Favourite and betrayer: Jesus' unconditional friendship and Judas' kiss. A meditation by Card. José Tolentino de Mendonça guides us at the beginning of this Holy Week

Prayer of Holy Monday. Meditation by H.E. José Tolentino de Mendonça on Matthew 26: 47-50

"While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs, who had come from the chief priests and the elders of the people. His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying, "The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him." Immediately he went over to Jesus and said, "Hail, Rabbi!" and he kissed him. Jesus answered him, "Friend, do what you have come for." Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him."

We find the  first reference to the person of Judas in the Gospels in that list of twelve disciples that Jesus chooses so that they might live together with him. In Hebrew, Judas means 'the elected’, like Cephas, Peter, means 'stone, rock’. People see this as the humour of Jesus, that calls rock a follower who is so fearful as Peter and has as a betrayer one who is called 'beloved'. But we have to say that in both cases the truth of love largely prevails on irony. And we cannot be doubtful, Jesus did not choose Judas for any other reason that was not love.

The betrayal of Judas is told in a direct and expressive way, as we have heard in the passage from Matthew's Gospel, but maybe its most refined, most intense feature is the fact that it is consumed using a symbol of friendship. In the three synoptic Gospels Jesus is handed because of a kiss.

In Mark, Jesus does not even have time to react. Judas kissed him and then a crowd with swords and clubs laid hands on him and arrested him. In Luke we are placed in front of the indignation that the stratagem chosen is precisely this manipulation of an expression of affection. And Jesus said to him: Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss? In Matthew we find instead this painful question, which never stops  resounding : Friend, do what you have come for?

The kiss on the face was normal among friends, as it still is today. In the pure master-disciple relationship, it was customary instead to kiss the hands of the former as a sign of respect. But Jesus, we know, is no a common master, even in the way he treats his disciples. We can see in the scene of the washing of the feet, the uniqueness of which is told very well through Peter's amazed reaction: Master, are you going to wash my feet?

It is not, therefore, strange that Judas may kiss his master's face, but it is surprising however that Jesus, even if he knew the meaning of that kiss, still continues to call him friend: Friend, do what you have come for? Judas, by that hostile act, reveals that he is no longer ready for the practice of hospitality that is friendship. Jesus, however, calls him friend, even while he is betraying him. As if Jesus' friendship might be protracted until the end and even beyond the end. Even though Judas translates, through this violent rupture, his total incomprehension of Jesus, Jesus remains close to him, he is custodian of his humanity, faithful to his research.

We learn in school textbooks the famous maxim attributed to the Roman proconsul Servilius Scipio: Rome does not pay betrayers. Jesus, on the contrary, repays Judas with  an unconditional friendship. Friend, do what you have come for? What does ‘friend’ mean? 

I think of a writer like Christiansen's definition: We are never really alone when we have a friend. A friend is there to listen to us, listens to whatever you say and  tries to understand what you are not able to say.

In this difficult encounter Judas tells Jesus that he can do without his friendship, but Jesus once again tells Judas that he is not alone, that he is listening to him, that he shares his destiny with him. That he feels part of Judas and he feels Judas as part of himself, that he offers him his stolen life, the sacrifice of the cross. That he offers him the life of God, that he will never stop passing him peace, and for that he accepts, in those circumstances, his kiss. Judas proves it, but Jesus could not have done less. Humiliated by betrayal, he never ceased to show his love, he became the servant of Judas, he became the servant of every man.

More than once, Pope Francis has referred to a capital in the basilica of Vézelay, in Burgundy. There is a representation there in the vernacular, which when seen up close is disconcerting. On one side you see Judas hanging, the surprise, however, comes from the other side of the capital. You see a man that carries the body of Judas on his shoulders; he is the good shepherd that carries on himself the lost sheep. The artist wanted to express the burning oxymoron that there is always hope, making an hypothesis that also for Judas, too, there was always salvation in the heart of Christ.

To comment on this image, Pope Francis quoted the homily that Don Primo Mazzolari gave during Holy Week, dedicated precisely to Judas 'our brother'. 'Poor Judas', began the priest, 'what did he think? I do not know. He is one of the most mysterious characters we find in the Lord's passion. I will not even try to explain it, I only dare  to ask you some mercy for our poor brother Judas. Do not be ashamed to take on this brotherhood. I am not ashamed, for I know how many times I have betrayed the Lord, and I believe that all of you must be never ashamed of him. And calling him brother, we are in the language of the Lord. When he received the kiss of betrayal in Gethsemane, the Lord answered him with those words that we must never forget: Friend. We cannot betray the friendship of the Lord. He never betrays us, his friends, even when we do not deserve it, even when we revolt against him, even when we deny him. In front of his eyes and in his heart we are always his friends.'


We thus have the responsibility, and this Holy Week reminds us, to live and witness, as artisans of justice and peace, a friendship that never expires. Always valid, always possible, always ready to begin again.