Out of all the men and women in the world, Jesus specifically chose twelve people to be His closest friends, confidants, disciples, followers. Like all of us, they were imperfect sinners. Out of the twelve, none are shown to be more sinful than two: Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot. Yet, no two men could be more different in their ultimate roles in the early Church and their reputation today.
Carefully examining the Passion of Christ, Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot act quite similarly. The actions of the two are paralleled up to a critical point. It is at that point one seals his reputation as the betrayer of Christ while the other reforms his life, going on to be known as one of Jesus’s most faithful servants, complete with churches named after him, books written about him, and countless children bearing his name.
Who are these men, and what makes them so similar and yet so different?
- Simon was a fisherman, brother of Andrew, son of Jonah, living in Capernaum with his wife and mother-in-law. His brother Andrew introduces Simon to Jesus, and after a short while, Simon gives up all he knows to follow Christ. He is rash, bold, and at times, quite uncertain in his actions, but he is steadfastly faithful to Jesus and knows He is the Messiah. Jesus gives him a new name, Peter, and gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:16-20). Peter is often taken aside with Jesus, and he speaks for the other disciples as their leader. Clearly, Simon Peter has a special role among the twelve, but perhaps his leadership role made him feel like an outsider to the rest of the twelve.
- Judas was not from Galilee unlike the rest of the twelve. His name Iscariot suggests he was from Judah. No Gospel tells us how Jesus called him to follow Him, but the Gospel of John notes he too had a special role out of the twelve: he carried the money purse (12:6). To me, Judas too seems rash, bold, and at times, quite uncertain in his actions, but he must have had some sort of faith in Jesus to follow Him throughout His years of ministry. Perhaps his place of origin made him feel like an outsider to the rest of the twelve.
By all means and measures, these two men prior to the crucifixion and death of Jesus seem to have many of the same or quite similar circumstances and experiences that would lead them to have faith in Jesus. If nothing else, they experienced first hand the various miracles of Christ, listened to His wise teachings, and were able to experience Him very personally.
Yet they both betray Jesus.
- Judas Iscariot sells information about Jesus to the very people who want Him dead. He brings the chief priests and Pharisees to Jesus, pointing Him out among the disciples, betraying Him to them. (Matthew 26:47; Mark 14:43; Luke 22:47; John 18:3).
- Simon Peter too betrays Jesus. Though he follows Jesus after His arrest, he sits at a distance in the courtyard. He further distances himself from both Jesus and his closest friends, the other apostles of Christ, when he denies knowing both Christ and the disciples. (Matthew 26:58-75; Mark 14:54-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-27).
It’s difficult to look at the stories of Judas and Peter. It’s painful to think that two of the very people who followed Jesus, knew Him intimately, experienced Him in the flesh day after day could both betray him.
It would be foolish to think that we’re not capable of the same thing. Judas and Peter quite obviously both sinned. You and I both sin. And though we sin in ways that may not be obvious to the world, our sin is always obvious to the Lord.
Just as it is foolish to think that we ourselves are not capable of sinning to the same degree as Judas and Peter, it is foolish to think that Jesus does not know our hearts, especially the places in our hearts where we distrust, despair, doubt, and otherwise betray Jesus.
Jesus knew both Judas and Peter would betray Him.
- Jesus knew the heart of Judas. John notes at the Feeding of 5000 that “Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him” (John 6:65). Too, He announces at the Passover meal that someone will betray Him (Matthew 26:24-25; Mark 14:18-21; Luke 22:21-23; John 13:21-30).
- Peter professes in front of the other disciples at the Last Supper that he would willingly die for Jesus. But Jesus knew the heart of Peter. He predicts Peter will deny Him three times (Matthew 26:30-35; Mark 14:26-31; Luke 22:31-34; John 13:33-38).
In the same sense, Jesus knows we’re going to sin. Maybe it’s not as dramatic and specific as the Gospels describe Jesus’s predictions for Judas and Peter, but Jesus knows at some point, we’re going to fail.
But we always have a choice. Judas chose to betray Jesus for money. Peter chose to deny Jesus for safety and security. They by no means had to do those things just as you and I don’t have to sin.
(Why? We’re not puppets strung along by a Divine Puppet master. We’re not slaves to a master. We are the children of God. Jesus calls us His children, and children have free will. Any parent, godparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and virtually anyone who has had experience with a small child instinctively knows children have free will. Just try getting a child to sleep on your schedule, cuddle with you when they want to play, eat something they don’t want to, or really do anything they do not want to do. How incredibly accurate Jesus is to call us children!)
Maybe you and I don’t struggle with those same things, but Jesus knows our hearts. He knows what tempts us specifically, and He knows we’re going to sin. He knows, and He gives us the chance to pick Him, pick good, pick the difficult anyway.Jesus Himself was tempted in the desert, so He intimately knows how difficult it is to resist the false appeal of sin. And even if (and let’s be honest, when) we fail, He gives us the chance to come back to Him.
Love, repentance, coming back to God, is the core message of all of Jesus’s ministry. It’s the core to all that He does and preaches. Every action, every moment of HIs ministry begged the people – sinner, bystander, friend, enemy, Jew, Gentile – to come back to Him with a repentant heart. It’s all that He asks of us when we sin, when we spiritually run away from Him and His most loving will.
Yet they both feel remorse.
- Judas Iscariot, after learning Jesus is condemned to death, regrets his decision. He returns the money to the chief priests and Pharisees, saying “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4).
- Simon Peter, moments after denying Jesus, hears a rooster crow. He is reminded of his betrayal and “began to weep bitterly” (Matthew 26:75).
