Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Restored perspective

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the April 8, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky While surfing the television channels one evening recently, I happened across the rerun of a program about the restoration of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous fresco, The Last Supper. The program was a welcome respite from snarling lions, Emeril’s flaming specialties and talking heads. To say nothing about the breath of fresh air it provided from the media frenzy over Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ!

In the tradition of artists over the centuries, Da Vinci’s work communicates a profound sense of personal encounter at the Lord’s final meal with his disciples. Benefiting from years of painstaking effort it took to remove the grime of centuries from this work, the tourist – or serious student of art, for that matter – can stand now before the dining room doorway in Milan, Italy, and ponder the meaning captured by the world’s most famous rendition of the Last Supper. Perhaps one would be captivated by the way the original features of the Twelve Apostles leap off the wall – each with his own facial conversation with the Lord. Maybe other details, hidden for centuries, clarify the artistic insight of a truly masterful painter.

Among other details, the portrayal of Judas is raised to new clarity. He is the man with the dark, malicious eyes, hardened jaw, and nervous countenance who sits in front of the spilled salt shaker. With skilled, painstaking cleaning, an intriguing portrayal has come back to life.

Poor Judas. Although one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, the reputation he has received over the centuries perhaps has made him a figure larger than life. After all, is he not always the one pictured as a man so utterly devoid of good that his very portrayal must be that of a contorted, hell-bent sinner?

As we certainly have learned of late from our experience of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, art has a way of summoning emotion and evoking comment. In the case of Judas, perhaps even Da Vinci has distanced us from the original Gospel portrayal of Judas – and therefore, from an important lesson in Christian spirituality we could do well to learn from his role in salvation history.

All art and commentary notwithstanding, we obviously will never know who Judas was in real life. At the same time, a restoration of our prejudice about him and his purported malicious betrayal of Jesus might offer us, among other things, a restored estimation of our own walk of discipleship.

All else being equal, it may be a bit difficult to imagine that Judas betrayed Jesus because he was by nature or personality a conniving, evil man. It is tempting to picture him as a malicious, pathetic specimen of the human race, but Jesus’ choice of him as an Apostle hardly could have been based on such an evident manifestation of corruption. Like all the other Apostles, Judas most likely was a man of limited ability and talent, but still a man of promise and struggling faith. In this regard the grime of time has not served us well. Our perspective of Judas needs to be restored, oddly enough, so that the truth about ourselves may be restored.

Betrayal is no easy matter. To find a more realistic picture of its dynamic we need look no further than in a mirror. Which of us would rise on any given Thursday morning, plotting with our first breath to hand over anyone to the authorities? No, not us! It is very doubtful if Judas did either.

Betrayal is much more subtle. It begins with little denials, deceits, and compromises of integrity. It is nurtured by defense mechanisms which protect us from the challenge of truth and the risk of walking faithfully with Jesus. The Big Betrayal always is made easier by a history of lesser betrayals, in that there is no clear, pristine vision of maliciousness. Observing our own behavior, we can well take note that our own big betrayals of Christian discipleship reveal a rather complex network of self-centeredness and turf protection.

Perhaps Judas betrayed Jesus because he was afraid – maybe even a bit chicken – not because he was an extraordinarily evil man. He was losing control of the situation.After sharing nearly three years of fellowship with his rabbi, Judas certainly must have started sensing the pressing demands of the Good News. After all, the proclamation of the Gospel cannot be encountered with the disinterested commentary of a television pundit. The message of Jesus does not provide the luxury of living room quarterbacking. It demands change and a new way of living.

For Judas, perhaps Jesus just demanded too much. Only a mad man could ask such a radical response from his followers. Total dedication must have appeared to Judas to be fatal to personal freedom. Better to save himself and stay in control than to get sucked into a movement which makes governments unhappy and ruffles the tassels of religious leaders. Thirty pieces of silver was the easy way out.

In Judas’s mind, it even may have been the best way out. Maybe he thought he was doing Jesus a favor by turning in the Lord to the authorities. It is strange how we are capable of betraying those closest to us by twisting reality to meet our personal needs and preferences. We know them so well that we think we know what’s best for them. Frequently the temptation to do good provides the fuel for betrayal.

Restoring Judas to real life may destroy our cherished image of this sad man, but without such restoration we will be tempted to live in a comfortable world. There is a part of Judas in each of us –that part which wants to take the easy route of Christian discipleship, to control our commitment and our future. It is that part of us which thinks it knows better than the Lord what is best for us. Given the right set of circumstances, and the right history of compromises, any one of us might find ourselves sitting in the same place at the Last Supper.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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