I began my Lenten reading this year with chapter 26 of Matthew’s Gospel. I was immediately struck by verses 14 through 16:
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.
This is truly an astonishing passage. Seemingly out of the blue, one of Jesus’s closest followers, one of the 12, betrays him for a mere 30 pieces of silver. What is left unsaid – namely, what motivated Judas to betray the Lord – is perhaps more significant even than what is said. This silence provides a space for the reader to contemplate his or her own capacity for depravity. What motivated Judas? Jealousy? Fear? Greed? Despair? And what motivates me to commit my own daily betrayals? As I contemplated Judas and his silver, I was reminded of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Nostromo.
In a letter to a Swedish professor, Conrad made clear what Nostromo is about: “Silver is the pivot of the moral and material events, affecting the lives of everybody in the tale.” Indeed, silver dominates the story from page one with the telling of the myth of two “gringo” adventurers who scale a New World mountain in the hopes of recovering silver and are never seen again, but who are “believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure.”
The paralysis of the spiritual (soul) because of obsession with the material (signified most clearly by silver) is a theme running throughout Nostromo, with every character deeply impacted by silver. For some, silver means power; others prestige and respect; still others security; and for some it is akin to the prosperity Gospel, a sign of God’s blessing. But whatever the root of the temptation, silver has a disunifying effect, pitting the spiritual against the material.
For some, the rejection of the soul and subsequent obsessive pursuit of silver ultimately leads to destruction of both soul and body. Captain Sotillo, for instance, desperately searches to find the hidden silver treasure. Sotillo believes helpless Hirsch, the fur trader, knows where the silver has been hidden. He thus tortures him. In the process, we see the fragmentation of Sotillo’s personality, and ultimately his dehumanization and destruction. As the torture continues, Sotillo’s eyes “saw nothing at all, being merely the reflection of the soul within–a soul of gloomy hatred, irresolution, avarice, and fury.” Sotillo dies a crazed madman, desperately sweeping the harbor for the silver that he mistakenly believes lies sunk there.
Likewise the journalist Martin Decoud grows more and more furious standing guard of the buried silver on a deserted island. Living in utter silence and solitude, Decoud is finally faced with who he is, and what he believes. We are told that prior to this, Decoud had never known a day of silence. We are also told that “he believed in nothing.” Now, confronted by solitude and silence, he was exiled in “utter unbelief,” sadly beholding “the universe as a succession of incomprehensible images,” falling into despair as “all exertion seemed senseless.” And in despair he shoots himself, letting his body sink to the bottom of the sea weighed down with silver ingots in his pocket.
Like Decoud, Judas too kills himself. But unlike Decoud, he first tries to repent and return the silver. When he learns that he is too late to reverse the course of his actions – that Jesus’s fate was sealed by his betrayal – he hangs himself. At this moment, was Judas exiled in “utter unbelief”? Did he at this point believe “in nothing”? Or was his suicide a sign that he recognized that he had betrayed “innocent blood”; perhaps even that he understood he had betrayed the Son of God?
Silver was the undoing of many of the main characters in Nostromo. Silver too was Judas’s undoing, or at least symbolized his undoing. But the stories are not synonymous. Despite its many strong points, there is something ultimately unsatisfying about Nostromo. For though it shows quite compellingly the road paved to destruction and misery, it does not offer a counter vision. Conrad seems ever on the brink of portraying the antidote, the moral weight of turning away from silver and toward the good, but he never quite gets there. Not so, of course, with Scripture. Certainly we now know about the resurrection – the glorious result of Judas’s betrayal – but even before that, there is a brilliant “coupling” that explores the road to destruction, and the road to life.
Immediately before we observe Judas going to the chief priests to barter his Lord’s life, we witness a woman come up to Jesus with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment and pour it on his head. In response to his indignant disciples, Jesus says, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me.” Matthew 26:10. What is the counter to Judas’s betrayal? Selfless love. Generosity. The lavish “waste” of the equivalent of 300 pieces of silver. Thirty pieces of silver for Jesus’s head. Ten times that lavished by the woman on Jesus’s head.
I like to think that I would not betray the Lord for 30 pieces of silver. But I am also sufficiently self-aware to suspect that I would be hesitant to lavish upon another a gift of 300 pieces of silver – a year’s wages – in an instant. In Nostromo and these two scenes from Scripture, silver represents the elevation of false gods over the one true God. The worship of contingent material goods, over infinite spiritual ones. To exist as embodied souls, firmly dwelling on material earth, but gazing ever towards the infinite, is a tall task. But perhaps Lent, of all seasons, helps us do this. For it begins with ashes and the reminder that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” But ends with Easter and the celebration of the resurrection. The great joy that we are not just dust. That exertion is not senseless; life not meaningless. That though we perhaps all have the capacity to betray our highest ideals, to betray Truth himself, we also have the capacity to be renewed and raised again to new life. Perhaps we have even the capacity to make a lavish gift of our lives. Thanks be to God.
Jeffrey Wald writes from the Twin Cities.