On Betrayal and Loyalty

The Tower of Cirith Ungol

A Judas Tree (Source)

A Judas Tree (Source)

Today is Spy Wednesday, named for the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot on the day prior to the Last Supper. As is written in the Gospel of Matthew passage for this midway point of Holy Week:

“One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.”

Judas remains a controversial figure among Christian circles, divisively debated and significantly questioned. Why did he betray Christ: for money, in fear, in anger, through demonic possession? As the salvation of mankind was to be fulfilled through Christ crucifixion, was Judas culpable for his action? On this day of spies and traitors, we have a new lens through which to consider such inquiries: the betrayal of orc and the loyalty of Sam.

With the orcs of Cirith Ungol everything is chaotic betrayal: arrows from the shadows, knives in the back, bodies strewn about with the few remaining survivors gloating over their swift-becoming enemies. Silver is again the source of such disloyalty: a coat of mithril stands in for thirty silver pieces. No bonds or ties can withstand such devastating disregard and demanding desire: even the will of Sauron is not greater enough to prevent his slaves from feuding.

Compare this to the state of Sam, whose loyalty and love triumphs over all temptations. How haunting and powerful is the Ring’s great offering to the simple hobbit:

“Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.”

It is the temptation of right intention: a beautiful desire to transform dead land into that which blooms, to sell costly perfume and give the proceeds to the poor. Yet, as the saying goes, the path to Hell is paved in good intentions, and a garden swollen in unjust power is not truly a garden at all. With his love for Frodo and his simple hobbit sense, Sam is blest to be too small to be overcome by this soothing vision of the Ring. The words of Isaiah ring forth through his actions: “And I have not rebelled, have not turned back.”

We return then to Judas Iscariot, the spy and traitor par excellence. It is said that, following his betrayal, Judas became so overwhelmed with guilt that he hung himself from a branch of the Cercis Siliquastrum tree, known now as the Judas tree, and the tree ever after blushed pink flowers from its branches in the spring in shame for its part in the affair. Dante and many others after him placed Judas in the deepest circles of Hell: but could Judas have or now be redeemed? The Catholic Church does not have a list of the damned to pair with its list of the Saints: no one, not even Judas, can for certain be known to reside in the insufferable pit. Perhaps Judas’s great sin is not even his traitorous actions: for Peter himself denied Christ thrice. Despair is greater than betrayal: Judas’s suicide prevented his reconciliation and pardon through Jesus.

On Spy Wednesday, Shagrat the orc, Judas the man, and Samwise the hobbit showcase the nuances of betrayal and loyalty. In the orc we come to understand that disloyalty and temptation breed chaos and death. In the man we come to understand that the complexities of betrayal drive one to far deeper sin. And in the hobbit we learn the desires for good intentions can be used against us, though with firmness and love they too can be overcome. In the end, the greatest treason of all is to deny that any mercy be greater than any sin: even the places of worst betrayal can yet blossom in the spring.

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