach of God’s mercy — that there is no turning back now, that we are simply in too deep. Here Satan seeks to bury us in the shame of our sin, as he did Judas.

This is one of the great lies of the devil, one that keeps many from truly allowing God into their lives; many greatly suffer from the lie that God can’t truly love us as we are — that we ought to find sanctity first and then we’ll return to God.

But from God’s perspective, the reality is actually the reverse: we need to turn to the divine physician precisely in our brokenness; and as we continue to do that, sanctity will eventually follow.

This appeared at Ascension Press.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.