What’s the difference? Judas betrays Jesus, but Peter denies him. Judas turns his back on the Lord, but 10 of the others were nowhere to be seen after the Garden. Yet, we venerate 11 Apostles (and the replacement 12th) as great saints but we speak only of Judas in hushed tones and as a stern warning. What is the difference between these two cases of sin and guilt?
The answer to that question is the same as the answer to this question:
What is the difference between punishment and reparation? Perhaps you are unfamiliar with that second word, reparation, but you surely know the first and that should tell you enough. Punishment and reparation are both unpleasant. Time spent in prison is both. Suffering the raised voice of your loved one and then experiencing some distance from them – both these terms can apply. Loss of food, the absence of certain privileges, even physical pain (like crucifixion) can, again, be either punishment or reparation.
Possibly, you have already surmised the answer, the key qualification that makes the difference. What is the biggest difference between Judas and Peter? “Peter repented” is generally the easiest difference to spot. That answer isn’t wrong. If you are repentant when you are sent to prison, you can see the sentence as “doing your time” or as a way of paying back what you’ve done wrong. If you aren’t repentant, it is experienced as simply being punished: a negative reaction by someone with power to externally impose a penalty upon you. Punishment is usually resented, but reparation can ease the conscience and even produce a positive result.
But is repentance the real key? Doesn’t Judas seem to have repented? He throws the money back and the pharisees and admits that he was wrong. Why then do things end so poorly for him? “A lack of hope” you might say. Again, it’s not wrong. Peter had some kind of hope of staying with the Lord, but Judas clearly despaired and took his own life. The searing touch of his conscience caused Peter to weep bitterly, but he nonetheless returned to the Apostles and carried the burden of his sin with some hope of staying a disciple, a member of the Friends of Jesus. The festering sting of Judas’ conscience led him to reject the very thing he wanted, the money, but he drew back from the others. He saw no reason to be seen by those he had hurt and he despaired. If you are fussed at and given a spanking (free of anger & excess), but have hope that your parents will still want you around, the pain is brief… it could even be healing. The penalty can “clear the air,” so to speak, and it can establish a clear boundary for a better relationship in the future. But if there is no hope of being restored to good favor, no hope of forgiveness and continued relationships, a spanking might be see as nothing more than needless, but unavoidable pain. “They hate me and so they hit me.” That is the worst kind of punishment.
And yet, do repentance and hope really capture the difference? Is there a third quality or are we perhaps not far enough below the surface? I answer those with another question: Was Jesus punished? After all, he was crucified, which was the Romans’ method of capital punishment. Obviously, we can say that he was punished, but punished unjustly. And what of God the Father, who willed that his Only Begotten Son should be crucified for the sake of sinners? Are we to believe that the God who is love willed to flat out punish his own Son? Or was it more; was it reparation?
The two categories of repentance and hope don’t quite seem to explain it. Jesus had nothing to repent for because he had no sin. Contrary to the opinion of some theologians, God the Son (Jesus) never suffered the actual separation from God that sin causes in us. He had no sin and so was not actually separated from God. Thus, Jesus had no reason to hope for being reunited to God because he never actually lost that unity.
The Answer, as always, is Love
Some Christians tend to think of Jesus as simply absorbing the wrath of God and so paying the debt of our sin, but this is incomplete and misleading when left there. The key to our redemption is not how much anger Jesus absorbed, but how much love he offered. The movement of our salvation is not really a “top-down” expenditure of anger and punishment, but rather a “bottom-up” offering of love. When Jesus talks about his coming passion and death during the High Priestly Prayer at the last supper, he says this:
“I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go hence.” Jn 14:31
Not absorbing wrath, not repenting for sin, not hoping for reunion. The Crucifixion happens for one reason, “so that the world may know that I love the Father.” And that is the difference between punishment and reparation. Punishment is a penalty imposed because of some sin or fault. Reparation is love offering to repay a debt. This Love can not only offer to repay a debt freely, but it can actually take an external punishment and transform it into reparation. Love encounters a punishment as says “Though I did not bring this upon myself, I freely accept it and I offer it as payment for the debt of sin.” The best part? Love can offer reparation, can repay the debt of sins for someone else! That is how Jesus can pay the debt for our sins without ever having sinned himself. That is how we can help souls in purgatory.
And to answer our original question, it is love that makes all the difference for Peter and Judas. Peter loved Jesus, even though he was too weak to stay faithful. Judas, on the other hand, never seems to express a love. Even in the midst of his guilt and remorse, the focus is on himself: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood” (Mt 27:4). A simple calculation of injustice and the guilt that comes with it. Without some kind of love to draw him out of that self-focus, he experienced his guilt only as punishment and succumbed to despair and suicide. Peter, however, remembers “the saying of Jesus” (Mt 26:75). He is struck with guilt, but the voice of Christ still echoes in his heart, causing him to suffer in relation to Christ rather than alone and with despair. The punishment of his conscience, when it meets with his declaration of Love after the resurrection, transforms into reparation and he is not only restored to Christ, but lifted higher.
So it can be with you.
As we remember this day, Spy Wednesday, call to mind your sins and betrayals, but do not let them blind you. Look through them, look past them to Christ. Offer your repentance in love. Embrace every trial and pain in this life, not as punishment, but as reparation.