Peter came to Christ, hearing His call of penance and repentance. I can only speculate that Judas was attracted to the very same message. Both of them knew from the beginning Jesus was compassionate, forgiving, loving. He spoke to them of parables of going after the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son (Luke 15). They heard him preach forgiveness repeatedly. They saw him heal sinners repeatedly. They saw him take in the most sinful and forgotten of society repeatedly. In some sense, Peter and Judas had to have known that Jesus would take them back.
Yet one hangs himself. Yet the other returns to the other disciples, waits with them in fear, runs to the empty tomb, encounters Our Lord, repents, reaffirms his mission with new dedication, leads many to conversion, and ultimately dies for the faith.
What’s the difference?
What was in Peter’s heart that led him to go back, repent, confess all the wrong he had done? What was in Judas’s heart that stopped him from returning, prevented him from returning to the love of God, made him think that suicide by hanging was the only option left?
We can speculate, but only God knows the hearts of man, the hearts of Judas and Peter and the time of their betrayals. Too, only God can judge their hearts. We cannot know Judas’s heart when he killed himself, and we cannot know if he was damned for his sin. Only God can judge because because only God knows the absolute depths of the human heart.
But I think Judas and Peter had similar hearts, fallible human hearts like ours. I think the same doubts that plagued Peter were the same doubts that prevented Judas from coming back to Jesus and the other disciples. I think the same faith that caused Judas to return the money in repentance was the same faith that propelled Peter to weep bitterly and then wait in hope with the other disciples.
Yet one stays away. Yet the other returns.
The true difference between Judas and Peter is their response after their betrayal. Jesus never left their side though they both left His. Just with all sins, however damaging, however hurtful, however horrible, however separating, the grace to return to God and mend the brokenness in our human relationships is present.
As St. Paul wrote, “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20).” Undoubtedly, grace was all the more present to both Judas and Peter in the darkest moments of their sin, their betrayal of Jesus. For us too, grace is all the more present in dark times because the response to love, the response to redemption, the response to forgiveness is all the more difficult the further the our separation from the love of God.
The grace of the Holy Spirit, the mercy of Jesus, the love of God, was present to both of them in the darkness of their individual sin, their betrayals of Jesus. Judas had the grace to return to Christ, but he stayed away, choosing to remain separated from the love of God.
But Peter responded to grace.
Both had heard Jesus’ message of love and repentance. Both had heard Jesus proclaim he would suffer, die, and be raised. Both were predicted to betray Jesus. Both were deeply remorseful for their sin. Both were undoubtedly given the grace to come back to the love of Christ. Both had no solid clue, no physical evidence, no guarantee, no absolute certainty that the Lord would take them back after what they had done.
Choosing to respond to grace, choosing repentance was a risk. It was a more intimidating risk than ever choosing to follow Christ in the first place, a more terrifying gesture than leaving behind everything they knew and loved, a more difficult path than they had ever walked before. Choosing grace, choosing repentance, choosing forgiveness, choosing love would be humiliating, frightening, and could even mean death by either friend or foe. Coming back meant putting faith into action like they more than they had ever done before.
But Peter crossed the threshold of faith.
What a dark time before the Resurrection! Every promise, every healing, every story of forgiveness, all of it must have seemed dead like the Savior’s body in the tomb. Peter knew Jesus would die. He ran away from the courtyard and abandoned Jesus in His most difficult hour. Peter could have continued to run, run all the way back home to Capernum, to his boat, to his nets, to his safe, comfortable, certain way of life.
But Peter ran back to Christ.
After the courtyard, he went to the other disciples, waiting in hope with them for the Lord to fulfill His promises, trusting that even in the darkest of times and the most serious of sins that the Lord would not promise forgiveness to everyone but him.
And the Lord did not forget Peter. He did not begrudge Peter. He kept His promises. He rose, just as He said. The angels tell the women, the first to encounter to the empty tomb, “But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you”” (Mark 16:7). Jesus later appears in the flesh multiple times to Peter, allowing him to re-profess his love for Christ.
Did Peter ever sin again? Well, if he’s anything like the bumbling idiot in the Gospels that I dearly love as a brother in Christ, I’m quite certain the answer is yes. But we know from his martyrdom, his preaching, his travels, and his letters that he continued to strive and seek Christ to his last, dying breath on his own cross.
As much as we like to think our sin defines us, it does not.
As St. Pope John Paul II said in Toronto during World Youth Day in 2002,
“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
– St. Pope John Paul II, speech available here
We allow ourselves to be defined by our sin when we run away from the abundant, forgiving love of the Father. Judas only allows himself to be defined by his sin because he runs away, does not allow the Lord to heal him, and does not redefine himself through Jesus as a son of God. Peter is only defined by his ministry because he came back, allowed the Lord to heal him through forgiveness, and redefined himself through Jesus as a beloved son of God.
Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus. Imagine if Peter had hanged himself and Judas repented. Really, imagine if the roles were reversed. How would we think of each one of them?
At some point, you and I have to decide who we are. We all sin. We all betray Jesus. We all run away from God and hurt each other in the process. But our sin is not the end of the story. Just as the cross is not the end of Jesus’s story, sin is not meant to be the end of ours. Jesus was raised, and through Him, we can be reborn to a new life. But the first step to redemption is admitting we need redemption, admitting we’ve run away, admitting we need to come back to God, and responding the grace to come back that is already there.
Christ is calling you home. Christ will never stop calling you back to Him. Christ wants you to run to His empty tomb, to see His glory, to embrace His love.
The question is: are you Judas and hanging yourself by your sin, keeping your distance from Christ, or are you Peter, coming to your spiritual brothers and sisters in hopeful waiting and running to the empty tomb when Christ calls?