Dante, Betrayal, and Forgiveness
If you've read Dante's "Inferno," you know that his vision of hell involves an inverted cone, with circles narrowing as they approach the bottom of the pit. He places certain sinners in each circle, each one, in his opinion, guilty of a worse sin, as the progress continues downward, than those condemned to the previous level.
I remember being surprised that sins like torture or rape or murder weren't relegated to the very bottom of the pit as the worst sins imaginable. Dante placed the sin of betrayal at the very bottom, illustrated by the three famous figures associated with betrayal that he chose to imprison immediately next to Lucifer forever: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. Brutus and Cassius were involved in the plot to assassinate their benefactor, Julius Caesar, and Judas betrayed our Lord.
Yes, betrayal is deplorable, but worse than violence like rape? More evil than taking a life? I've thought long and hard on why Dante chose betrayal as the worst of the sins, and what his thinking might have been. Of course, the chance exists that Dante himself was the victim of a monstrous betrayal, and that might have influenced his writing, but I think more substance lurks here, more to chew on.
Every betrayal is a kind of theft, if you think about it. Stolen are the trust and loyalty that should form the bedrock of friendships, marriages, business associations, and even treaties.
Every betrayal is a violation of allegiance, devotion, and reliability.
Some betrayals amount to the murder of a relationship, when the bond that was once there is strangled beyond resuscitation. Some betrayals, like what Judas did with a kiss, lead to the death of the betrayed one.
So many of us have been betrayed, not to death, but to one degree or another, by someone in whom we had placed our trust. Responses like hatred, bitterness, rage, or sorrow are normal, human reactions, but can we do better?
What did Jesus, our Example, do? He recognized the guilt that Judas would experience: "But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born." (Matthew 26:24) We should challenge ourselves to try to see how the incident in question will impact the other person, the betrayer.
Right in the midst of the very act of this awful betrayal, Jesus spoke with affection to Judas: "Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, 'Greetings, Rabbi!' and kissed him. Jesus replied, 'Friend, do what you came for.'" (Matthew 26:49-50) What an amazing act of love! How many of us could use the word "friend" in such a circumstance?
Also speaking loud and clear is what Jesus did not do. He could have called upon the legions of heaven to annihilate those who had come to seize Him, particularly Judas. He could have cursed Judas, as He had cursed a fig tree earlier in His ministry for a simple failure to bear fruit. (See Mark 11.) He could have, at a minimum, engaged in physical resistance to arrest with the assistance of the disciples who were present--at least one had a sword. He did not defend Himself, retaliate, or seek revenge.
And finally, of course, He forgave. The Bible has no record of Judas seeking forgiveness, but I believe it was and is offered to us all, even him, if we would simply seek it. From the cross Jesus broadly forgave those involved with His crucifixion: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) Could we possibly dare to forgive those who betray us?
One more thought: If you are guilty of betraying someone who just can't or won't forgive you, seek God's face. He can and will forgive you, and leave it to Him to "work on" the other person. He is more than capable of restoring even the most irretrievably destroyed situations and relationships; or, He may choose to take the tattered threads you offer to Him and weave a completely different tapestry than you would ever have guessed...
After all, look what God did with the knotted ugliness of betrayal, Dante's worst sin. He took that twisting, stabbing horror and wove it into His plan, where it became an integral part of the "greatest story ever told," making it possible for us to enjoy temporary fellowship with Him on earth, eternal joy with Him in heaven.
February 22, 2004