The Journal Gazette
Friday, April 02, 2021 1:00 am

The cost of betrayal

Tale of Judas helps us evaluate our own actions

Abe Schwab

Thirty pieces of silver. That's what they say was the price of Judas Iscariot's betrayal.

Thirty pieces of silver. It's not entirely clear how much that was worth, but some estimates put it around half-a-year's pay.

Thirty pieces of silver. And now Judas has become the embodiment of betrayal. But that seems to me to be an oversimplification.

The thirty pieces of silver certainly lined Judas' pockets, but it also aligned him with the political, religious and legislative power of the day. That is, his betrayal was not to some random criminal element or some foreign national power, but to the Sanhedrin.

It's not entirely clear what role the Sanhedrin played within Jewish social structure at this time, but they were undoubtedly a political, religious and likely legislative power. Judas' decision curried favor with those who had authority and wealth.

Judas' decision is the result of one of history's more famous, but unrecognized, conflicts of interest.

On the one hand, Judas had responsibilities he had willingly taken on as a disciple. He had publicly supported and worked on behalf of a revolutionary who looked to provide for the poor and protect the marginalized while challenging the status quo and those groups already in positions of power and authority.

On the other hand, Judas had financial and social incentives to help the political and religious authorities in their work to put down the revolutionary to whom he was a disciple.

His betrayal was born of a conflict of interest between the responsibilities he had in his chosen role and the possibilities of wealth and political power.

This kind of conflict of interest remains a common one. Many who profess to be disciples end up serving those with wealth and political and religious authority rather than the poor and the marginalized.

Too many who claim to be servants of the public seem to make decisions similar to the one Judas made. They favor the wealthy and powerful and turn a blind eye to the injustices of the status quo. To curry political favor and gain wealth, they turn their backs on humanity and the demands of compassion for others.

In the end, Judas came to regret his decision.

To avoid his mistake, we should examine our own decisions and the decisions of those we know, and ask: On whose behalf are we making these decisions? Are we working on behalf of those who already have wealth and power or on behalf of the poor and the marginalized? Who among us has abandoned our responsibilities to others for the promise of power and thirty pieces of silver?

Abe Schwab is a professor of philosophy and director of Ethics Across the Curriculum at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics.

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