After a woman named Mary lovingly pours an expensive bottle of perfume on Jesus (John 12:1-3), Judas objects on the grounds of practicality: This resource could have been liquidated and redistributed to the poor (John 12:4).
But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. (John 12:4-6 NASB)In response, Jesus unequivocally defends Mary’s gesture (John 12:7-8).
Judas’ objection seems reasonable. In fact, in comparable stories in the Synoptic gospels, the disciples collectively make the same argument (Matthew 26:8; Mark 14:4-5). John alone attributes the line to Judas. Perhaps the other disciples followed his lead. John may have included this dialogue between Judas and Jesus so that the reader does not think the same.
It is in this context that it is noted that Judas serves as the group’s treasurer. The same comment will be made again in John 13:29 with no negative connotation applied.
Specifically, Judas is responsible for the money “bag” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NIV), or “box” (NASB, NKJV, RSV). The closest modern equivalent would be a lockbox. The same Greek word describes King Joash’s money chest in the Septuagint (II Chronicles 24:8-10). The word is used in the New Testament only twice, here and in a similar context (John 13:29).
Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) defines:
The expression “moneybag” (γλωσσόκομον, glōssokomon [the word recurs at John 13:29, again in relation to Judas]) originally denoted any kind of box used to hold the reeds of musical instruments. Later, the term was employed for a coffer into which money is cast (II Chronicles 24:8, 10). In the present instance, therefor, the object in question is perhaps not a “bag”...but a box made of wood or some other rigid material (cf. Plutarch, Galba 16:1; Josephus, Antiquities 6.1.2 § 11). The money kept in this container probably helped meet the needs of Jesus and his disciples as well as provide alms for the poor. The funds would have been replenished by followers of Jesus, such as the women mentioned in Luke 8:2-3 who supported his ministry. (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 363)Judas was not only the carrier of the money box but it appears he had input in appropriating its contents.
While it is natural for the treasurer to be concerned with expenditures, John notes that Judas was embezzling from this common fund. He is called a “thief”. This word carries even more weight when considering that it was used two chapters earlier to describe those who threaten the flock (John 10:1ff).
D.A. Carson (b. 1946) comments:
The last clause could almost be taken to mean that Judas used to ‘carry’ (bastazō) what was put in, but in the right contexts the verb means ‘steal’ or ‘pilfer’ – not unlike the verb ‘lift’ in the United Kingdom. This is the only place where Judas is called a thief – indeed, where any charge other than Judas’ ultimate betrayal is levelled against him. Yet the charge is believable: anyone who would betray another person for thirty pieces of silver has an unhealthy avarice of material things. (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 429)It appears that putting Judas in charge of the money was like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Roger Fredrikson (b. 1920) is not surprised:
Apparently Judas was gifted in handling money, so he had been given the responsibility for the common pot, which became his undoing. How often we go astray in the area of our strength. The gifted preacher can succumb to his ego, the brilliant accountant an embezzler, or the empathetic counselor give in to adultery. (Fredrikson, John (Mastering the New Testament), 204)Judas’ stinginess is set in contrast with the woman’s extravagant generosity and this incident foreshadows his future betrayal.
Do you think that being Jesus’ treasurer was considered an important job? What do you think that Jesus typically did with money? Why was Judas selected for this task, as opposed to the former tax collector Matthew? Who do you trust with your money? Have you ever been tempted to steal? What treasurers do you know who have pilfered? Have you ever known anyone who embezzled from a church or nonprofit organization? What motivates Judas?
This is the only New Testament passage that discredits Judas before his ultimate betrayal. Even so, his only spoken words in the fourth gospel incriminate him (John 12:4-8). Though his payment of thirty pieces of silver is absent from the fourth gospel (Matthew 26:15), John paints Judas as manipulative, dishonest and preoccupied with money. Jesus’ finances are controlled by someone who is spiritually bankrupt: he is out for himself, not what God gives.
Judas has had many apologists through the years who claim that this negative perception of him was developed after the fact and that his betrayal clouded all accounts of his actions. In this case, Judas’ reasonable complaint is tarnished by his later reputation.
Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) conjectures:
That Judas objects (John 12:4) comes as no surprise. The gift is astounding. Although John does not say it, some of the other disciples probably feel similar things. The legitimacy of Judas’s complaint is tarnished, however, by his own reputation. As treasurer of the group he would steal money from their holdings (John 12:6). But John reminds us that Judas is also the one who will betray Jesus (John 12:4). His is not a prophesy, but derives “from the shocking force of hindsight.” John cannot tell any story about Judas without this treacherous deed overshadowing his image. (Burge, John (The NIV Application Commentary), 339)
This theory is supported by the fact that complaints against Judas are not raised in the synoptic tradition. They are only recorded only in John, the last written of the canonical gospels.
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) reminds:
We have no other ground for regarding Judas as a thief, though he is said to have received money for his treachery. John may have an independent tradition, but more probably he represents the traditional progressive blackening of Judas’ character. (Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction With Commentary and Notes, 413)
That Judas eventually betrays Jesus is undeniable. The question is whether or not he is always working in opposition to Jesus. Jo-Ann A. Brant (b. 1956) traces:
William Klassen [b. 1930] suspects that John has a personal bias that informs his depiction. Judas becomes not simply the one who hands Jesus over but also one who has gone over to the side of Satan and acts as his agent (Klassen 1996, 142-43). Even though John’s narrator echoes Luke 22:3 by saying that Satan enters into him during the Last Supper (John 13:26-27), he represents Judas as one in league with evil throughout the story. The narrator reveals that Jesus knows that one of his disciples has a devil (John 6:70) and then makes it clear that Jesus refers to Judas (John 6:71)...John reveals that Judas cares more about money than the poor and that he is an embezzler (John 12:6), an observation that smacks of the suspicions of hindsight rather than knowledge of the fact, for who, knowing that Judas was stealing from the common purse, would allow him to keep it? (Brant, John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament))William Barclay (1907-1978) warns:
We can see how a man’s view can be warped. Judas had just seen an action of surpassing loveliness; and he called it extravagant waste. He was an embittered man and took an embittered view of things. A man’s sight depends on what is inside him. He sees only what he is fit and able to see. If we like a person, he can do little wrong. If we dislike him, we may misinterpret his finest action. A warped mind brings a warped view of things; and, if we find ourselves becoming very critical of others and imputing unworthy motives to them, we should, for a moment, stop examining them and start examining ourselves. (Barclay, Gospel of John: Volume 2 (Daily Study Bible), 112)When is Judas discovered to be a thief? Why is he kept in the role of treasurer? Is Judas’ betrayal gradual or was he always a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Did the disagreement over the perfume contribute to Judas’ later betrayal? Is the love of money the root of Judas’ evil (I Timothy 6:10)? Have you ever been unable to get over a negative image of someone? Is Judas demonized?
“Let us never demonize or give up on those who disagree with us. We don’t want to become like the right-wing talk-show hosts, hammering our adversaries into cartoon characters and denying their humanity.” - Bill Clinton (b. 1946)