Ten years ago on a cold dark night,
Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light.
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed,
That the slayer who ran, looked a lot like me.
– Johnny Cash, “Long Black Veil”
For many people the experience of betrayal feels like “the kiss of death.” Most of us have at one time or another experienced the searing pain of being betrayed by someone we counted on and who seemed to care for us — a trusted friend who breaks our confidence by sharing a secret we didn’t want anyone else to know; a friendly boss who blatantly ignores our years of faithful service to bestows his favour on a total newcomer; a lover whose kisses turn into an inexplicable affection for someone else; a friend who takes advantage of our longstanding friendship and trust to leverage advantage or profit at our expense. Experiences like this hurt us deeply, especially when the trust and love we thought we shared are used to hurt and ruin us.
Betrayal has many faces but the most painful of all betrayals comes when someone whose affection we knew so well turns into a conspiracy against us. Prison stories are rife with themes of betrayed relationships and misplaced trust. I well remember Rita’s story, an English nurse who travelled to Asia with her caring boyfriend only to find herself arrested and imprisoned in a foreign prison as an unsuspecting “mule.” The man she thought she knew and trusted had callously duped her into being a courier in his trafficking of drugs. Her story was as heart-breaking as hundreds of other stories I’ve heard from men and women who end up in prison as the result of being betrayed by friends and lovers. With their lives undone and their future stolen from them, betrayal is their kiss of death.
These same stories are often mirrored by the heart-breaking lives of women and children who suddenly find themselves left behind with no means of support, their lives shattered when their beloved husband and father is imprisoned for a way of life they didn’t know. All too frequently such betrayal reciprocates in betrayal as families break apart and as partners abandon spouses and families to find security in new relationships.
Threads of betrayal run through every prison story – from those who’ve been victimized by trusted partners in crime who suddenly turn on them, to those feeling betrayed by a justice system that is neither fair nor equitable in dispensing justice, and to those who sincerely believed a lie they thought was true until that “truth” betrayed them. From the highest levels of society to the lowest, betrayal is one of the most common and excruciating of all human experiences. Political and military alliances throughout the ages are made and broken by the betrayal of one allegiance for another. In his classic play “Macbeth,” William Shakespeare masterfully weaves the intricate and intriguing story of betrayal in the court of King Duncan of Scotland. Macbeth, a once trusted and loyal noble, becomes embittered in his ambition for power. When he murders King Duncan in his sleep he accedes to the throne, but the betrayal is not complete. The tentacles of mistrust and conspiracy become ever more complex as Macbeth begins to suspect his friends and others of plotting against him as he had plotted against Duncan. He conspires to have them killed, including his friend Banquo, in order to secure his rule.
Without a doubt the story of Jesus’ betrayal by the kiss of Judas is the quintessential story of betrayal, and yet it is a story that is different from any other story of betrayal I’ve ever heard. Jesus, realizing he is about to be sold out by Judas, greets him in the moment of betrayal, and though recognizing what is about to transpire Jesus calls him “friend.” Jesus neither resists Judas nor attempts to turn the tables on a man who had been one of his closest companions in proclaiming the good news of God’s love. Judas was as self-serving and duplicitous a man as there ever was – he’d have to be such to think he would betray both man and God by a kiss. Judas was a chosen companion, one of the twelve men who ate and drank and lived with Jesus through many miracles and wonders on land and sea. He’d seen the proof of God in Jesus but betrayed his friend with a kiss of death for what he thought was personal gain.
I’ve called a few people Judas in my day, but in truth they were not nearly so devious and deceptive as Judas was. During this Lenten season, as I think about betrayal and contemplate the story of Judas’ kiss of death, I see the seeds of such deception and betrayal in my own life. Like Judas was, I also am a friend of Jesus. I have seen and experienced the power and the presence of God in Jesus Christ. Yet I am not always dependable for there are times when I say I love Him even as I struggle to be true. There are circumstances in which, like many of us, I all too easily kiss and turn in capitulation to social pressures and environment. This too is the kiss of death, for in some small way we all become participants in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
Yet beyond this kiss of death is the mystery of God’s amazing grace, for though betrayed to death, Jesus overcame the insult and the injury of betrayal through his death and resurrection. Betrayal is not the end of our story, for as we look up from our self-interest and self-possession we see Jesus who still calls us “friend,” and loves us more than we have ever been loved by anyone – compelling us to live gratefully and gracefully without duplicity.
The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.
Going at once to Jesus, Judas said,
‘Greetings Rabbi!” and kissed him.
‘Friend, do what you came for.”
Then the men stepped forward,
seized Jesus and arrested him.
– Matthew 26:48-50
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.