Flat characters. I learned about them and their one-sided personalities back in elementary school. They are opposed to so-called “round” characters, with their multi-faceted identities. Round characters are the interesting ones–people like Simon Peter in the Gospels, who show both good and bad sides; or even like Jesus, who exhibits both superhuman strength and extremely human weakness. Flat characters only exist for the sake of the round characters. Flat characters are people like Judas Iscariot.
In real life, is there any such thing as a “flat character”? I don’t believe so. Some people are certainly more multi-faceted than others, but in no case is someone motivated by the same thing all the time. In Judas’s case, the Gospels don’t really supply a motive for his betrayal. What was he like before the betrayal? We aren’t really told, except for a few details about his stealing from the moneybag. But would he have been given the bag in the first place if he had been seen as a potential traitor by the others? Not likely. In fact, it seems more likely that he was extremely well-liked and trusted to have been given that responsibility.
I had never really thought much about Judas until I read a book of Dorothy Sayers’ radio broadcasts, The Man Born to Be King. The broadcasts follow Christ from birth to his ascension, offering a very human (“rounder”?) portrayal of Christ. Yet other characters also become more round, and one of those was Judas Iscariot. Sayers portrays Judas as an insightful man whose prideful intelligence becomes his downfall. He understands–and misunderstands–Christ at a deeper level than any of the other disciples. In Sayers’ version, Judas convinces himself that Christ has been corrupted and must be killed in order to save Christ’s original mission. When he learns that his suspicions were mistaken, that his intellectual fantasies were meaningless, he cannot face up to his sin. He runs away and is never seen again.
How accurate is Sayers’ portrayal? Plausible, at least. And sobering in its reminder that very few traitors set out to become traitors. There is a reason that Judas hanged himself afterward. Could he have thought he was doing the right thing? Possibly. In fact, Sayers received complaints from people who thought that the play essentially made Judas into a hero of sorts. If Judas had good intentions, surely he was a good person. But the broadcasts made one point clear–even if Judas thought that he thought he was doing the right thing, he could have recognized his sin. Whatever Judas’s motivation to betray Christ, it was his pride that destroyed him. When he realized what he had done–that he could have known better–he could not face what he had done. And so he refused to repent.
If there is anything to learn from Sayers’ portrayal of Judas, it is that when we do wrong with good intentions, we are never quite as innocent as we think. For all of us, as for Judas, there will come a frightening day when we recognize that none of our good intentions were half so good as we thought. In a sense, we have all betrayed Christ. The difference between us and Judas is that we–by God’s grace–are willing to start over with no identity but the one Christ has offered us.
Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, and there is only one way to deal with filthy rags. Throw them out.