This week is Palm Sunday, and at the very beginning of Mass (assuming public Masses are being held in your state) we will hear the gospel account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds waved palm branches and shouted joyful praise as Jesus rode by on a donkey.
Then we will hear the lengthy Passion account, which describes how that joyful crowd turned quite hostile in less than a week. During this very long gospel, we will hear about many well-known events in the life of Jesus: the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, the arrest and trials, Peter’s denial, the scourging, carrying the cross, the Crucifixion, and finally the burial of Jesus.
I’d like to focus on two aspects of the Passion account, more specifically, on two persons in the Passion account: Judas and Peter. On the night in question, Judas and Peter did some pretty bad stuff. Judas betrayed Jesus, accepting 30 pieces of silver as payment to lead the authorities to arrest Jesus. (Professor Peter Kreeft notes that Judas was the first Catholic bishop to accept a government grant. And ever since, whenever a Catholic bishop accepts government money, it turns out almost as badly.)
Peter, after proclaiming to Jesus a few hours earlier, “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you!” collapsed like a two-dollar tent when a powerless servant girl asked whether he was a friend of Jesus. Chicken-hearted Peter denied it, “Woman, I do not know him!”
Peter’s gutless lack of courage at that moment was even more pitiful in light of his pompous bragging earlier in the evening.
So, these two men, each one a special member of Jesus’ inner circle, committed some grievous sins that night. Their lack of faith in Jesus caused them to do things that greatly hurt the Lord. We can argue about which sin was worse, but the bottom line is: sin is sin.
Shortly after committing these sins, both Judas and Peter were exceedingly sorry for what they had done. Right after hearing the cock crow, which reminded him of what Jesus said in reply to his pompous boast, Peter “went out and began to weep bitterly.”
When Judas realized that Jesus was going to be executed, the Bible says, “He repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver.” Then Judas exclaimed, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”
At this point the two men’s lives took drastically different turns. Peter went into hiding with the other disciples. He stuck it out, did not do anything rash or impulsive, and soon after, things got much better. Specifically, three days later Jesus rose from the dead, forgave Peter, sent the Holy Spirit to empower the believers, and commissioned Peter to be the leader of the Church.
Judas was also distraught by what he had done. But he did not stick it out and wait to see what would happen next. And so, he did not receive forgiveness from the resurrected Jesus—which Jesus surely would have offered if Judas had only asked. Instead, Judas impulsively went out and committed suicide.
How incredibly sad. Two men with very similar experiences, but with very different endings. Despite his earthly failings, one became the leader of the early Church and is no doubt now and forevermore a member of the heavenly Communion of Saints. The other, with similar earthly failings, is presumably not a member of that celestial gathering nor residing for the rest of eternity anywhere near Heaven.
The lesson from the lives of these two men is simple: No matter how badly we screw up, no matter how terrible our sin, Jesus can and will forgive us. All we need to do is sincerely repent and ask for His forgiveness. Peter learned this was possible. Unfortunately, Judas did not.
There is a lot going on in the Passion account this week. As you listen at Mass, try to think about the lives of these two men and what they can teach us about sin and forgiveness.